The main event

In Communicate, Dubai, Marketing, Public relations, Published journalism on November 22, 2010 at 11:29 pm

In the UAE, where every business wants to appear the biggest and best, firms are turning to event marketers to make their functions stand out

Originally published in Communicate, December 2007

In Dubai, everyone has something to say. Even when they don’t. Press conferences promising “important announcements” or “pioneering developments” are a daily occurrence. Showing off, it seems, is an important part of business culture here.

Companies, then, need to do something special to make their announcements and corporate events stand out.

“[Over-hyping of announcements] is a huge problem here,” says Lucy d’Abo, director of D’events, an independent events organization company. “It’s getting better though. Editors are becoming a lot more ruthless and that’s definitely helping because they are not printing rubbish. Therefore the [announcement of] rubbish has to stop.” We’re not sure which papers she’s reading.

The important thing, she says, is to make events appropriate to the announcement. “The key is knowing your overall objective. There has to be a reason for people to turn up, whatever you’re doing,” she explains.

It may sound like the intro to Event Marketing for Dummies, but many clients aren’t even managing to get that right, says Mazen Nahawi, MD of Mediawatch ME. Many are just “shooting in the dark.” That is, holding an event for the sake of holding an event. It’s keeping up with the Joneses on an impressive scale.

ALL ABOARD. This, of course, is good news for event management companies. A glance through the last two editions of the Middle East and North Africa Media Guide shows how rapidly events companies are moving in. In the 2007 edition, 49 event management companies were listed for the UAE. In the 2008 Guide this number has risen to 62.

“Everyone is jumping on the events bandwagon. When we go to tender or to pitch, it’s the same companies coming up over and over again because they are the most credible or reliable. But we don’t all do the same job. Everyone brings something to the table,” says d’Abo. “Which one is more relevant is debatable.”

One major problem facing events companies is the limited combination of venues and catering options available. “That’s a challenge,” says d’Abo. “While other countries have endless venues, we have to make existing venues different or interesting. That’s why we’re looking elsewhere, outside hotels. We use art galleries, open spaces, villas, private clubs.”

And beaches. When D’events put on a show to herald the launch of TV channel MBC Action this year, “armed guards” frisked 350 guests at Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach hotel, before ushering them into a cage, à la Prison Break. After a staged escape to the beach, the crowd found a crashed 747 from another MBC series, Lost, and a fire show.

SIZE ISN’T EVERYTHING. Awesome theatrics are worthless, however, if you’re not looking after the finer points, d’Abo cautions. “It’s the little details that count,” she says, “For example, the media often get poked into some tiny corner like cattle and everything is really disorganized and there are four people to be interviewed and they’re all trying to grab the same person. So [at one launch for Nokia] we structured this whole area with leather sofas and comfortable furniture, and everything was really clearly labeled in a calm environment with lots of refreshments available, and it was so much more conducive. The feedback was the best Nokia had ever had.”

Micha Grundman, managing director of events and installations at the Aya Experience, agrees that companies must be careful not to get carried away with the spectacular. “Although we use a lot of décor and a lot of technology in our events, we are always sure to not have them overshadow the actual brand and the message, not to confuse guests,” he says.

As he says this, a film of Aya’s recent work shows a sparkling torrent of fireworks cascading down this side of a high-rise building.

“We say we never have a dull moment and that goes hand in hand with having an interactive element to your events,” says Grundman. “We want to get guests involved, to deliver the message of the event. It’s one thing to have an event and pull down the moon from the sky, but if it’s not in relation to the actual brand, it really has no purpose, so we like to give our clients, our guests, the audience, a taste of how it would feel to put the product in their hands, to integrate it into their lives in a sense.”

For the launch of Dubai Properties’ Culture Village, Aya used a theme of “living art,” shutting down the Business Bay sales center for a day, projecting video on to the buildings, and “bringing the event outside into the garden, rather than being inside the sales center.” There was an art exhibition, fire dancers and a gigantic helium balloon with video projected on to it. Fancier than your average press conference.

ALL FOR SHOW? Demand for eye-catching events is evident and companies are competing to give clients more bang for their buck. But is it really worth splashing the cash on flash? Can you measure whether such events really offer more value to clients than a simple press conference with canapés?

Zeina El Haj, manager of retail PR, events and sponsorship at Emirates Bank, claims you can. “Every aspect of events can be measured with the right tools, whether they are developed in-house or outsourced,” she says. “For example, media exposure can be measured through media monitoring companies. The value provided by sampling and showcasing opportunities can also be quantified. The same applies for the volume of the captured database and the size of the audience, not forgetting the value of all on-site promotions.

“In my opinion,” she continues, “for events to be successful they have to accomplish high visibility and generate new business, which should amount to at least 10 times the expenditure.”

Mediawatch’s Nahawi takes a different approach. He argues that the relevance of the event is key. “Looking for a dollar value in return is not always the best way to measure,” he says. “You want to look at whether your key messages are resonating with your target audience. That’s more important than having a dollar return.”

BE MY GUEST. This is particularly true of corporate hospitality events, where there may not be any announcements or news to generate media coverage. Instead, it’s all about boosting your company’s image. But, says Amir Meskovic, president of Turbo Technologies, such events are “a double-edged sword.” For one thing, attendees are often not the people the company intended to impress.

Take the Dubai Rugby Sevens. “Everyone books hospitality tents without actually planning,” Meskovic says. “So what ends up happening is the company spends a lot of money, and 90 percent of the time, these things are used by staff. Only 10 percent of people who attend are going to be of any value to the organization. Everything else is entertaining their friends.”

And it is important to keep events in context, says Meskovic. “Even if your VIP customer is doing a lot of business with you, I don’t think they will be doing business with you purely because you have entertained them well.” In fact, he warns, inviting VIPs to these events opens you up to another risk: causing offence. To minimize this risk, his company has created software called Event Conductor to help plan, execute and assess events and attendees. It is also able to send a text to an event’s hosts as soon as a guest has arrived, so the host can meet them at the door, thereby sidestepping one potential faux pas.

Sometimes, he says, it is better to hold an event for 10 guests than for 100. Customer relationship management is much simpler and more effective with fewer people.

UNDER PRESSURE. And the bigger the event, the more people will be left with a negative impression of the client and event managers if something goes wrong. And failure is always an option in event management. Food doesn’t arrive, speakers blow, acts cancel, the weather turns sour. There’s a constant threat of catastrophe, which could be why the majority of events organizers we meet seem to be so laid back.

“If you get to the point where you’re yelling and screaming for 12 hours from the morning up to the start of the event, you’re not in the right business,” says Mike Ross, event manager for events company 9714, which prides itself in catering to the goateed underground. (“I’m pretty sure we have never, ever used fireworks,” he says at one point.) The company’s warehouse parties, beat poetry recitals, and DJ and club events have pulled in sponsorship from alcohol and tobacco companies looking for “a niche market – the artsy crowd,” as Ross puts it.

There are ways to cut down on the possibility of embarrassing events. “You hear nightmare stories about events going wrong. But that’s generally down to bad planning,” Ross says. “The trick to running a good event? Good planning. It’s as simple as that. Cover every angle. You have to prepare yourself for having to do things on the day that you haven’t planned for.”

D’Abo agrees. “The firefighting element is a big part of [events organization],” she says. “You can’t ever foresee what will happen. You have to have the confidence to know that everything’s dealt with and that nothing is the end of the world. There is always a way around everything. Always.”

Clients, too, can do their part to ensure events have a greater chance of not ending in a headline-making, fire-based horror story. The ideal client is one whose brief is clear, who has a realistic budget, and who won’t interfere. And who knows what warrants an event and that what’s relevant is just as important as what’s impressive.

“A good event will leave a lasting, memorable impression,” says Aya’s Grundman. “Having a rocket ship planned is part of the game, but if it doesn’t have anything to do with your brand, there’s really no point in having it.”


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