From the Ritz to Zoom: TEN’s transformation story

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The story of how the Covid pandemic pushed a physical events business into the digital world and started enabling new connections in a whole new way

If you’ve been to one of our events, it’s likely you’ve been involved in a discussion of digital transformation. The pandemic set in train by Covid-19 last March forced us to put our money where our mouth was and transform ourselves in double-quick time. Here’s what happened.

What to do

It became clear 10 months ago that we were dealing with something that was going to have a significant impact on the business environment in general, and our operating model in particular. We had seen that as early as the start of the month, when a couple of events has suffered unusually high drop-out rates. Following that, on the 11th, a client had almost decided against travelling over from Amsterdam for a dinner at Sexy Fish in London. The next morning, a group of 25 at a breakfast in Stockholm dwindled to 12, as many organisations began advising their people against non-essential travel. We now know that this was the first step towards national lockdowns, making physical events an impossibility.

What to do, then? The pressing challenge was that we had a number of events already in the diary, with audiences built. We had a further number at the booked-in stage, with audience recruitment about to commence. Cancelling events meant no revenue, which wasn’t an option. The first key point, and one we hear from our clients and guests: don’t panic, keep your focus and think straight. Everyone’s in the same boat. You want the events to happen, your clients want them to happen, so what needs to be done? Business can’t stop.

That was easier said than done, though. We had no experience whatsoever in running digital events; indeed, we’d always been somewhat dismissive of them. They seemed inferior. How could a digital gathering be anywhere near as good and provide the same value as face-to-face interaction? We’d not even really embraced video platforms for internal calls and meetings. What did we need to do first?

The steps

Change the mindset and culture and embrace new technology: this is the future, so make it work. Ask yourself tough questions: why can’t digital interactions deliver all or the majority of what our physical events could? What if there was added value that we’d been missing?

The next step was to develop the requisite vision and achieve clarity of purpose. We’d changed the mindset and embraced the opportunity to grasp the new; now, we needed calmly and soberly to decide exactly what we wanted to achieve. It couldn’t be just a short-term replacement for what we used to do; what was needed was a bespoke, viable new product that would yield new experiences for our clients and guests.

It’s with our customers that we began. We knew that they were the base upon which we needed to construct the product and the experience. What was required was throwing out what we’d done in the physical world and a sharp focus on what would work best in the digital arena: don’t mimic what’s gone; innovate.

Look at the key elements:

  • Timing
  •  Structure
  •  Feel
  •  Pace
  •  Interactivity

Look at the key outcomes:

  • Fresh insights
  • Real examples
  • Good new connections

Next, it was the technology. We needed to find the right platform at speed and test it thoroughly, in so doing attempting to foresee every eventuality. The new format we had developed had one key element to it that facilitated this choice: we wanted to be able to split audiences into smaller groups for a focussed discussion. In a sense, this was one element where our thinking was based upon replicating the physical experience, in this case, the intimacy of a dinner table of six. This made the technology choice straightforward; it had to be Zoom, given it’s the only game in town if you want robust and simple breakout room functionality. This was also prominent in our minds: after 20 years of high-end venues, we were about to find out just how much the venue was a part of our offer. First, though, was testing.

We did this internally in the first instance, then took it to the next stage by bringing in as many of our friendly contacts as we could to run dummy events. Once we’d got that initial confidence, the trick was to keep trying new things: listen to participants’ feedback and act upon it. We had a matter of days to prepare for the first events and we knew we weren’t going to get everything right the first time. With each occurrence, we observed and listened, then tweaked, amended and improved it. After about a month, the Dynamic Digital Event we offer now was fully formed.

The finish? Not really…That doesn’t mean we don’t keep looking to change it for the better, of course. Transformation should be a perpetual process of change. Constant evolution is the key to success. We’d seen the marketplace change, and we expected it to evolve further as the months went by. We were also very conscious that novelties wear off and fatigue can set in. If our offer is to remain compelling, we need to keep our eye on the ball, move at the same pace as out target audience, and, if necessary, catch them up on occasion. What we can’t do is lag behind. Then and now, we remain mindful of the changing business environment, and our customers’ place within it.

What have we learnt, then? Be fearless. Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong first time. You’ll need to try things, test them, change, then test again. You will get it right. Whatever you choose to do, do it agilely and at speed, and don’t assume you’re ever finished.

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