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Episode 59 / August 8, 2022

Episode 59: Ask the Experts: A Playbook To Nail Your Next IRL Event

Monique Ruff-Bell, Tania Capaz, and Paul McAvinchey join Kyana Shamloo to look back at the past six months of in-person events and explore what the future holds.

Episode 59 event experience podcast

Monique Ruff-Bell, Tania Capaz, and Paul McAvinchey join Kyana Shamloo to look back at the past six months of in-person events and explore what the future holds.

Shownotes: Season 3, Episode 9: Monique Ruff-Bell, Tania Capaz, Paul McAvinchey

In this episode, events industry experts discuss the next wave of in-person events, which has sparked both excitement and chaos. Together, we’ll learn from those who have executed an in-person event in the past six months and have plenty of insights to share.

  • Kyana Shamloo is a highly collaborative product marketer with a background working for both B2B and B2C companies and a passion for people and events. She is a Product Marketing Manager at Bizzabo.
  • Monique Ruff-Bell has more than 20 years of experience within brand leadership, marketing, and events. As Head of Conferences for TED, she leads a dynamic team in the managing, planning, and execution of TED’s flagship global conferences, TED Member events and virtual events.
  • Tania Capaz has a diverse professional background where she has combined her enthusiasm and experience with creative programming, engagement, and youth education to deliver on several organization-wide initiatives. Currently, Tania serves as the first woman Executive Director of Somos Inc.
  • Paul McAvinchey has been building and collaborating on digital products — for more than 20 years — with fast-growing startups and global brands, including AOL and WMS Gaming. Currently, he’s a cofounder of Product Collective, a worldwide community of product people. 

This conversation was just one of many we held as part of Bizzabo’s Event Experience Summit, our flagship event where we bring together the world’s most innovative event professionals to share their secrets and strategies. 

Here’s what you’ll hear about in this conversation:

  • How attendee expectations have changed
  • How to anticipate and prevent problems before they happen
  • What the future looks like for event innovation and planning
  • What the experts think the future of in-person looks like

Mentioned in This Episode


Chaviva Gordon-Bennett: [00:00:00] Welcome to Event Experience by Bizzabo. 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. I’m Chaviva Gordon-Bennett, senior editorial content manager here at Bizzabo. This week, we are speaking with the industry’s top experts about the next wave of in-person events.

Monique Ruff-Bell is the head of conferences at TED. Tania Capaz is the first woman executive director of Somos, Inc., and Paul McAvinchey is the cofounder of Product Collective. They’re joined by Kyana Shamloo, product marketing manager here at Bizzabo. 

Monique, Tonya, and Paul have all hosted in-person events in the past six months. And they’ll be sharing their insights and experiences with us today. 

In this episode, they’ll explain how attendees in person expectations have changed, and what [00:01:00] you can do to prevent problems before they arise. And what the future of event planning and innovation looks like this conversation was based on a session from Bizzabo’s Event Experience Summit. Our flagship event brings leading event professionals together for panels, round tables, and master classes to help you level up your event expertise. If you want to explore our most recent Event Experience Summit, check out the link in the show notes to watch the sessions on demand. And now onto our conversation with Monique, Tania, Paul, and Kyana. 

Kyana Shamloo: Hello, everyone and welcome to the next session in this event. So if you are here, you are excited for ask the experts, a playbook to nail your next IRL event. And for anyone who doesn’t know IRL is in real life. And so, my name is Kyana Shamloo, and I am a product [00:02:00] marketing manager here at Bizzabo. And I have the honor of being joined by some really fantastic people who are gonna be sharing fantastic insights with you today.

So now let’s go ahead and meet these fantastic people that we have for you today. And just so you know, anyone who is visually impaired, we’re gonna pause for a few seconds to describe our surroundings. And so know that Kyana here I am in a blue shirt with some fun pastel earrings in a generally white background.

And so then as our speakers begin sharing insights today, they’ll also do the. And so with that, our first speaker is Monique Ruff-Bell, who is the head of conferences for Ted, where she leads a dynamic team in the managing planning and execution of Ted’s flagship global conferences, Ted’s member events, and virtual events.

And prior to this exciting role at Ted, she was a vice president for Money 2020 USA. And so her role encompasses setting the show’s vision and strategy with the global president. [00:03:00] Planning the execution, the PNL management and sales and marketing support and performance. So a super impressive resume there for Monique.

And then Tania serves as the executive director of Somos, Inc. A not-for-profit that works in collaboration with the New York state assembly Senate, Puerto Rican, and the Hispanic task force to host two annual conferences in Albany, New York, and Puerto Rico. And to ensure the upward mobility of Latino youth through educational empowerment, mentorship, and scholarships. And then finally we have Paul, who is a cofounder of Product Collective, a worldwide community of product people who meet annually at Industry, which is the product conference. In recent years he led business development at DXY, a leading product design firm in the Midwest.

And product innovation at MedCity Media, which is a publishing startup acquired by Breaking Media in 2015. So all that to say, we made a huge [00:04:00] effort to make sure we have a diverse group of people here today from small companies to large, different types of backgrounds, but something that they all have in common is that they have hosted in-person events since COVID.

So with that, let’s go ahead and get started with talking to these amazing folks. Hello, everyone. So happy you’re here. So the first question that we have would love for all of you to weigh in. So again give us your name and a brief description of your background for anyone who might be visually impaired.

And so first question that we have on deck for you now that you’ve all hosted in person events, how have audience expectations changed since 2019?

Monique Ruff-Bell: Who should take it first? Should I take it first? 

Kyana Shamloo: Go for it, Monique. 

Monique Ruff-Bell: Okay, great. So, I am wearing a black shirt, a brown jacket, and a very colorful background full of art. So that’s the best way I can kind of describe myself, [00:05:00] but I was lucky enough to host two in-person events. One that took place in October of 2021, which was about 8,000 plus people for Money 2020.

And then when I moved over to Ted our flagship conference, which took place in Vancouver, in April for close to about 2000 attendees. I have to say, these people are so excited to be out and about again, they’re like I left those kids, I’m doing everything. Like they wanna do all the parties. They wanna, they’re not dropping off on the sessions.

They are sticking around and really just a high level of engagement. And so, you know, knowing that people are excited to be there. You have to make it worth their while. And so we made sure that there was some type of recharge or experiential or interactive experience throughout the entire show entertainment, making sure that they had the opportunity to connect as [00:06:00] often as possible.

But with that high level of engagement, there was a high level of exhaust. Like these people were not used to talking to so many people in such a long time. Hanging out late or anything like that. So coming back the next day, if you did a multi-day event, you definitely had to give more time, more grace and more leeway.

And to people having the opportunity to recharge again for people to have having the opportunity to sit, we put a lot more seating than we did in previous years. So we really knew that people were highly excited, but they could get highly tired, quite fast. And so we really kept that in mind when we’re doing that.

And then just health and safety, like we made sure we still had testing that was happening. You can grab a mask that was available for them for free. We had social distancing spaces. So people who were just, they were done with being around a lot of people, they were quiet zones that can happen [00:07:00] for them.

So we were really just making sure we were doing as much as we could for the attendees to really enjoy. And feel well taken care of when it came to the experience. 

Paul McAvinchey: I can jump in now, if you want 

Kyana Shamloo: Yes, please. Paul, go for it. 

Paul McAvinchey: I’m surrounded by, well, the background is not a fake book library.

It is real one and I got a circular mirror that we found somewhere in a, an antique store once upon a time. And here I am wearing something very, just black and plain, but I’m very pleased to meet you. You heard a little bit about my background, I guess I’m probably the representative of a small organization.

We are one of the biggest conferences for product management managers in the world. And we have an event in Cleveland and in Ireland, and New York every year. But we as a more small organization, which is three full-time employees, there have [00:08:00] been unique I think things that we need to have had done in order to have survived this pandemic.

So it’s been a really interesting experience. But on the audience expectations of the conference, I think,first of all, the event that we organized most recently was in New York. That was the New York product conference in March. And we had over 300 people attend, which was about. 80% of the capacity of the venue.

And about the same as attended before the pandemic. So audience numbers were surprisingly high. Now we were expecting the audience to have very particular needs and wants and expectations in regards to covid safety practices. So we made a lot of effort to have hand sanitizers everywhere.

We were mandated by law to have masks in the venue. We made a special effort to have the food [00:09:00] served in a manner that would be kind of not icky. More of kind of a healthy presentation. So there were our expectations, but once we got there and we started talking to people. It kind of flew out the window.

People were less concerned about their safety I hasten to say than that we expected. And so people came, they were wearing the masks. They were allowed to take them off when they were networking and eating. And that seemed to have come as some relief to them. And after the event we had this off venue party, which most of the people turned up to. And at in that location, there was no mandate. Everybody had their masks off for better, for worse. You know, that’s it’s your own opinion, whether you think that’s a good idea or bad idea, but everybody was out. They were drinking. They were having a great time and it felt like we had got over a hump.

Which is a little scary now, because we see things [00:10:00] kind of bubbling forward and getting a little bit worse. And so we have to look, I know we’re gonna talk about the future later on in this conversation, but in general, my expectations were that people would be more cautious than they actually were.

Kyana Shamloo: Awesome. Tania, what about you? 

Tania Capaz: Hi everyone. I’m excited to be here. My background is not quite as exciting as everyone else is kind of blurred, but it’s just a brick wall. I’m wearing black shirt. My hair is out usually curls. But I will have to agree, people were excited. Before COVID, we had our Albany conference set out and literally right before the shutdown in New York, honestly I think it was like a day or two.

That’s when it happened. So we ended up having to cancel. So having our Puerto Rico conference in all in November that just passed was actually [00:11:00] very exciting because everyone that was planning to come to Albany was excited to just show up to Puerto Rico. Just to say everyone was excited.

We did have our standard protocols. We made sure everyone was tested, just so that everyone did feel safe and followed whatever guidelines were for the site. But once everyone realized one of the things that we did make sure was everyone had to be tested. And also, I think what we did was a vaccination requirement for anything that was on the host hotel property.

In order to make sure that we had maximized, we were able to use the space to full capacity, but outside for that, once everyone realized and they were in and it was kind of up to them, people kind of put their guard down as the days went by. And the same thing, we usually do a big farewell event at the last day.

And I have to say that we actually sold out for the first time in history. And I couldn’t keep [00:12:00] up with what we anticipated. We picked a smaller hotel. We did all of these things, thinking that and moving on the basis of fear and just to be cautious. But in reality, everyone was just excited to be back and quite honestly have started talking about, we can’t wait for the next one.

So it’s really just building off of the momentum, but making sure that we do provide that space, the safety that people and give them that option. If you choose to put your mask down, that’s on you, but just making sure that we have those spaces for, or like quiet spaces and such even meeting spaces because we’re having the conference, but people are still, they’re still in the middle of work. So they may have to have little meetings or breakouts with their teams back, wherever they come from. Generally, most people are from our New York base, even when they go to Puerto Rico. So just making sure that we are also mindful of that. 

Kyana Shamloo: [00:13:00] Absolutely.

I love that you were talking about the fear and the caution, but also I’m sure it wasn’t, it was everything that you described, but also, I mean, you have budgets, and it’s better to sometimes be more conservative, especially with all the unknowns that you had to manage. So absolutely.

I know in the chat, it sounds like Bridget loved the quiet zone idea and Karen said, amen to exhaustion. So even as an extrovert, I feel that too. So thank you so much. I love that was a great way to start it. So with that, we just talked about audience expectations and some of the changes that you made, Monique, can you talk us through how the attendee experience during these in-person events in late 20, 21, early this year, how they’re different from the same events that you may have hosted in 2019? 

Monique Ruff-Bell: Absolutely. We brought in a consulting agency to do some research on the market and what was happening with [00:14:00] people going back to in-person events, going back to travel.

And some of the stuff that we got back was really eye-opening. People are not going to be traveling as much as they used to when it comes to work. So they’re not gonna be road warriors in the same way. So if they went to 7, 8, 9, 10 events in the past, they’re only gonna go to three. You wanna be one of those three, what are you going to do to make sure that it’s unique?

It’s impactful, it’s entertaining, it’s educational and it’s a connector. And so we had to make sure that our event checked all of those four boxes. And that means we had to scrap everything that worked for us. In the past few years, when it came to what I was doing at Money 2020, we threw out the grid format for our floor plan.

We decided we were bringing in all new stage designs. We knew that we couldn’t get to the 11,000 that we used to because people still had COVID [00:15:00] hesitancy. But if you were gonna take the time and the opportunity to come out to our show, you were gonna have a phenomenal experience. And you were gonna see different things, even if you’ve been coming for 10 years and you were gonna do different things.

And so we, like I said, on our trade show floor, no more grids. We created like a circle discovery trade show floor. So it’s “follow yellow brick road” and see what you happen to bump into, which was hugely successful because even people did say, oh, I got lost, but I discovered something so unique just from walking this.

We made sure that we had a lot of things that connected people in a very serendipitous way. So going into certain activations where you would find a partner, you would connect with someone. It wasn’t just about an individual experience. Making sure that our food and beverage aspect was really important because people still had COVID hesitancy. [00:16:00] So we didn’t let anybody serve themselves because we knew people were like, if people are hovering or touching, I don’t want to eat that. So we had a lot of to go items where it was already packaged. Or we pay the extra cost for all of our food to be served because we wanted people to feel comfortable that we were being very thoughtful about how they were gonna interact with the food.

We also did a concert experience for them, so we cleared out part of our floor and had Journey come and perform for about 3000 plus people, and they rocked it and it was crazy. And it was something, we’ve never done in the past. We usually do entertainment, celebrity experiences in small clubs, but we were like, people might not wanna go all of these different places.

Let’s just make sure that we can bring in something really unique there. And then at Ted, it really was exceptional about connections. And how do you make [00:17:00] sure that you’re putting not only these crazy VR, recharge, race car driving, these dinners, these offsite activities, but how are you making sure the thread of connection is a part of all of that?

How are you gonna bump into someone you never would’ve bumped into? How can, how could you have a great conversation that you never knew was gonna happen? And so we made sure that we infuse a lot of surprise and delight, a lot of exploration, a lot of participation, and just really had a blast putting this together. And it worked.

Kyana Shamloo: That’s amazing. I love the circular idea. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced that and I feel like it would be a joy to experience. That’s awesome. 

Paul McAvinchey: I will say that our approach has always been to create the most engaging event we can possibly create. Our Cleveland event about 1200 people attended in 2019. So that’s the [00:18:00] size of the event. And we’re always intent on creating experience in which you will serendipitously meet people. You never thought you were gonna meet and you’re gonna be engaged from the very beginning with fantastic speakers and other networking and other experiences.

I will say that there isn’t a lot more that we’re preparing for in terms of experience. Thanks to this COVID stuff, other than the fact that we’re gonna separate the chairs. More like we, one of the big pieces of feedback we get every year is that everybody’s kind of bunched up, which is okay when there’s no COVID, but when COVID is around we need to take care of that. So, spreading the chairs out a bit more than usual, and then we have these balconies in the venue that we have, and that we’ll be utilizing that those more than we were before. So yeah, so it’s business as usual, as long as you’re doing a good job from the very [00:19:00] beginning, I have heard of some events doing things like having wristbands with, green, yellow, and red identifying how close or how comfortable you are being around people. What I’ve heard is that everybody picks up the green or maybe some of the yellows, there’s one guy who picks up the red one and he kind sticks out like a sore thumb.

So I’m not quite sure if initiatives like that are a good idea. We’re kind of just business as usual. Just trying to put on the best show we can possibly can. 

Kyana Shamloo: Thank you for adding that in. I think what I heard from what you’re sharing from what you both shared in that is that it’s watching, it’s listening, it’s taking feedback, it’s adjusting. And what worked maybe six months ago, maybe the same thing won’t work six months from now and it’s continuing to see what the appetite is and what the reactions [00:20:00] are. So I love that. Tania, I’ve heard you are a mighty team of one, and there is so much that you manage.

And so very excited for you to shed some fantastic insights with us. So question for you, can you please talk to us about the unique activities that you incorporate into your in-person events, especially because there’s so cause-based and there’s just so much there. So please shed some wisdom on us please.

Tania Capaz: So the purpose essentially of the Somos conference is really to connect with others. From all different fields, whether it’s your government related community base, you run a corporation, there’s a whole mix that comes to Somos. But the main focus is to connect with one another. We do have a lot of elected officials that come out, so we wanna make sure that whatever we plan is conducive for everyone.

So [00:21:00] outside of our workshops we always do a workshop day. It used to be our conference runs the course of four days. It used to be every day was filled with just different types of workshops because people were saying, oh, I need to be able to go to different things. We ended up a few years ago adding a day of service because what we realize is even though Puerto Rico is a draw.

It’s Puerto Rico. So people instead of attending some of the events would as years went by, would go off to the beach, which it’s beautiful. Of course, why wouldn’t you? So what we started to incorporate was being more mindful with the local economy and the businesses. So we do day of services. So we will do whether we know we have a lot of educators, maybe we take after hurricane Maria, there was a lot of schools that shut down.

We’ll pick a school or a community site. We’ll have maybe that there’s a lot of labor unions [00:22:00] that are coming this year. So we’ll do a full site where it’s actually labor intensive and they’ll wake up that morning at seven o’clock and be boots to the floor on the ground doing labor intensive work.

There may be folks that wanna be more culturally based or they just wanna see the sights. So we will send out excursion trips. Some of them are a little bit smaller based upon where we can do them. We used to do them on the other side of the island, but transportation wise, it can be a little difficult to getting back to our evening events.

So we try to keep them centrally located to the host hotel but instead of just, okay, you’re going out, maybe you’ll have a rum tasting or you’ll learn about cigars, but in that you’re also taking a tour of the farmer’s distillery. You’re also learning about the people that work it. Maybe there’s a more hands on approach.

Maybe we’ll have a [00:23:00] workshop where it’ll teach you and you’ll maybe you’ll take something home. We do tours where not only are you just calmly doing a tour, but at the end of the tour, you may actually go in and paint a room, be part of a mural. What we hope people take from each of these day of services that the organizations will continue to work with some of the people that are in Puerto Rico. Because what we want is to build that lasting connection. It’s basically mixing in business with leisure, but also some philanthropic points. So we try to do that and just give a little piece to everyone. People have actually, they’ll bring their kids.

And for some people, the Somos conference has been a tradition. So if you’ve been attending for 20 plus years, Every year, you may recall. Oh, I did this site. Maybe you go back to your family, you’ll continue to go [00:24:00] there. So we just try to be mindful every piece of it. When you come in, maybe your gift bag has a chocolate in there.

Well, the chocolate comes from the factory or farm that you may travel to. At some point during that conference, your gift bag was probably printed from somebody in Puerto Rico. So what we try to do with it is being very mindful of also giving back to the local economy while we are there. Even though we can source some of these items elsewhere, we try to give back as much as we can.

So that way there’s always a connection and people look forward to what are we gonna do next year? So this year we’re actually going to be adding more sites because as I said, our sites will pack up. People have other options. If you don’t get onto a site, maybe you go to the beach or you go and venture off to one of the other suggested locations that are on the list that are nearby.

So that’s kind of how we try to [00:25:00] blend a little business, a little leisure time on your vacation, kind of, but also giving back to the local community. 

Kyana Shamloo: I love that. I love that. Because oftentimes we talk about the community within your event, but then your event is within the broader community of wherever it’s being hosted.

So I love that, that you put such, such a focus on that. That’s so beautiful. Fantastic. Paul, next question for you. And then we will open it up to open Q and A. So please pop that into the ask the speaker chat. If anything comes to mind, Paul, what advice would you have for planners working on in person and hybrid events for the second half of 2020?

Paul McAvinchey: I’m glad you asked because this is some point that I definitely wanted to touch up on. In March of 2020 we possibly had the very last conference to be held in Ireland. It was meant to be for about five or 600 people. And we had about half of those turn up the very day after our [00:26:00] event.

All events were banned in the country. And actually two days afterwards, they banned travel back into the U.S. So thankfully we got back into the country, but I do recall getting on the plane and thinking about our event that was coming up, our flagship event that was coming up in September that we were expecting about 1,200 people for. Now we had already sold hundreds of tickets for this event. And we sat there thinking, okay, this is a huge liability we have. And we’re, as I said before, we’re fairly small operation with three full-time employees. So having sold that number of tickets. Is quite a liability to have that cash in hand.

Especially when it’s being pushed back into other business operations that you might be running. So I will say for an event that’s coming up in the fall although we may not need to be that careful. In that we might expect no event to happen. You will have to prepare [00:27:00] yourself for all eventualities.

Our event is in the middle of September and there’s every chance that we might just fill it up. Like we normally do. We might have over a thousand people. But then again, we might have 60 to 70% of the people who are gonna come and that’s probably the most likely circumstance that we’re preparing for, but there’s also the chance that nothing will happen. You know, touch wood that, that we wouldn’t come to that. But what my point is that your business operations and your PNL should be representative of the danger there and the liabilities that you have for an event that either we’ll go ahead in a smaller manner or may not go ahead at all.

Kyana Shamloo: Fantastic. Thank you. I know we have a few minutes left and so that leads us into a great kind of final, maybe two part question or feel free to answer one part if it intrigues you more than the other. [00:28:00] Did you have a hybrid strategy for an event that you recently planned? Or do you have one for an event that’s coming up and then on the other side of that, if you prefer to take on the idea of contingency planning, obviously I know you just touched on a lot of that.

Just now any of the three of you kind of let’s talk through that in the last few minutes of this discussion.

Monique Ruff-Bell: Ted brings together a lot of well known people and speakers to our stages and the world is a little bit different now. And so we had a huge protest that happened outside of our event. Because we had Bill Gates as a speaker.

And so we had antivax protests happening that we would’ve never had to [00:29:00] experience before because of that. And so we had security planning, but we had to add on more layers of that and the venue being flexible and having contact with not just our private security, but with the local police force, because we did have to put barriers up with bodies, the police officers being the bodies, the barriers at one point to keep the protestors from coming close into the venue. Now, let me tell you about my attendees. They didn’t care. They were just walking through the protestors getting in the door and getting into Ted and just looking back and going about their business.

But we also made sure that we emailed them and sent texts through our app to say there is an anti-vax protest. We communicated often with them about it. Here are some other ways for you to get into the building and other entrances or whatever. I had someone run out, take pictures [00:30:00] so that we can post the pictures in the emails that we were sending them to say, go left, go right, do this, do that.

In this new world where you might be bringing some figures who may not have been as controversial in the past, who are now controversial to people, you do have to think about security. And safety for attendees. And we didn’t think it was going to be like that, but it was about a good thousand people that kind of showed up for that and that we had to, and it was only one day the day that he was speaking, but it was a big deal and thank God we had contingency planning from a security perspective to be able to handle that.

Kyana Shamloo: Wow. I mean, props to your team for handling that on the fly. That’s amazing. Unfortunately, I mean, this time flew by for me, I think it did for all of us. So I wanted to say thank you so much for your time today. All three of you, this was fantastic.

And hopefully the audience found it super valuable. Thank you so much for your time today. [00:31:00] Thank you. Thank you very much. 

Tania Capaz: And thank you. 

Monique Ruff-Bell: Appreciate it.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett: What a fascinating and inspiring conversation. Thanks again to Monique, Tania, Paul, and Kyana for joining us on Event Experience today. And thank you for listening. If you’re enjoying the show, we would really love to hear it. Connect with us on social media and subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you’re listening right now.

And don’t forget to share the show with your colleagues and friends. We would really appreciate. As always you can find transcripts of each episode. Plus key takeaways on Bizzabo.com/podcasts. On behalf of the entire team, thank you. We’ll be back soon with a new episode of Event Experience.

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