Interview with Tony Bonney: Owner, Podium — The Event Producer

Approaches to event management and theming and client management

Tony Bonney is the owner of the Sydney-based events company called Podium — The Event Producer. The kinds of events staged by the company cover the full range of event activities, from overseas conferences for sales and marketing teams to launches, national roadshows and celebrations. The stakeholders in these events are often corporate clients who are looking to communicate a message or an idea to their clients. In this interview, Tony explains his carefully considered approach to event management and theming, which is based on building close relationships for his company’s clients with their own clients.

How important is theming to an event?

There are lots of different thoughts on this. A lot of people think theming is about, ‘Let’s make it a South Pacific theme’, or ‘Let’s make it a casino theme’, or whatever it might happen to be. That can have some relevance in what you are doing, but in the kind of work we do, the theming is all about the communication process between our clients and their clients at the event — so the theme needs to reflect the communication that the client is trying to make to their clients, and that can take lots of different forms. It can be physical — for example, how the venue actually looks, or lighting colours, or whether the colours are appropriate to the corporate colours of the company or the product that the company is launching, or something similar. It could be the use of lighting in a manner that actually accentuates a theatrical point in a program to highlight important parts of the communication. It can be in the audio aspect of the event in what people are hearing, when they hear it and how they hear it. It can also be in other places, like what people smell at the event and how they interact with people as they arrive at the event. We think theming is more about interpreting or facilitating the opportunity to create an emotional response or reaction to what is being staged. I don’t want that to sound like we are trying to make people laugh or cry or whatever — we are talking about setting up an environment that enables personal interaction to happen. We run a process called the ‘woo factor’, not the ‘wow factor’. What that is about is looking at how we can create meaning through the staging of the event, for the people that are participating, so that the client is able to woo them over the longer term. A lot of companies stage events that, when it comes to theming, are all about ‘wowing’ clients — putting on a spectacular, for example — and everyone goes, ‘Wow, wasn’t that amazing?’ Wowing can be important sometimes — you have to do it occasionally. But it is also possible to put on a ‘wow’ event that is impossible for people to engage with because of the scale. So theming, for us, is first and foremost about creating an environment where personal engagement can happen.

How do you come up with new ideas, week in and week out, to make each event unique?

What is really great about this approach that we have — and I should say that we have trademarked the ‘woo factor’ and we run programs to teach people how that works — is this. Every person is a unique individual because of who they are and what they have done and other influences. There is not another you out there. If you were to clone yourself now and send your clone off into the world for ten years and come back again, the cloned you would be a different person to you because of some of the experiences over those ten years. That is really true of companies as well. Every company’s features — who you are, your culture, what is important to you and the kinds of things you need to communicate to your clients — are unique to you and your company at that time. So it is actually very easy once you can get to the nub of the company to work out what that company is all about, and what is important to them, and what they are trying to say. Then it is easy to come up with the right strategy and the right theme, because what you are really doing is expressing who they are as an organisation. So it becomes a much more personal interaction accordingly.

Do you find it difficult to get the company to express who they are to you?

Absolutely. We take a long time to get to know a company as well. There are clients we have that just want to do the regular thing, and we help them to do that. There is no doubt about that and there are some companies that just don’t get this idea that we talk about. The companies that do, however, we work with for a very long period of time and it takes collaboration, which is a really keyword for us. We spend a lot of time just talking to our clients and getting to know them. It is not unusual for it to take a couple of years from the first piece of contact to the first piece of business with those clients.

What are some of the highlights and best ideas that you have had so far?

Trying to break away from theming as a physical thing, like palm trees for a South Pacific theme, to theming being about the environment that you create so that the right exchange can take place. One idea that we had was for a legal firm, who had discovered that their earnings from compensation claims and that type of work had diminished because of limitations on payouts, and were looking for a way to inform their current client base that they also did other kinds of legal work. They wanted to make sure that their client base understood what those other kinds of work were. So we looked at how they operated as a company. They offer a first consultation free — most lawyers do this — so they can assess the problem you might have and if they can help you. So what we did was create an open day, which essentially used the ‘first consultation free’ idea but put it into a structure that enabled them to communicate to the marketplace exactly what other services they offered. We put together an invitation and schedule of presentations that ranged across all of the skill sets of the organisation. Clients ticked on the invitation which of those seminars they would like to attend and then we had one-on-one meetings later in the day where clients could discuss information they had picked up during the seminars, and discuss in detail their interest in that area.

So from the invitation process — where people selected what they would like to see — we were educating people about what the company does, and inviting people to engage with the company in a manner that is of value to them. The law firm, by getting the responses regarding what seminars people are interested in, got a sense of what the issues were for their clients so they could focus on those areas. So the theme was an open day, and it really was … it opened up the clients to the law firm and it opened up the law firm to the clients. It created something of value for both parties and a way for both parties to engage in a meaningful manner with each other. In terms of regular theming, we have clients whose Christmas parties we do every year, and that is not about anything other than putting a party on. The theming for those events is more about trying to determine what is actually happening at the time from a broader society perspective — what’s of interest out there at the moment. So, for example, recently for one client we took on the ballroom dancing idea that has been really big over the last 12 months and we actually built the event around training about half a dozen couples from the company how to ballroom dance. We put on a ballroom dancing competition, with the whole theme of how the event looked and so forth tied in around that competition. So that is about a celebration event, but what’s key there is that the critical part of the entertainment on the night was not some outside entertainer at $40,000–$50,000 — it was actually the client entertaining themselves. It means more to people to see somebody they know from Accounts, say, and a secretary from elsewhere in the company dancing together and being really impressive, and they get more engaged in that than having outside people, who they have no emotional connection to, come in. Even in that kind of environment, we try to find a way to make sure that there is some kind of engagement on a personal level.

Are there occasions where you work with a theme that just is not going to work — that is just a bad idea from the start?

Yes, definitely. It can quite often happen in a social club environment where you are doing a celebratory event, and the social club gets an idea that they would like to do a particular theme. Usually, as an event company, you have been engaged late, so they already have the venue sorted out and they have already got the food and beverage sorted out and they want to do a particular theme, but the theme doesn’t fit any of the other things they have already organised. You can find yourself in a situation where essentially you are delivering something that you know is never going to work, and the social committee — because they are a social committee — want to do it their way. To be honest, we don’t really do that kind of work anymore. It is just too difficult. It is hard to stay there on the night and be responsible for something that actually you haven’t really been responsible for, so we don’t really get involved in that area. We start work very early in the event cycle with our clients, to make sure that they are making appropriate decisions. We strategically help them set up the event in the first instance so that it fits with their communication needs and so that the theme is appropriate.

Do you have any final words of advice for people wanting to work in the events industry in general?

I think that courses are great but they won’t get you the job, so I think that as early as you possibly can you should be putting yourself out there for work experience with event companies. Event jobs are advertised, but usually, companies use internal methods to find employees at the same time. So by actually getting work experience — by working with companies, getting yourself known and showing your value — someone will eventually offer you a job in their company. So get in as early as you possibly can and do any kind of work, whether it be data entry for conferences, running events or whatever it might happen to be — just get in there and get as much experience as you possibly can. If you have got the course and you have got experience, then you are much more employable for an entry-level job than if you have just done the course.