Nicola Kastner talks about the power of data to define event strategy and rethinking the “why” behind events.
In this episode, we welcome back Nicola Kastner to the show to talk about the power of data to define event strategy and how to start to rethink the ‘why’ behind events.
Nicola Kastner is a multidimensional event trailblazer, Nicola has led from both the brand and agency sides of the business. She is the Founder of The Event Strategist, a boutique consultancy firm that offers event strategy advisory services to global brands to help them successfully optimize their event experiences to drive bottom-line results.
Prior to launching her consulting practice, Nicola held various roles on both the brand and agency sides of the business, including most recently as the Global Vice President of Event Marketing Strategy for SAP, where she was responsible for designing and optimizing event strategies for events ranging from 25 to 25,000 people.
Here’s what you’ll hear about in this conversation:
[00:00:00] Erik Fisher: Welcome to Event Experience by Bizzabo. I’m your host, Erik Fisher. And this is the podcast where we bring the best and brightest event experience leaders together to share stories, tips, and lessons learned from creating some of the world’s biggest events. This week. My guest is Nicola Kastner. And she is the founder of the Event Strategist, a boutique consultancy firm who offer event strategy advisory services to global brands to help them successfully optimize their event experiences to drive bottom line results. She’s a multi-dimensional event trailblazer. And she’s led from both the brand and agency side of the business. Prior to launching her consultancy practice, she’s held various roles, including most recently, she was the global vice president of event marketing strategy for SAP, where she was responsible for designing and optimizing events strategies for events ranging from 25 to 25,000 people.
[00:01:05] In this conversation Nicola shares her event experience on how she got into events. How she used data to overhaul that 25,000 person event, pivoting during the pandemic, and where the event industry needs to focus in the future. All right. Let’s get into it.
[00:01:32] Hello. I am Erik Fisher. I am excited to be with Nicola Casner Nicola. Welcome to the show.
[00:01:39] Nicola Kastner: Thank you for having me.
[00:01:41] Erik Fisher: Welcome back to the show, I should say, because you were on the show at a very important time back in, October, 2019, and that seems like worlds away from where we are now.
[00:01:54] And we’re going to get into that. I want to revisit that conversation. We’ll fast forward. Like most of us want to through the pandemic up until modern times. And today though, we’re still dealing with remnants of that in various ways.
[00:02:09] But all of that focused on events and event experience, this is going to be a fun conversation. I’m excited to talk with you today.
[00:02:17] Nicola Kastner: Thank you for having me back and you’re right. The world has definitely changed.
[00:02:21] You have over 20 years of event experience, how did you get into the event industry and what are some of those highlight moments for you along the way?
[00:02:31] So I knew when I was a kid, when I was in high school, that I wanted to get paid to travel the world. The way that seemed logical to do that was to study hospitality and tourism.
[00:02:41] Nicola Kastner: So while I was at school, I took a course, incentive travel, and I don’t know if I want to call it a light bulb moment, but it was, it was something where I really realized the connection between business performance and data and events and travel could all really work seamlessly to impact the bottom line of the business.
[00:03:01] I was super interested in that. Following school, I worked at hotels DMC’s and then ultimately landed up on the agency side where I spent a good 15 years at a number of different agencies. Took three years off to be a mom too, and which has, I think actually does make me a better leader. As well.
[00:03:19] While I was at the agency, I took a course at a conference. It was the MPI WEC conference, and that course literally changed the course of my career. It was on event strategy and it was one once again, one of those light bulb moments. And I really have not looked back since. I really developed a deep passion and expertise around building event strategies to support business performance. After leaving the agency world, I ran my own consulting company for awhile, worked for SAP, along with a number of other clients as a consultant. And then in 2015, joined SAP on a full-time basis. A couple of different roles there, but the most sort of notable one was, as leading event strategy and sort of the overall portfolio of events.
[00:04:10] And I’m sure we’ll talk about that in a little bit more detail in a minute. And then in January I started my own business back up again and left the corporate world and am working with other clients to help them improve their event.
[00:04:22] Erik Fisher: That’s awesome.
[00:04:23] So you were the previous global head of event marketing and SAP. Obviously they have this, flagship event. That’s an annual flagship event and you did some major overhauling, tweaking to that event.
[00:04:39] Nicola Kastner: Yeah. for sure. So I joined, SAP on a full-time basis in 2016. Leading event strategy. Reporting directly to the chief marketing officer as a member of her leadership team. I moved in full time in March of 2018. Now I wasn’t leading global events at the time. My role was created to be ahead of the event strategy.
[00:05:00] And in August of that year, the leader of the team left, and Alicia asked me if I would over that interim leadership position.
[00:05:10] I now was responsible for the transformation of the portfolio, as well as Sapphire, and leading the team that delivered against that versus trying to do it by influence. So that was the beginning of process.
[00:05:22] Erik Fisher: Interesting. So obviously one of the things that was a major highlight and we’ve got, by the way, Bizabbo on their blog, we have a dedicated article talking all about this story from that previous podcast episode. You can read all about this. But the gist of it is, the power that lies behind event data. What are some of the insights slash revelations to yourself about event data that you’ve had, working with Sapphire and other clients.
[00:05:57] Nicola Kastner: Data Is the foundation. Data really should drive every single decision that is made around an event and event strategy, event approach. Whatever you want to call it, but data is the fundamental foundation of that. So for me, and data is my passion, data is where I find comfort. I find great stories.
[00:06:21] Taking that data led approach ensures that you’re building that right foundation from what you can build up the rest of the experience.
[00:06:29] Erik Fisher: There’s so much power in the data. And I think that it’s being underutilized and one under collected and under utilized. If it’s being collected at all, it’s being collected at a very surface level and it’s not being used.
[00:06:42] Like I know that you know, to use it for is out a very individualized customer an individualized experience centric, utilization of that data, right?
[00:06:56] So collecting data is one of it, but actually using, connecting that data, to inform the right insights is actually even more complicated than collecting the data. Events are just one part of the customer journey.
[00:07:10] Nicola Kastner: So understanding how a customer, whether it’s pre-purchase and you’re using an event to accelerate pipeline, or if it’s post-purchase and you’re using an event to educate, to enable, to help drive customer loyalty and satisfaction. The event is just one random moment in time.
[00:07:30] There is a full end-to-end customer journey, and if you’re not looking at that customer journey and to end and thinking about all of the touch points and how they work in tandem. You’re probably going to have a very happy customer, quite frankly. We’re all really savvy consumers in our day to day personal lives.
[00:07:50] We don’t check those expectations at the door when we go to an event or we deal with a company that is a, you know, B2B company. I just think that the connection of data and insights to to the customer journey holistically is so important. And why an events are such an amazing source of data, it’s registration data, it’s behavioral data.Certainly in my former role with SAP, we looked at purchase intent and buying propensity. If a customer was attending a lot of sessions about a certain product set that they didn’t own. Those were buying signals that really needed to be fed into all of the other analytics and data that that was used to drive the marketing strategy for that specific customer.
[00:08:39] The connection of the two is so important. And so I would recommend to the listeners that they start thinking about data in a completely different way.
[00:08:51] Erik Fisher: Well, I want to point out right as an event attendee. It’s rare that when I attend I know it’s easier digitally and in hybrid, virtual and hybrid, to track who’s attended which sessions, you click and you walk through the door, they’ve captured it. But in an in-person experience, it’s rare in my experience that anybody scanning my lanyard to know what I’ve attended, and that’s what I mean by some of that data just isn’t being collected.
[00:09:23] And it’s an oversight that we’re not grabbing that and using that.
[00:09:27] Nicola Kastner: Yeah, 100%. And I mean, we used, yes, it was a large sapphires, large event. 24,000 people was the 2019 version of that. And with 24,000 people comes large budgets. I get that but, we use Bluetooth tracking technology. So we knew, at an individual level, not that we creeped out and went too deep into the personal level, but it’s all aggregated through the CRM.
[00:09:57] We were able to identify what people were attending, but that’s how often a gap in marketing. Right? Because I remember with some of my former experience prior to taking on the Sapphire model, I would say to my business and marketing operations team, look at all of this data that we’re collecting from events.
[00:10:19] Why are we not leveraging it? And the silos that traditionally exist in marketing departments just didn’t allow that to be used in the right way. So it’s conversations that have to start across the entire marketing organization, but you know, like I said, full treasure trove of knowledge that we should be harnessing.
[00:10:40] Erik Fisher: Yeah, I love that. You say that an event is a moment in time and it’s not the entire cycle. It’s not the entire journey. But it is a really rather big milestone where a flurry of activity is happening. And so it makes sense to capitalize and leverage that.
[00:11:00] Nicola Kastner: That’s right. And connect it to your digital channels. You know, the analytics and the data around digital behaviors are so sophisticated. Why, why shouldn’t we be connecting that same data at event level
[00:11:12] Erik Fisher: For sure. by the way, you love data. I love Venn diagrams. So I’m always thinking in terms of crossover and what’s in the center, but to me, I’m seeing something in my head where it’s the diagram is the Venn diagram is the center of the customer needs slash wants and then the overlap of the organization’s own business goals.
[00:11:31] Nicola Kastner: Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s the sweet spot between the two.
[00:11:35] Erik Fisher: And so data is obviously the place that we can start to create one better event experiences for our customers, but also get to know our customers better and serve them.
[00:11:48] So obviously the last time that you were on the show was prior to 2020, it was 2019. A lot has happened since then. Let’s step into March, 2020 and the world of 20 20, 20 21 in terms of the pandemic pivot and your insight there. What was your experience in the event industry? When it came to the pandemic?
[00:12:15] Nicola Kastner: So, let me step back a little bit before March of 2020, and talk about what the plan was for Sapphire 20, 20, right? So we’ve gone from this huge reinvention. And that we had to pivot, which is the most overused word now. But really we had to, and for anybody that hasn’t listened to the podcast or read the story, essentially 60 days prior to Sapphire we had to rebuild the strategy, based on our request from our executive board.
[00:12:49] So we had to remember thousands of sessions and it was the day that content catalog went live as well. Which, you know, for any of you that are in the event space, you understand the amount of heavy lift that that takes. And then to have to remap and rebuild an entire strategy 60 days out was complex.
[00:13:06] So we take this learnings of the new strategy we’d built that we had to, to refine. Refine again, 60 days prior going into 2020s events. So once again, went through, went deep into a new strategy that sort of found the balance between what we had planned to achieve in 2019, and where we ultimately landed.
[00:13:30] And it was going to be an epic event. We had designed all new assets on the Sapphire show floor. And for context, for anybody that also hasn’t listened, the Sapphire show floor is where everything happens for the event. So, a million square feet of space, we in fact, had to expand outside of that space and build tents, all content sessions, keynote meetings, and our partner expo you name it was in this space. And the assets, whether it was the demo pods or the theaters or whatever those things were, we had spent a lot of time with that. We’d done a research project about how do adults learn? What kinds of environments did we, need to create? We had spent millions of dollars on new assets that were designed to support this research.
[00:14:23] We had a spectacular showcase that was going to tell the end-to-end SAP story to our attendees, and was a really amazing experiential moment for the attendees. We had two brand new CEO’s. It was going to be their coming out party. Like it was going to be epic. We were so excited. And then COVID came along.
[00:14:46] And so early March, the decision was made to cancel the event, although we didn’t make it public for about three more weeks. It was a crazy, it was a crazy time. I mean we were, I think, six, seven weeks out from the event when we canceled. We had a few weeks to come up with a new strategy.
[00:15:05] Fortunately, we had spent a lot of time looking at the data in the past. So we weren’t starting with data combing again and trying to figure out what the heck to do. The data insights were already there to help us inform us. The head of events, went out with COVID for six weeks while we were building the strategy.
[00:15:23] And that six weeks, three weeks, I think he was out, while we were building the strategy. It was just, it was a crazy, crazy time. So ultimately. We had the finalapproach proof say mid April and had about two months to build the new strategy. And instead of… or execute the new strategy, I suppose, is the right word.
[00:15:43] And then instead of going simple, we in SAP style, went really complex. So what we had decided was that we would build. So we had to refer back. If I back up a second, we had about 11 different areas of the business that SAP served through our solutions. And so each of those areas of the business was going to have their own broadcast channel for 90 minutes of content.
[00:16:08] We knew we couldn’t keep them for days. And we’ll talk about this in a little bit, because that’s a huge, big pet peeve of mine. So we were going to do 90 minutes of live content for a class 11 global broadcast. Then on top of that 15 regional sites that allowed and get attendees to engage with each other and global and local content and local language.
[00:16:31] So 11 channels now, 15 sites. So there were eight languages, but you know, English was in UK and it was in Australia. It was in Canada and U.S. There’s different nuances, different localizations of those even. And so it was incredibly complex. Leading up to the event, the few days before, we have set a goal of 60,000 registrations, we had 129,000 registrations.
[00:16:58] We had like just massive increases in everything. Like we felt like, Wow. look what we’ve pulled off. The Monday, as our global keynote was kicking off, the system crashed completely, and never came back.
[00:17:16] Erik Fisher: Wow.
[00:17:18] Nicola Kastner: So essentially all wait, well, we don’t know because we lost the access to all the data. But as everybody came in, the system died, we moved all of the content onto social channels, which we were already planning on streaming on the social channels, but we lost all those beautiful analytics, about who came, or was attending, which is one of the beauties of digital events. Basically overnight had to rebuild all of our content onto YouTube. Everything was ungated. We had zero analytics that came out of it. So, it was to say it was a disaster would be an understatement. It was a huge learning. It was a huge lesson. It just, it was, it was on top of COVID, on top of being locked down at home. You know, this all happened.
[00:18:10] It was tough. But certainly as a team we recovered and, we’re able to move forward and I’m sure many of the listeners are saying, well, didn’t you have a backup plan? Yes, we had backup plans for backup plans for backup plans. have was a plan if all our backup plans failed.
[00:18:29] Erik Fisher: That’s, that’s what I’m curious about is so post disaster, obviously in the moment it’s triaged and react and hopefully recoup a strategy. But post disaster, now that you’ve had some time to live with it, et cetera, what are your thoughts, your insights, your learnings, from contingency planning like that.
[00:18:50] Nicola Kastner: What I would say about what we’ve learned from a backup plan perspective and a contingency plan perspective had been several things. I mean, like I mentioned before, how the backup plan, if all of your backup plans, fail, I think it’s important to model worst-case scenarios so that you’re able to react quickly versus being a deer in the headlights.
[00:19:12] Oh my God. What, what now? What do we do? I think backup content repositories are always a great thing. I became an expert at uploading content to YouTube in those 48 hours, post event. But I also think the lesson is beyond how do you make sure that your tack is secure? It’s more about less is more. I think we went really aggressive and we built something that looked like it was going to be an incredible experience. And that’s what we had designed it to be, so that it could be a fabulous experience for our attendees. But did we need to have 11 channels with 15 local sites? Probably not. So maybe start simple . Don’t over-complicate things. I think is probably one of the biggest takeaways that I have.
[00:20:05] Erik Fisher: Over-complicating, it definitely takes it to this place where you have to have these expansive contingency plans. Whereas a simplistic plan means, oh, suddenly I don’t have to factor in all these things. I can pair it down to just what’s essential.
[00:20:24] Nicola Kastner: Yes, absolutely. And as we think about digital offense, I think the biggest pet peeve for me throughout the pandemic is sort of a lift and shift mentality. The reality is people act very differently digitally than they do in person. So if you think about Amazon, Amazon is not set up like a department store. People don’t go to buy a dress and walk out with a sofa because they’re task orientated, but they do do that when they’re in a department store. Cause they browse. Same thing applies to events. We took what we did in physical events, which are bundles of activities, trying to maximize time and space where you have people captive within your environment.
[00:21:12] And then we just moved them all to digital when maybe they don’t even need to be bundled in the same way. So I think in order to build effective digital events, we have to think about digital behaviors. The task orientation that people have and how people consume content, really powerful content, what’s the average view time, 12 minutes on Netflix.
[00:21:33] Why do we think keynotes with our executives for an hour and a half are going to get views for longer than incredible content? They’re not people just don’t behave the same way. me that’s been my big pet peeve through the pandemic, we’re trying too hard to translate what we did in real life or do in real life, as we move into hybrid strategies in the digital environment versus designing for the medium that it is.
[00:21:59] Erik Fisher: So obviously in the mind of an event professional, they’re hearing you say that, but they may not know exactly what the perspective shift is that they need to start having moving forward when they look at that difference in the behavior between in-person and online and hybrid. How would you say moving forward, they need to shift their perspective? What are some first steps?
[00:22:26] Nicola Kastner: Well, I think it’s about the reason and the objectives, right? It starts with the objectives. Right? What are you trying to achieve? Did people come to in-person event? To network, to meet other people, to have in-person conversations. Digital is great from a learning perspective or broad announcement, an awareness perspective, but they don’t come necessarily to try a network with other people. I think we’ve all sat through some horrible situations where we’ve been forced into networking rooms during the pandemic and an event we were at, and have no idea why you landed up with these 35 other people. First of all, 35 people can’t have a conversation. So that in itself is problem. So I think thinking about the objectives. Why people would attend your events and understanding that, and the difference of those objectives is the critical first step. Because that allows you to design to the medium as well as why people are there in the first place.
[00:23:29] I actually I’m going to be a little bit controversial here. I do question hybrid strategies to a degree. I absolutely believe there’s a place for physical. I absolutely believe there’s a place for digital in the future. Not always sure that they need to come together at the same time.
[00:23:53] It actually creates more complexity in the planning versus less. And, an attendee that’s coming to your digital site versus somebody that’s coming to your in-person environment and checking in, two completely different experiences. So why are we trying to put them together when it often doesn’t make sense?
[00:24:12] Erik Fisher: Yeah. I think that obviously here at Bizabbo we have for a while been saying we’re already living in a hybrid world. Obvious examples are you use a digital system to call an Uber then a physical car in person shows up to pick you up. And other examples, I won’t go through too many of them. Think of why that’s a successful example. It circumvents the friction that used to be there in that instance of getting a ride. So now we need to apply that mentality of reducing friction using technology in the event space.
[00:24:47] Nicola Kastner: Couldn’t agree more. I love that.
[00:24:50] Erik Fisher: You led me to it, so I can only take credit for so much. So, and it seems like that, to move forward to today, it seems like that’s what’s happening mass scale in terms of the pandemic opening up new opportunities. So you now are back to doing consulting and doing your own thing because you wanted a greater, better fit, et cetera.
[00:25:15] And in fact, a lot of people these days call it the great resignation, but you’ve got a better term for it that I know you didn’t coin it, but you use it. And I love it.
[00:25:24] Nicola Kastner: Yeah, I I’m calling it the great realization. I went from SAP where I’d been five and a half years, with a huge high pressure job and great success. I loved my teammates so much. I had like anybody would be, insecurities, like, am I valuable or is my self worth tied to the brand that’s behind my name versus brand Nicola. And imposter syndrome will tell you that, of course that the case. It’s not the case. The knowledge I have is the knowledge I have. Will I miss part of the team? Yes, of course, but, I also have some amazing friendships and an amazing clients and colleagues in my new world, but for me, it was about finding the right balance.
[00:26:12] in a company that had a hundred and over a hundred thousand employees trying to align a strategy where you’ve got multiple businesses and multiple business units, it takes its toll. So for me, it was time to really think about work-life personal balance, the type of work I wanted to do, but it also the world has changed. The world has changed post pandemic and employers now are understanding that it’s okay A: for people remotely. Fortunately SAP was always a proponent of that. I’ve always been home-based. They hire talent where talent is. Not wearing office is. I’ve been very, very fortunate, but a lot of companies didn’t realized that in the past. Now they realize people can be home-based and successful. They are also embracing the fact that they can bring in top talent on short-term assignments to help them build strategies. In my case, build a portfolio strategy or an event strategy for a fraction of the costs that they would have to pay if I was a full-time employee. This embracing of the new way of working timing is was right for me. And it’s been really exciting.
[00:27:25] Erik Fisher: Obviously right now you’re working with and consulting with people in the event industry with your clients, which I know you’re loving. What would you say to other event professionals who find themselves moving into this post pandemic world right now in terms of guidance of where there’s a place for them and what they can do, and these new opportunities that the pandemic has brought.
[00:27:48] Nicola Kastner: I think fundamentally the world’s changed. Our event portfolios have to change. What we did before the pandemic is not, is it shouldn’t be brought back in the same way. I think as an industry, we really need to be questioning how we do events, why we do events, what we’re hoping to achieve from events and then designing against those needs versus rinse and repeat, oh, well this works pre pandemic, it’s going to work now. No, this is a great opportunity that we’ve been given to really question the what and the why, and to start blank slate. So my recommendation and where I’m working with my clients, and most of my clients are heads of marketing that are saying, help us build a portfolio of events that drives to business needs and, and is really going to drive business outcomes. Because we always did, let’s say a 24,000 person, in-person event. Should we be doing that anymore? And, you know, And the answer might be yes, the answer might be no.
[00:28:56] And so it really starts in my mind with looking at, and this was an exercise I took the SAP team through, in 2020. Was really looking at sort of talking about Venn diagrams, come back to your Venn diagrams. And this is a Venn diagram. Imagine a Venn diagram with four circles that overlap, and almost like a flower or a biohazard symbol for if you want to call it that..
[00:29:20] Looking at the intersection point of these four circles is what should inform the event strategy. And the four circles. One is your business, what are your business? What are your business needs? What’s your business strategy? What’s your marketing strategy? What are you trying to drive as a result in the business?
[00:29:39] So really taking a deep dive into that at SAP, we interviewed over a hundred internal stakeholders. We went through all of our strategy docs and our marketing strategies and so forth to really understand what did the business need and where did events solve a specific or fill a gap or add value?
[00:30:00] Because an event’s not always the right answer either, Less is more going back to that same conversation we had before. So when is an event the way to answer? The one circle. So understanding the business needs, other one of the circles was understanding the customer needs or the partner needs whoever the communities are that you’re serving through your events.
[00:30:18] So we surveyed more than a thousand customers to really understand what did they value about our events as well as other events that they went to. What were they looking to achieve when they came to events? How did they think that would change when they could go back to an event? We also did. 30 deep dive interviews with customers and conversation as well.
[00:30:40] The third circle is sort of the macro environment. So we spent a lot of time looking at what did we think the return to events would it look like? What were the implications about what were our competitors doing? Because you know, I, in a B2B environment, in a B to C environment, I’m sure as well, reality is every, you know, we’re very, very interested in what the comps that’s doing.
[00:31:04] So what, what did we think they would be doing when they came back to events? What could we learn from other industries that had been through disruption? Like. education or, advertising, whatever those might be, all these different industries. So that was the macro environment.
[00:31:21] And then the fourth circle looking at your past event data. Sorry to back to the dirty “d” word, but looking at that data and really taking a deep dive into what outcomes have we achieved? Who came to our events? Why did they come to our events? What were the impacts of those? What were the objectives?
[00:31:41] What was portfolio of events? And you take all of those four circles. And the intersection point of all of those informs your event strategy. So to me, what I would recommend to anybody is think about it. Think from a business lens, not an event lens. Think about now, what are you, what needs are you trying to solve? Then build a new strategy, build a strategy from there, theoretically, it might be the strategy you had in the past. But I would hazard a guess. It’s not, but base it on solid insights and data.
[00:32:18] Erik Fisher: Wow. That’s worth the price of admission right there for this podcast, Nicola, that is a great insight and a great way for people to move forward. Obviously I can see why people love working with you. I would love for you to point us to where we can send people to find out more about what you’re doing consulting wise and what you’re doing with your business these days in case they want to, Hey, if they want to be a client.
[00:32:43] Nicola Kastner: Yeah, absolutely. So nicolakassner.com is my website. And you know for me. I share this to help people. I’m not trying to sell my services. I’m humbled and the demand I’ve had to date. But I really believe in trying to give back to this industry and educating this industry and helping us just think different because working together we’re all much better than the sum of the parts is better than individual.
[00:33:11] Erik Fisher: Awesome. Nicola. It’s been great talking with you today and I look forward to eventually having you back on the podcast. I know it will happen. Thank you so much.
[00:33:22] Nicola Kastner: Thanks for having me.
[00:33:23] And what a great conversation with Nicola Kastner. I am so glad to have been able to talk with her, and I’m so glad to been able to share this conversation with you. If you’re not subscribed already. Thanks again for listening, but definitely make sure to subscribe to event experience. We’ve got lots of great episodes planned and coming out for.
[00:33:45] Wherever you’re listening to this. There’s a button there somewhere that says subscribe, whether that’s on our [email protected] or in the podcast player, app of choice. You’re listening to this on right now. Just click that subscribe button and click the share button to share this with somebody that you know needs to hear this conversation.
[00:34:04] Thank you so much for sharing. Thank you for listening. And we will see you next episode.