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April 4, 2008

Izania Downie: Are corporate event departments the new threat to our industry?

According to one high-profile agency head, there are more corporate event planners in the city than in UK agencies and some of them are running more events than the biggest agency in the industry. An example is one high-profile bank that runs over 900 events per year with a team of 50 event planners in-house. They rarely use an agency preferring to bring in freelancers when required and they are not alone in their volume and methodology. So it begs the question: Are corporate event departments the future of our industry? They certainly have the ability to take the cream of our crop, luring them in with the promise of higher pay and better benefits. But are our people taking the bait?

Recently I’ve spoken to a number of event professionals looking for new opportunities. Is this simply a trend of the season – the sun comes out and people start getting unsettled, looking for change? Maybe, but when I dug a bit deeper I started to realise that the common theme is that they are just not being rewarded according to their value. And I’m not just talking about a handful of disgruntled planners; I’ve been speaking with some very high-profile, well-respected and competent individuals, with skills ranging from event planners to producers, sales people right up to managing director level.

Considering a significant part of our industry is about reward and recognition, it seems incredible if we are not taking care of our own people. But what are the reasons for this? Are agencies choosing not to or is it simply that our margins are getting squeezed ever tighter which results in decreasing our overheads – and the biggest overhead is usually the payroll?

Well, regardless of the reasons, a large majority of the event professionals I have spoken with recently have decided to go freelance and/or many have ended up in corporate event departments, but the story is always the same: they are now enjoying higher pay and mostly better benefits. They are still working extremely hard, however, but at least now they feel they are getting rewarded for the effort they put in.

Life is constant change and our industry is not immune to change and threats. Particularly, over the past few years, we have had our share of these, with the increasing threat of terrorism after 911, the increase of natural disasters like tsunami’s, floods, Sars, foot and mouth, the Iraq war, higher taxes on air-travel, new green taxes affecting our budgets… the list goes on. It seems we recover from most things. However is the devil we know that which will hurt us the most? How will corporate event departments affect our business? After all, why use an agency when you can do it in-house and have more control? Will the growing numbers of experienced event professionals going freelance eventually diminish our pot of permanent agency staff?

Or maybe we need to change our way of thinking. Perhaps it’s time to focus on our future and anticipate the changes before they swallow us up. It is time for our industry to ‘grow up’ and become serious strategic marketing professionals that can deliver events. In focusing on our threats it can help us recognise the opportunities. Maybe our future competitors are advertising, marketing and PR agencies that offer strategic partnering with their clients, and events are one of the solutions. Along with this we need to take ourselves more seriously and charge appropriately for the service we provide. After all, it’s the thinking behind the event that really delivers the ROI/ROO [return on investment/return on objectives], or whatever other acronym we are using to justify what we do.

I don’t know the answers to this, but one thing I do know is that if we don’t put our focus on the future, we could well find ourselves standing in the past – and that’s a place I’m sure we don’t want to be.

Izania Downie is executive director of Eventia.

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