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Episode 63 / July 10, 2023

Episode 63: Organizing a personalized, inaugural marquee event for Airtable

In this episode, Gianna Gaudini discusses how she set event goals for diverse audiences and organized the inaugural Airtable Leaders Forum.

In this episode, you’ll learn how Airtable Head of Events Gianna Gaudini set meaningful event goals to plan and executed the brand’s inaugural marquee event, the Airtable Leaders Forum (ALF).

The team at Airtable designed ALF to accomplish multiple goals for different audiences, including driving pipeline, announcing a new category, and showcasing thought leadership from the CEO. Gaudini shares the ins and outs of the event planning process and setting goals for ALF, including the strategic decision-making involved in focusing on specific goals, targeting the right audience, and maximizing the event’s impact. 

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

  • How to create reasonable goals and leverage event data to make incremental improvements
  • How to prioritize your event goals and stick to what truly matters
  • The significance of post-event feedback, analysis, debrief sessions, NPS scores, press coverage, pipeline goals, and more

Mentioned in this episode

Transcript

[00:00:00] Rachel Moore: 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 Rachel Moore, your podcast host. This week we’re talking with Gianna Gaudini, head of events at Airtable.

In this conversation, Gianna shares about Airtable’s inaugural in-person event, the Airtable Leaders Forum. Event professionals are asked to achieve nearly impossible results. So innovation and creativity often win the day. Already feeling like Gianna is a kindred spirit? Stick around because there’s a lot to learn for your next big, “this better work!” event.

My guest today on the Event Experience Podcast by Bizzabo, she has done a lot. She has written a lot. She is a course creator. She is an author, and she is currently the head of events at Airtable, formerly also head of events at AWS and SoftBank Vision Fund, Google Marketing event leader, author of the Art of Event Planning, which fortunately we’re doing this podcast, we’re gonna get a little bit of that.

She’s created a course called The Million Dollar Event Career. Who doesn’t want that? If you’re in event planning and a speaker and advisor, and she’s about to speak with us on this podcast. Gianna Gaudini welcome to the Event Experience by Bizzabo. 

[00:01:42] Gianna Gaudini: Thanks, Rachel. So excited to be here. 

[00:01:45] Rachel Moore: It’s lovely to talk to you and Airtable, I’m trying to think if there’s any person in marketing out there who isn’t familiar with that brand.

[00:01:55] Gianna Gaudini: Oh, I love you for saying that. Our whole marketing team loves you. It’s a really fun brand to represent because literally everyone I know who’s used Airtable, they gush, they love Airtable, so it’s super fun as a marketer to be able to bring an in-person experience of such a well loved brand to life. 

[00:02:13] Rachel Moore: Before we dive into the specific event experience we’re gonna talk to you about today, can you explain a little bit your role as head of events at Airtable? What does that entail? 

[00:02:22] Gianna Gaudini: So, it’s funny because, just to give a little bit of context, you know, I spent the bulk of my career, almost nine years, at Google and it was an incredible place. To learn to grow and an amazing brand, you know, did some pretty epic things. And I remember saying to myself, while on maternity leave, the only opportunity I would leave Google for is the opportunity to go build a really incredible event team from the ground up for an organization and really build out the event, brand playbook, the team, and the portfolio from scratch. That’s kind of what led me to SoftBank Vision Fund, but a very similar opportunity presented itself to me with Airtable, the opportunity to join a two year old marketing team.

So just a very exciting time to join the company as head of events reporting to our CMO, and really build out what an events function looks for at a company that has never done an event before. Especially coming outta COVID when yeah, you know, nobody was doing events, let alone a company that had never done events.

So that’s kind of where I found myself. 

[00:03:27] Rachel Moore: That does sound super exciting. I know having been able to meet you in person, you’ve got the energy for it and the passion and that seems to have translated into the event we’re gonna focus on today. So, of all the experiences and activations that you’ve supported, built, designed with, you know, yourself and with teams, we’re gonna zero in on just one today.

Please tell us about the event that you’re gonna describe to us today, as if we’re meeting it for the first time. What are we talking about here? 

What is the Airtable Leaders Forum?

[00:03:57] Gianna Gaudini: Okay, so we are going to cover Airtable Leaders Forum, known internally as ALF. It’s a really fun acronym, but we developed ALF as our first ever marquee event experience for the company.

And what it’s really designed to do is create and mature our enterprise pipeline while also connecting our customer community with each other as well as with our internal leaders and AEs (account executives). And it’s also a really incredible ecosystem event that provides brand opportunities. So what I like to call, we make brand deposits with key influencers like press and analysts.

We educate our partners, bring in that partner ecosystem. And it’s also a great opportunity to provide thought leadership via our keynotes, via some incredible third party speakers, even some really incredible customer speakers. So, you know, this is definitely not by any means the biggest, the most complex, the splashiest event I’ve ever planned.

But I think it was one of the most unique that I’ve ever had a chance to plan because I’ve planned first ever events in a series before. Never the first event for a company. And I think to make it even more complex, we wanted this event to accomplish so much at the same time for so many audiences.

There was a huge brand campaign happening at the company. There was also this big category initiative where we were defining and getting ready to announce a new category. We had defined Airtable as you know, not just a low-code platform, not just a project management platform, but the connected apps platform. And we were announcing that and we wanted this lightning strike moment, you know, that was initially gonna be a big user conference, and then the more that I met with cross-functional teams, we realized we don’t have enough resources to make this into a giant user conference at this stage.

And just to invite and get critical mass as a startup, as an inaugural event is a huge undertaking and we needed to prove that out before we took a huge swing just to be, you know, financially responsible and make sure that we were delivering at least on par with ROI and being ROI neutral for this first ever event.

Because it’s a huge, these events are huge investments. We did go through many evolutions and kind of landed on this Airtable Leaders Forum, which was going to drive pipeline for us by inviting our leaders from our top enterprise clients. And Airtable does, you know, we do have 80% of the Fortune 500 clients, so we had some pretty incredible customers onsite, so, that wanna meet with each other and hear how their peers are using Airtable to solve solutions, solve pain points, and create solutions at their companies.

About 80% of our goals were pipe gen-related, but then it was also the first time that we had ever had our CEO Howie on stage giving a keynote. And when you think about it, we had never done an event like this that was fully produced, so we got so many incredible assets. So we ended up using a lot of the video and the photography across our Airtable website, for instance.

We leveraged a lot of the videos. Throughout our campaigns for the year, our customer marketing team was able to come on site and do like close to 10 customer interviews that they were then able to leverage. Yeah, so we just really were strategic in how we were going to use this event to accomplish a lot of goals across the company.

[00:07:32] Rachel Moore: I think having the presence of mind and the thoughtfulness as you just described to say, “Hey. Maybe we need to get more targeted or focused with this,” rather than just force everything through, put all of our resources and maybe overstrapped, overwhelmed resources to work, to just forcefully make something happen here.

I really hope people are listening. 

[00:07:57] Gianna Gaudini: Totally. And you know, I liken it to building a muscle. You know, if you had never exercised before and you decided, hey, I want to run a marathon. Would you start out by running 26 miles the first time you went out the door? No. You would get injured and you would never wanna run again, and you would probably not be successful.

It was also the very first time the whole company had worked together in this massive cross-functional way. Even just aligning the team and creating a rapid for the first time, which a rapid is like a RACI for those of you who are familiar with a RACI, just really establishing clear roles and responsibilities within the company for who delivers what, even like within each work stream.

There’s just so much finessing having done this twice now. The second time was, you know, massively better than the first time. I usually say the second time, there’s so much incremental growth because you have data. Going into an event for the first time, you have zero data and so you’re putting a stake in the ground, taking your best guess at what’s gonna stick.

But I love the saying there’s no bad data because data is data and you can use that to inform whatever you do next. Right? I have a lot of these little sayings, nail it and then scale it. 

[00:09:10] Rachel Moore: That can really explain the whole concept of something and also, you know, guide them into making some better decisions or just remembering not to let scope creep happen, which can, you know, you’re just like, Ooh, let’s go.

What if we did this? Why don’t we do this? 

How to set event objectives and plan a successful event

[00:09:24] Gianna Gaudini: Just to double click on that, because this is something that I emphasize in my course and my book is this proliferation of ideas. And I think in this world of like, you know, pin boards and everybody has an idea, all the stakeholders have their opinion. It is our job as strategic event marketers to stick to what our goals are and how things ladder back to the goals.

So I always tell people, pick your three top areas of focus. What do you want people to take away from the event? Think of three things and prioritize those. Then deprioritize the rest when it comes to budget, when it comes to resources. You know, because people really are not gonna remember more than that, unfortunately.

[00:10:07] Rachel Moore: That’s right. Well let’s get into the goals then, and if you could describe for us the goals for this event, what exactly you were striving for sales and revenue goals, what were you aiming for with this event? 

[00:10:20] Gianna Gaudini: Sure. So initially it was more of a brand building event. You know, as part of this lightning strike, we wanted to scale this lightning strike launch moment of our new category and get a lot of press generated.

Now as we started planning shortly after I joined Airtable, you know, we went into this big macroeconomic climate situation with the downturn, and everybody started to re-look and rethink their marketing budgets. Customers started tightening their travel budgets, and so we really had to rethink the goals.

So with that in mind, we took a more conservative approach and flipped it to be 80% pipe gen and 20% brand building. And so we did that by, you know, changing our audience from being primarily a hands-on keyboard champion audience to more of that decision maker, you know, senior director plus audience.

And so when you think about that, you change the size of the event, you change the format of the event, there’s less hands-on training and a little bit more thought leadership. You definitely change the altitude of all of the content to a more senior level. So it was really challenging for the first time, you know, to even get the audience that we wanted to the event.

So we then expanded and expanded to like, you know, our very senior level champions at companies. What we’ve found when we started to build this enterprise sales motion is that, you know, there’s buying committees. It’s not just one buyer. And so these senior directors and above always wanna vet the product with these champions who are actually in the product day after day and, and actually a lot of these champions have buying power at their companies.

Yeah, despite their titles, going back to the goals, you know, we had incremental pipeline goals and incremental ARR goals tied to our pipe gen. We weren’t sure if the goals we set were right. And then from the brand building perspective, you know, it’s harder to measure brand, but some of the ways that we measure it are NPS score.

So we build that into our survey along with other survey questions about the experience, about the content, about the relationships that were built. We also invite press and analysts to the events, so you know who actually shows up because we have a compelling enough agenda. And what kind of earned coverage we get from analysts and from the press, which we were able to attain.

One interesting finding we had was we initially thought, you know, if we did invite both audiences, the senior leaders would not want to attend because they would only want to be with other leaders, which I think could be true for C levels. But when you get down to like senior directors, what we found was a lot of the directors came back to us and asked if their champion team members could attend because they wanted to come with their team members. That actually run the product so that they could ask some questions and kind of attend and then debrief together. One thing I should call out is I love a great post mortem process, and what I do is I do like at, you know, a half hour to one hour debrief with each individual work stream, which takes a lot of time, but it gives us a lot of space to really hone in on each specific area.

And then I distill down the key takeaways, learnings, you know, what worked, areas of improvement, what definitely didn’t work, and put those into a deck along with all of our survey results mapped out in nice charts along with all of our pipeline goals, along with all the customer quotes, along with all the press and analyst data, along with links to all of our things like our hot leads and our reporting tools and our registrants, and like everything is in this one big comprehensive deck.

The deck that I built for our first event, I referenced throughout the year this year. 

[00:14:08] Rachel Moore: I know I’m just sitting here just pretty much applauding everything you just said, but it’s so important. We care about how our audience experienced it, and they’re going to tell us what resonated, what we should do more of, and thank you for being a data champion for my heart to yours.

Were there any special or unique aspects to this event that you’d like to call out innovations or particular elements that you used for engagement and things like that. So tell us what you did with ALF and what was kind of special about it. 

Get splashy! Event activations to stand out

[00:14:38] Gianna Gaudini: Yes. Onto the good stuff. So I’m a firm believer that, you know, you can do big splashy things.

It’s not necessarily the dollars that you have, but it’s, you know, how you engage and personalize and surprise and delight your attendees. And I like to approach everything from the customer perspective. And so, I always go through the customer journey with my team, with my agency, and just kind of walk through the whole experience from before the event.

But you can also just go as simple as having this thoughtfulness to what is going to alleviate some pain points. You know, what’s gonna make the biggest impact on them and be super effective. There’s gonna be a line at registration inevitably. What can we do to at least acknowledge that that’s annoying and like try to bring some delight.

And so I always have like passed espresso shots, passed juice shots, passed protein balls, you know, just a little something if people are wanting to get their coffee, hungry, like you’re kind of acknowledging that and providing that for them, ’cause you’ve thought about it. The first event we did was like, still in the middle of COVID, so we passed out water bottles and also had an engraving station on site so people could get their initials on so they wouldn’t have to worry about misplacing them, you know, not being sanitary, but it’s also kind of a fun way to personalize it. We had a selfcierge and like charging stations at all the tables, so it was like when you sat down to eat.

You didn’t have to like run away and charge your phone. You could just sit there and be present. We had wellness stations going around on dim sum carts for people because it was in the fall when like colds were happening. I actually got scrappy with my decor. You can be super, super scrappy and people think it’s the greatest thing.

Like I had this massive food and beverage minimum at my hotel because I negotiated no meeting rental in exchange for higher food and beverage. This is something I always ask for because at least then the attendee sees something for the money you’re paying. Shout out to the Intercontinental Hotel ’cause they let us do all kinds of fun things like order a micro kitchen with all these fun snacks, all these different wellness snacks, and use our food and beverage minimum for that. We did like, you know, towers of donuts and mini pies on tables, like just things that were visually colorful and playful. And people were so well fed, like everybody was posting about the great food and beverage, which I feel like is always, unfortunately what you see on the surveys when it comes to surprise and delight. 

I think when it comes to the content perspective, I was thinking about how we could provide a somewhat tailored experience to the various personas onsite. I was part of the leaders track led by the incredible Adrian Seger, the godfather of the Unconference, and so I was able to take some of the techniques that I learned, like the fishbowl, for example, and build some programming that was really kind of more on conference small group conversational style to meet the needs of customers on site who wanted to learn from other customers, prospects that wanted to learn from other customers that were, you know, in similar functions or industries as them, and learn from each other in small group settings. Simultaneously, we had other things going on, like product demos, like executive meetings, like breakouts with really incredible customers from Fortune 500 companies.

So kind of a create your own adventure In between our morning and afternoon keynotes. And then the other fun thing about this event was that we, for the very first time, got to create what does Airtable look like in person? You know, we had a digital brand that was beautiful and a lot of people love how the product actually looks.

So to bring that to life physically, was really, really cool. And we’ve got a world class brand team, so it was like even just landing on what style is our furniture. And fun fact, we landed on Japandi. You can Google that, it’s this great combination of kind of like Japanese and Danish. So it’s kind of a neutral palette with like a lot of the environment brought in. So it really creates this kind of sleek, clean, but really serene and warm environment. And it really lent itself well, I think to this intimate event. 

[00:18:57] Rachel Moore: This podcast is about event experience. What can our listeners learn from this specific event experience that, that you designed and created and came away from successfully.

But what could you tell them that they could learn from this? 

[00:19:12] Gianna Gaudini: I’m a firm believer in strategy, but I also believe that customers notice the small details and when they see an experience that’s well thought out, and when you think of Maslow’s hierarchy, when all their basic needs are met, and then you also go above and beyond, it signals to them that this is the way that they will be treated as your customer.

And so it really does, I think, you know, impact the business, right? We are all human and we have emotions and we, we do care about these things. And then I think another thing is bigger isn’t always better. You know, more is not always better focus on the attendees ROI and what they’re going to get out of it.

And remember, as much as your own ROI.

Stressed? Life hacks for event planners

[00:20:01] Rachel Moore: What are your secret stress hacks? 

[00:20:03] Gianna Gaudini: Oh, yes. Well, I was doing a speaking session the other day. For vet planners and it was funny, they were all asking me about how to manage stress, and I think it’s something that’s, it’s just inherent in our industry, events always rank at the top of, you know, the most stressful jobs.

There’s a million things to do. You have a timeline that’s ticking that can’t be moved once you walk the registration. There’s very senior people involved and it’s a very visible marketing program now that I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years. And I have a kid and I’ve been juggling all the things.

You know, I’m really trying to focus on because I do want this to continue to be my career forevermore. So I love Andrew Huberman podcast. For those of you who haven’t listened to it, I recommend it to everyone. I advise to colleagues to event planners. It’s an amazing podcast. Huberman is a professor at Stanford and he has all these really great speakers and hacks.

Biohacks, my new favorite trick. You will never believe this is ice baths. And I swear to God, I never thought I would take an ice bath in my life. I hate the cold. I hate cold water. Like there’s no way. But I, I tried it at a health spa last year. And I realized how incredible it makes you feel. And so then at home I started trying them just in my bathtub, like literally dumping ice in a bathtub.

And so on days when I really need to perform or be mentally clear or just need my immune system kicked on, or I’m tired from a bad night’s sleep, I take an ice bath like nine minutes. It’s incredible. It gives you this like, it teaches your body how to just remain really cool and focused under stress.

And then it really invigorates you without like any kind of caffeine jitters or anything. Ooh, so that’s my my new favorite stress hack. 

[00:21:56] Rachel Moore: Lastly, where can our listeners find and follow you online? 

[00:21:59] Gianna Gaudini: Gianna. I am super easy to find. You can find at giannagaudini.com, G A U D I N I. You can find my course at giannagaudini.com/course.

And I think we have a discount code too, if people want it. 

[00:22:14] Rachel Moore: Yeah, I think we get 15% off thanks to a Bizzabo 15 discount code at your checkout, at your website, which is super generous, and thank you for that.

Let’s skill up with Gianna. When we asked her what she’d like event planners to know as they level up their approach to gatherings, here’s what she had to say about the math that matters to all of us. 

[00:22:43] Gianna Gaudini: You know, one of the things is there’s no bad data. Like I said, we talked a lot about that, but sometimes you have to just make your best educated guess and put a stake in the ground.

And then you launch and iterate. 

[00:22:56] Rachel Moore: Thanks again to Gianna Gaudini of Airtable for joining us on Event Experience, and thank you for listening. You can find Gianna’s course at giannagaudini.com use the discount code Bizzabo15. That’s Bizzabo15 at checkout for 15% off. If you’re enjoying this show, we’d love to hear it.

Connect with us on social and subscribe. Rate and review us wherever you’re listening. Also don’t forget to share the show with your colleagues and friends. You can find transcripts of each episode and key takeaways on bizzabo.com/podcasts. On behalf of the team, thank you. We’ll gather again soon for a new episode of Event Experience.

Content for Social Media Quote Cards

“Going into an event for the first time, you have zero data. You’re taking your best guess at what will stick. But I love the saying ‘There’s no such thing as bad data,’ because data is data — you can use that to inform whatever you do next.” 

“It’s our job as strategic event marketers to stick to what our goals are and how things ladder back to the goals. What do you want people to take away from the event? Pick three areas of focus and prioritize them.”

“I’m a firm believer in strategy, but I also believe that customers notice the small details. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy. When attendees’ basic needs are met, then you go above and beyond. This signals to them that this is the way that they’ll be treated as your customer.”

Ready to manage better events?

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