Event Heroes: How to Create a Blockbuster Conference
Each month we interview an events professional who is breaking the mold. This month we spoke with Stephanie Hannah, the Director of Strategic Marketing at Trace3, about growing an event, running an awards show, and delivering a blockbuster conference experience.
IT teams are what keep a business running, but they don’trace always get the recognition that they deserve. Trace3, a leading provider of IT solutions, developed their Evolve conference in response to this trend.
Stephanie Hannah has overseen the conference’s growth from 280 attendees to over 1,000 attendees. She also created and scale the Outliers Awards gala, which has become a flagship component of the conference.
Before leading the Evolve Conference, Stephanie ran high-level events at Dolphin Stadium and an array of B2B, B2C and nonprofit organizations. Throughout all of her events, high-production value and incredible attendee experience have been a constant.
In this Event Heroes Spotlight we discuss:
- Taking ownership of an existing event series
- Proving value to attendees and other stakeholders
- Producing a star-studded awards show
- Bringing an event vision to life
- Learning the art of negotiation from the royal family
Brandon: You’ve been involved in creating unforgettable experiences in a number of different ways. Could you tell us a little about your career and how it lead you to your current role at Trace3?
Stephanie: I have spent the last 20 years producing television and live events. I originally contracted with Trace3 in 2011 to produce their annual EBC (Executive Briefing Conference) and the first Outlier Award Gala.
Due to my relationships and resources, I was able to pull together a high-quality team to help me early on and deliver a show that exceeded expectations and created a standard for the direction Trace3 wanted to take the conference in the future.
Under my leadership, my team has fostered strong relationships with a broad network of talented professionals and trusted vendors. I have a passion for sophistication and style consistently placing our events on the cutting edge, but it is my personal touch and drive to over-perform for our clients, that sets my team and I apart. We approach each new event as an opportunity to improve on our past work, expanding our resources and stockpiling fresh ideas, guaranteeing our clients innovative solutions and dramatic results.
“I maintain a big picture philosophy with a focus on the goals and critical eye on the details.”
We execute exceptional meetings and events that achieve business objectives and exceed expectations—all with seeming easy and efficient.
Brandon: The Trace3 Evolve Conference has been around since 2012. Could you tell us a little bit about what the process was like for launching the conference? Is there a specific challenge that comes to mind? If so, how did you surmount it?
Stephanie: The process of launching Evolve begins a week after the previous event ends. We start with the theme and move to creating an agenda of speakers, breakouts that are all aligned to the theme. Once that is established, I divide the workload amongst teammates, we begin looking for speakers, creating graphics, looking for partners to sponsor, create invitations, update websites and the mobile app and a year’s worth of communications all set to a launching schedule.
I create a workload spreadsheet for each person and we have weekly calls to make sure each person is tracking to their tasks.
I think my biggest challenge this year was that we created the staging 7-8 months prior to the event and about 3 weeks before the event the production team came back and said, the stage was not going to work. We pulled together and changed the stage design and the exhibit booths all in a matter of a few days. This was stressful prior to the event, but worked out in the end.
I like to make sure that, once we are on site, everything runs like clockwork. I have my team come in 3 days before the event starts to get ready and practice what they are to do until they are comfortable and are knowledgeable of their job.
Brandon: What about the conference has changed since its earliest days? Are there any particular strategies or initiatives that have enabled it to scale?
Stephanie: The Evolve Conference has significantly grown from 2012. Not only by size but by scope of the event. We started with approximately 280 attendees and a small ballroom with pipe and drape and two breakout rooms. Now we are well over 1,000 people and have a stage that is designed with the latest technologies to support the Evolve conference and the Outlier Awards Show (which includes Las Vegas caliber performances).
We’ve managed to do this without going outside of our customer base. That’s without us doing any advertising for outside people to be involved at all. We’re getting to the place where we would love for Evolve to become an industry standard event.
One of the key successes to our growth is partner participation. This has allowed us to have amazing leadership and technology speakers, the VIP (very important partners) lounge, along with a new implementation of interactive experiences such as the escape room (Rogue AI) and the latest in VR and AR.
“Without our partners we really wouldn’t be where we are. So we create things that are of value to them, that create the most ROI for their business.”
It’s promoting them. It’s having branding throughout the event space. It’s creating experiences for our partners with our sales reps and their customers through executive dinners. We make sure that they get the same white-glove service that our customers do. The goal is that they feel that it was good use of their money and that they feel valued.
Another key to our growth has been our dynamic presentations from leading business enablers and industry leaders. Often at technology conferences, you go and there’s one keynote speaker and then you’re in breakout for the rest of the day.
At the Evolve Conference, you register, you check into your room, you have a nice lunch. And then at 1:00pm we start. Our CEO kicks off and launches the theme for the rest of the day. And then we have actually 6 speakers throughout that day till about 5:00. They all are relevant to leadership and technology, and are focused on driving real business outcomes.
Brandon: You’ve mentioned that the attendee experience is integral to your approach to event planning. With the Evolve Conference, what are some ways that you’ve brought this attendee-first approach to life?
Stephanie: One of the things that drives me, is the hospitality of any event. Im passionate about the content, but I also care deeply about the attendee’s overall experience.
Our approach is always the customer comes first. Throughout the 48 hours of the event our goal is to create what we call TCE or total customer experience. Once they come to event check in, every customer is given white-glove treatment and made to feel as they are the only customer. As we have grown, it has gotten harder and harder, but we are committed to excellent customer service.
Brandon: One pivotal component of Evolve Conference is the Outlier Awards Gala. It’s practically an event within an event. What’s the process like for organizing the gala? How do you feel the gala has contributed to Evolve Conference’s overall brand?
Stephanie: The Outlier is a beast in itself, while I’m planning the Evolve conference, I have nominees and judges to work with. The Evolve conference was developed to empower IT leaders. We connect them with the latest technologies and we provide ways to implement change from the server room to the board room. That is why the culmination of the Evolve show ends with the Outlier gala to honor individuals who consistently deliver dynamic innovation and outstanding leadership in the field of information technology.
I think after the first year people really caught the vision.
Brandon: You’ve mentioned that one of your strengths is creating a strong vision and being able to communicate that vision to your team. Bridging the gap from ideation to production is no small challenge. What’s your secret?
Stephanie: With my past television and film production experience I have learned that surrounding myself with people who are good at their craft, allows me to move forward with confidence with knowing that my vision will be executed properly. Another secret is, I start creation of the stage and the vision for the Outlier Gala a year in advance. We ideate the big vision on paper and then we continue to stream line until we are within our event budget. All while trying to hold on to the original integrity of the vision.
Brandon: How do you stay inspired and keep your creative instincts fresh?
Stephanie: Creatively one of the advantages I had was that I took over Evolve and Outlier very much in the infant stage, so I have had a lot of room to grow over the years. One of the main driving forces I have is to out-produce my budget. I want Evolve and Outlier to rival the best conferences in the industry, and obviously I only have a fraction of the budget.
Brandon: When you’re not running out-of-this-world events you like spending time with your family and watching Netflix (in careful moderation). What are you watching right now?
Stephanie: Like half the world, after royal wedding between Harry and Megan Markle, I discovered SUITS. There were 7 seasons and I have been binge-watching on the weekends, to get caught up to season 8. The one thing I love about this show, they are all great negotiators and it completely motivates me while putting together my event contracts.
Brandon: If you had to give one tip to someone who is running a conference like Evolve, what would it be?
Stephanie: Running a conference is a lot of work so having a team you trust and that are in their element of strength is probably the biggest help you can have. Another important thing is to start early and be completely prepared, a week or two before the event. Always, have a back-up plan in case anything goes wrong.
That’s all for this spotlight, but you may be interested in checking out these other Event Heroes:
- Cathy McPhillips (Content Marketing World)
- Vasil Azarov (Growth Marketing Conference)
- Dayna Rothman (SaaStr)