Q&A with Michelle Smith of Real Communications on strategic planning for unique experiences

As a boutique event agency, Real Communications has thrived in a competitive and rapidly-changing industry for more than a decade. Owner and partner Michelle Smith shared with us the key elements of a sound event strategy and her unique approach to continually providing innovative, quality and meaningful event services that produce exciting brand experiences for clients.

Q: What principles drive you and the work you do for Real Communications?

MS: We strive to develop that special kind of experience you’d find at live sports events, concerts, and music festivals. I’m not a huge sports fan, but I love going to sporting events and witnessing how excited people get in that environment. Take, for instance, the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team; they haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967 and rarely make the playoffs. They can easily draw 18,000 fans — most of whom, at any moment, can just jump to their feet and go crazy. Why does this happen? It’s because fans really don’t know what’s going to happen and they get caught up in something electric and unforgettable — something that will truly only happen at that game for those fans. Attendees get excited by the entertainment and the unpredictability of the event.

When planning an event, we try to find out how to tap into that same energy for the audience — that feeling of anticipation for something new and unexpected — then walking away with wonderful memories to share with their friends, families, or coworkers.

Q: What are some ways to tap into that energy for meetings and shows?

MS: It’s focusing on producing innovative, creative, and meaningful events — each one with a unique spin or tweaked in a completely different way. Sometimes it’s simply finding a unique venue, entertainment or content that an audience hasn’t experienced before but still aligns with the event’s objectives.

For example, we worked with a client who wanted something remarkable and different for its two-and-a-half-day conference. For the more casual gala we recreated a pep rally atmosphere including bleachers, food service in the stands, a marching band, and cheerleaders. The experience was like being at a sporting event or going back in time to a high school assembly. The high point was a basketball game between the executives and management on a regulation-size court with professional nets, paired with professional referees, intermittent music and state-of-the-art time clocks to make it completely authentic. The gala was hugely successful! At the same time, we reached the client’s goals of increased participation and found an unforgettable way to uplift the employees who were being honored.

Q: How does strategy play into leveraging such amazing creativity and originality?

MS: Strategic planning is simply the “how” of making an event successful. It’s also about being clear on what the objectives are and working towards reaching those objectives. Let’s say it’s a sales meeting: What needs to happen to ensure that members of the sales force leaves the meeting or rally with all the information they need to sell a product? What can be done to motivate them during the meeting, while at the same time educating them on the product?

Going back to the gala example, a primary objective was both entertainment and recognition for some of the attendees. Our client wanted a small group of 30 people at this event to feel special, almost as if they were winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Beyond the basketball game, we honoured them with a marching band introduction and VIP, front-row comfy game seats. The second goal was broader corporate recognition: ensuring that the two-hundred managers present were thanked in various ways and immersed in an atmosphere of camaraderie. And, of course, it was important that everyone could unwind after a taxing day of work meetings.

Basically, creativity was harnessed as part of the strategy to reach and go beyond the client’s objectives. And originality is always part of a good strategy because, as I mentioned, it encourages and creates a special, unique and memorable experience that guests and employees will remember and treasure.

Q: How important is measurement with strategy?

MS: It’s essential. You always need measurement in place to track an event. There isn’t one way to measure, as it all depends on the type of event and the overall objectives. In the case of a sales event, the metrics would be tracking the product sales after the event. For something like a golf tournament or charity event, we would measure how much money was raised and how enjoyable the experience was for guests. You are measuring ROI, but ROI is different for each kind of event.

Real Communications utilizes various measurement tools. We often employ a feedback survey or a post-event interview at the exit to gauge attendee reactions. This information is invaluable because we can capture fresh insights. We often develop event specific apps that allow attendees to vote on certain aspects of the event, providing very reliable, real-time data.

We also create and archive comprehensive post-event reports for every event we produce, which includes the agenda, feedback, budget, technology, creative, entertainment, menus, etc. These documents serve as solid precedents for us to develop new and even more engaging and memorable events.

“Good strategy always involves taking a risk.” —Michelle Smith

Q: Once you’ve found a successful template or enough data, can your strategy take on risks?

MS: I would say good strategy always involves taking a risk. An old mentor used to tell me, “If you don’t risk, you risk a lot.” I mentioned our documented precedents, but we never recreate the same meeting or event. We always build upon previous successes to develop even better options. I believe you must challenge yourself if you want to stay ahead of the competition and grow with your clients. If you’re armed with data and have a grasp on the latest trends, it’s both about taking a risk and elevating the experience.

We had a corporate client who always did the same cross-country roadshow every single year. We proposed one year to change it to a national simulcast, feeling it would create a more unified and turn-key brand message. Today simulcasts are common, but this was about ten years ago so the idea was very radical and the tech very green! There was no precedent. This shift would involve events in different theatres across Canada with executives in each location. The objective of education was optimized by the fact that all stakeholders received information at the same time and in real time, from Vancouver to Quebec, instead of different offices waiting days or weeks to receive available information or updates.

The simulcast went very well, which was reflected by the incredibly positive satisfaction results we received from attendees. Any of the technical glitches we encountered were unnoticed by guests.

Q: What advice do you have for planners when creating a strategy?

MS: Never be ambiguous or make assumptions about objectives and certainly not budgets.

Everything needs to be clearly stated and agreed to. If you veer away or start making assumptions about what you think your client wants or is prepared to do, then it’s going to be very hard to develop a strategy that meets any goals. Everyone needs to be on the same page from beginning to end.

Also, having a checklist and regular checkpoints is very important. We have bi-weekly meetings with our clients to communicate exactly what’s going on and how the timeline is progressing on each event. That way if there are sudden changes we can act quickly to modify the objectives and revise the scope of the event.

I like to say life is art and art is life — so always keep an eye on the latest trends, best practices, new technology, and evolve accordingly. What’s old often becomes new again. Lastly, I believe in empowering the people you work with and always asking for feedback because that keeps you honest, vulnerable, and focused on always doing your best work.


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