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Episode 66 / August 7, 2023

Empowering Attendees by Delivering Transformative, Actionable Event Takeaways

PCMA’s Howard Givner discusses the importance of intentional event design, moving away from formulaic approaches, innovative learning formats, measuring event success, and more. 

In this episode, hear from Howard Givner, Senior Vice President of Knowledge and Innovation at PCMA (Professional Convention Management Association), as he shares insights on creating meaningful event experiences and discusses EduCon. You may also know Givner as the former founder and CEO of the Event Leadership Institute, which PCMA acquired.

The phrase ‘Because that’s how we’ve always done it’ never lasts very long when I’m in the room. I want to challenge it. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it the way you’ve been doing it, but I want to know why. I want to know, if we were to design this event from scratch today, would it look like that?
Howard Givner
SVP, Knowledge and Innovation

Tune in to this episode to learn more about empowering attendees with actionable takeaways to create truly transformative experiences. Plus, hear about how Givner created a unique tech lab series where attendees could delve deeper into emerging technologies.

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

  • The importance of intentional event design and how to move away from formulaic approaches
  • How moving beyond superficial product discovery helps organizers embrace more immersive learning formats
  • Key strategies for increasing event impact and ensuring a positive return on investment (ROI) 

Mentioned in This Episode


[00:00:10] 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 on Event Experience, we talk to a true educator in the events industry. Howard Givner is the Senior Vice President of Knowledge and Innovation at PCMA, and believe me when I say he earned the title. With over 30 years of executing events and educating event planners, this interview with Howard is the perfect primer for anyone who needs a reminder of our mission when we design experiences. Listen and learn on, right here on Event Experience.

[00:00:59] Rachel Moore: Today we are speaking with someone who has been in the events industry in leadership positions for many decades. Pretty much the whole spectrum of the events industry starting back in 1990. He has been in leadership roles for Paint the Town Red, Global Events Group, including some political campaigns as well, and Event Leadership Institute.

Most recently, he is the Senior Vice President of Knowledge and Innovation at PCMA, the Professional Convention Management Association. I am speaking with Howard Givner.

Howard, thank you so much for joining us on our podcast today.

[00:01:36] Howard Givner: My pleasure, Rachel. Thank you for the introduction. 

[00:01:38] Rachel Moore: Of course. Can you expand for us a little bit on what your current role is at PCMA as the SVP of Knowledge and Innovation?

We’d love to know more about that. 

[00:01:48] Howard Givner: So my background is I started and ran an event agency for a number of years. It was Paint the Town Red as you mentioned. I sold it about 15 years ago to the Global Events Group in Spain and stayed on for a couple of years. And then when I left I wanted to do something focusing on professional development and basically set about building the kind of training business that I would’ve wanted available for my staff back when I had the agency.

So that was the origin of the Event Leadership Institute. We focused on a number of different things. We have a subscription model that has access to a learning library of about 250 different learning videos. Those are all designed to be unbundled for microlearning.

So when we tackle a topic, we design from the beginning to be chaptered, so people can kind of pop in right away to whatever segment they need. 

We came out with a virtual event meeting management certificate program literally like three weeks into the pandemic. We did a lot of state of the industry webinars that really helped people understand where things were going.

Fast forward to this past January and PCMA, they’re bigger than what the name sounds like because they also own a business association called CEMA, Corporate Event Marketing Association.

And they have a number of other partnerships and initiatives. And PCMA is really positioning itself as the platform for the broader business events industry. So with that in mind I was looking for a bigger platform to do the things that I’m good at and to give ELI the next home for it where we can kind of take it to the next level.

And so, you know, we’re about six months into that acquisition right now.

It’s going really well. 

[00:03:29] Rachel Moore: It’s hard for any of us to forget it really. Those first few months of COVID where particularly industries, like the event industry where it’s pretty much upended now you’re just a hundred percent virtual.

I love that you really had the long term picture to give a good platform to that kind of effort. And yes, let us go ahead and dive into the event that we’re gonna focus on with you today. Tell us about is it EduCon? Is that what you called it? Tell us more. 

[00:03:56] Howard Givner: Yeah, it’s Educon I guess, short for an education conference, which, you know, really doesn’t do it justice.

So PCMA’s big flagship event is called Convening Leaders. That happens in January. The most recent one was in Columbus, the one coming up in San Diego, and there’s probably about three, 4,000 and change people there. It’s a very, very big event. EduCon by contrast is smaller. If you can call 900 plus people a small event.

And what we strove to do with that is use that smaller footprint. So it’s in a hotel, it’s not in a convention center, to build something akin to like a teaching hospital, which, you know, we’re explaining things as we’re doing them. We’re giving people an opportunity to try new things.

The expression we’ve used is “we take risks so you don’t have to.” So for a professional meeting planner, experiential marketer, event organizer, come to EduCon and you have an opportunity to not just learn about, you know, important topics, network with industry colleagues, but also test out a lot of different things that you may not want to deploy at your event right away before you’ve gotten a chance to see how they work.

And that was our mindset from the beginning. And we wanted to be also be very intentional about everything we did, because so often when you, when you go to these, not just event industry events, but annual conferences, conventions, et cetera, they tend to be very formulaic. And I think this is part of where so many people in our industry got caught flat footed when Covid hit.

Because they used to just take the playbook of last year’s event off the shelf, cross out the location, the dates, come with a new jazzy theme that nobody really paid attention to and run the same play. And that worked for year after year, after year, after year, until suddenly you had to think out of the box.

You know, venues were toxic, you couldn’t go in person. Covid was, you know, killing all that virtual was the only opportunity and a lot of people just didn’t know not only how to do virtual, but how to just do something different. How to think differently about, you know, we’re not just in the business of the typical stuff.

We bring people together to achieve business goals. Whether that goal is to motivate employees raise awareness for products, deepen relationship with customers, communicate to investors, whatever it is, it’s a goal. It’s a means to an end. And a lot of people just, we’re not in the practice of really thinking about that strategically.

They were just very focused on the logistics. And to be fair, events have a lot of logistics and all that stuff’s gotta get done right. But the importance was to take a step back and say, okay, what do we want to do? Who are we doing it for? And then how can we do this in a cost effective way? And then how do we measure know if we’re successful? 

So the approach for EduCon was to be very intentional about what we’re doing and not have anything done, quote, “because that’s how we’ve always done it.” You know, that phrase just never, never lasts very long when I’m in the room you know, I wanna challenge it. Doesn’t mean you can’t do it the way you’ve been doing it, but I wanna know why. I wanna know, if we were to design this event from scratch today, would it look like that? And if not, explain to me why we’re hanging onto an old event format. And maybe there’s reasons I don’t know. 

We did a number of things that were innovative that we tried to empower the attendees to test things out. One of them was we created a tech lab series. When you go to a lot of industry events, you typically have a tech booth area. 

And you have your brochures, you have a monitor that shows a demo of the product. You have, you know, 90 seconds to interact with a salesperson. You get like a cursory dive of the product and that’s fine. 

What we chose to do is instead we said, we’re not taking any money. We don’t wanna sell the space. We wanna dig in and we wanna identify a handful of emerging technologies that we felt meeting organizers needed to know about in a non-sales way that went deeper than a typical interaction at a trade show would. 

We took a whole floor and we took specific meeting rooms in that floor and we carved that out for dedicated sessions. So we built that into the schedule so instead of a two minute interaction on a trade show floor, we had 45 minute sessions and we had those throughout the three days of the program. I think we limited them to maybe 20 people. You sign up for a session, you demo the technology, and you have somebody from the company explain and talk about it.

And we’ve told all them, no hard sell, don’t be defensive. We’re gonna dig in, we’re gonna play with it, and then we’re gonna talk about when it works, when it doesn’t work, what should we be mindful of? What should we be worried about? 

One technology is facial analysis software by a company called Zenus and they have facial recognition technology, but they also have facial analysis technology, which measures sentiment in a room. And you can put scanners up and you can tell whether people are happy, sad, confused, excited, whatever it is.

Now, sometimes people think, I don’t want big brother scanning me. And that’s not what this is. We talked about that and some people said, how do you address concerns about X and Y? And the Zenus folks made a point of saying it’s important that you understand and can communicate this distinction.

This is not identifying people, that technology that’s separate, that exists, but what we’re talking about here is measuring sentiment anonymously. We empowered planners to go back to their bosses and their offices and be able to explain this exists. This is how it works. Here are some of places where we might use it. Here’s where we might not use it. If we use it, we just need to be really clear in the signage or whatever. We are not capturing identities here. So that’s one tech example. 

So compare that to a 90 second passing by with a distracted trade show floor. I’m not discounting that there’s a value and a need for that, but that’s different, low level superficial level product discovery. This is product deep dive. 

[00:09:43] Rachel Moore: Quick follow up on question on that, cause this kind of relates back to goals and measuring, how did you know you were effective?

What metrics were you trying to hit with this particular event and, you know, measuring the success of it? 

[00:09:54] Howard Givner: One of the things we wanted to do was empower people to think about how they could apply takeaways from the event. When they got back to their office. And a lot of times people, you go to these conferences, you get away for a couple of days. You go away to an industry conference, trade show, whatever.

And you’re there for a few days and the clouds part, and you see, you know the meaning of life, and you figure out how to transform your events or improve your business or, you know, nurture your team and all those great things. 

And then you get back to the office and the pile of work is waiting for you. The emails are, you know, you have to dig out from that. And suddenly all the innovative things just kind of like get put on the back burner and nothing happens. And so what we try to do is create a culture at this event which will get people thinking about how am I gonna use this when I leave?

And so at the beginning of every session, we had every speaker tell them we are gonna stop this presentation five minutes before the end. We’re gonna save a little piece of the content for the end, and then we’re gonna ask you to take out the event app and we’re gonna ask you to put in one takeaway that you got from this session that you think you can apply when you get back.

Then we reviewed all of those and we got, you know, hundreds of them and that was valuable. On the third day of the conference, at the general session before the keynote speaker, we had somebody on our team got up and shared a lot of those takeaways and picked eight or nine people from the audience and said, you know, is so and so here. This is what you wrote about this session. We ran over and gave them a mic, you know, tell us about this takeaway. How are you gonna apply this when you get back? And it just, it kept, you know, reiterating the process of don’t just get inspired. Go and use it. 

That mindset I think is something that a lot of conferences and event organizers miss when they promote an event. They say, oh, we had thousands of people and 50 speakers and this many sessions and all, and that’s great. But what if in addition to that, you said, here’s some quotes on how people’s businesses were transformed. As a result of this, here’s some deals that happened because of connections made at our event. And we, we were very, very clear about thinking in terms of actionable takeaways. 

And I’ll give you another example. We talked about intentionality. So there’s data that came out recently that shows that attendees are less inclined to want celebrity keynote speakers and they much, much, much more want to hear from an industry expert or get tips on how to think more creatively and innovatively about their job.

So for the second day keynote, we gave them seven insights from data, from a very, very deep survey that a guy named Ken Holsinger, who’s the SVP of strategy at Freeman. He and I presented it together, so it was a lot of their data. There were like 60, 70 slides all packed with charts and graphs, so we picked seven and for each one when we introduced it, there was an upper third on the screen. So I said, let’s use that. And then when we talk about each insight, we’re gonna put it up on the screen in a simple phrase like, number one, your audience is getting younger and fast. And we show data at the average age of attendees at events went from 51 years old to 46 years old or something like that, which is a dramatic drop in three years. 

And then we talked about, okay, how would we apply this? What do we do with this information? So for each takeaway, we had four minutes, and I had a countdown timer on the top and I couldn’t see the countdown time. So I said to the audience, we’re giving ourselves four minutes per insight to keep it tight. I can’t see the counter. Ken can’t see the counter. So when it gets to one minute left, I want you to yell out one minute.

And then if we keep going at 10 seconds, do the countdown because, this is your opportunity to get your revenge on all the speakers who rambled on too long. But if we finish ahead of time, I want you to give us a little bit of an applause. 

And we’re still looking at the data on the surveys and the scores. They’re off the charts from what we’re seeing so far. And the feedback has been phenomenal. Like the net promoter score for that keynote session that I just described was 94. And for people who don’t know, that’s from a negative a hundred to a positive a hundred. That’s a really, really, really high score. 

The first day keynote, instead of getting a random person who speaks at all these events, we hired Priya Parker, who wrote a book called The Art of Gathering. She’s a trained facilitator. And she talks about a lot of missed opportunities for organizers. So she was sort of famous, but famous within our world, and we figured out how to apply it to that world, to that space.

There are a couple of things that are important values to PCMA and the broader community: diversity, equity, inclusion, of which accessibility is a big part.

We had what’s we called an accessibility immersion experience. We brought up a woman who uses a wheelchair, who consults on making events and event spaces more accessible. And we rented a handful of wheelchairs from a local provider made sure that they had, you know, more than enough for their regular needs so that we didn’t take one from somebody who might need one. And we invited, I think eight people to participate in a 90 minute immersion. And so they they used the wheelchairs and they were guided to different parts of the event environment.

The goal is not a pity exercise or anything like that. We were very laser focused on making this actionable. And so at different junctures at the registration desk, we looked at the counter height. When we went into the ballroom, we looked at the width of the doors and we looked at, okay, what is it when you’re pulling a wheelchair up to a table? How does that work with the legs of the table? Carpeting, you know, it, it’s a lot of work. Pushing a wheelchair across carpeting.

And so there were a lot of these sort of, you know game changing insights for people who are organizers and the goal is to empower them to understand some of the challenges that people might face.

How do they bring that perspective to their RFPs and the venues, but also a venue can be, you know, ADA compliant. But then you bring all the stuff in and suddenly it’s not as easy to maneuver. 

We had a session on sustainability evaluating greenwashing, like, what are some statistics that sound impressive, that really don’t make a difference?

And then we also did a session on imposter syndrome and we held that offsite in the back of an old church, there’s like a cabaret that felt very removed and very safe. And it was a place where, you know, people could talk about those things.

We also didn’t shy away from controversy. We had a vibrant discussion on boycotts. Because that’s growing as a concern and how do you address those? If you’re gonna stay, how do you tackle the topic and where’s the data on that? 

From an ROI standpoint, if you’re attending this event, you’re investing your time, you’re investing your money, taking you away from other things. We want people to feel that this event absolutely was a hundred percent worth the investment. 

[00:16:51] Rachel Moore: These are such great examples, not only of what our event planners and our audience can do and try in the events that they’re executing for their clients or their brands, but just the things to be thinking about and how to measure those things.

[00:17:04] Howard Givner: You know, trying to measure an event is like nailing jello to a tree.

It’s really, really difficult and people shy away from it, but some is better than none. And so, a planner doesn’t have to come up with that on their own, but they should be starting the conversation. 

How are we gonna know if we’re successful and, if we’re successful, how will we measure how successful we were? A lot of times clients or executives come up with an event idea and it sounds good, and they’ve been to events, they’re fun, they go to SXSW, or maybe they’ve been to Ted and like, I wanna do this, I wanna do that. They don’t really think through the goals. And it’s our job to push back on them and say, look, if we don’t have those goals clearly defined, A, we’re not gonna know if we’re successful and B, you as a planner, you run the risk that the client can retroactively move the goalposts after the event. 

You might think, the goal was you know, make a certain amount of money on the event if it’s a moneymaker. And maybe afterwards, if you haven’t clearly defined the goals, maybe they might say, we really didn’t deepen relationships with our sponsors. And you’d be like, wait, what? When was that important? 

I look at events as a giant brainwashing chamber, for lack of a better term, right? People come in and you control everything about the experience, particularly an in-person event.

You control the venue, you control the time. You control what food and beverage is served, what messages they hear, what the seating is like, if there’s seating, what the music is like, what the smell is, like the light. You control every single element of that environment, and you get people for several hours, if not several days.

It’s a marketer’s dream. And you’ve got a room full of the right people if you do your job right. And your job is to figure out what you want them to leave buying, doing, saying, thinking, et cetera. And does that differ from how they came in? 

You know, they come in in one mindset and they leave maybe with the same mindset, maybe with a different mindset, but something happens in that space and you get to design what it is, but it only is effective if you know what you’re designing to achieve. 

I’ve got a list of like eight prompts to help people with goals. One is, what would make you a hundred percent wanna do this event again. And another is what a hundred percent would make you not wanna do this event again. And so they’re describing the extremes.

Think in these terms of articulating goals, defining the audience, and helping to design an experience that accomplishes those goals. And then thinking about how are we gonna know if we’re successful? 

[00:19:32] Rachel Moore: I love that, that that is some excellent advice for our listeners. 

[00:19:36] Howard Givner: I also just wanna say Bizzabo is a great organization. You know, we’ve worked with them a number of times. I love their product, love their innovation, and so, you know, appreciate you guys doing this podcast and great to have an opportunity to support the brand. 

[00:19:50] Rachel Moore: All right. Personal questions. Is there anything you’re listening to, watching or reading these days that you cannot put down?

[00:19:59] Howard Givner: That’s a good question. I’m almost finished with Priya Parker’s book. I got like 20 pages left. I think that’s really good. 

In terms of listening, I try to listen to different things that just, you know, make me think differently. I like to expose myself to like what’s going on in other industries. You know? So you, you try to get inspiration from outside of the event bubble if possible. 

[00:20:23] Rachel Moore: Kind of spinoff question then, because you talked about really trying to keep your ears open to things happening around in other industries. Is there any particular social post or a piece of media or a hot take about events that you saw somewhere recently that you found interesting?

[00:20:40] Howard Givner: There’s a guy named Brian Morrisey who writes a weekly newsletter, and he has a podcast called The Rebooting. He’s in the media industry. So he was formerly like the head of Digiday, which had several publications and he writes about and talks about the evolution of the media industry and a big part of media companies, business models are events and conferences, and so you know, he writes about subscription products and events and advertising and the consolidation of the industry, and he just, he brings a lens that I think is a creative way of looking at things.

I like that because it makes me look differently at that industry but I also enjoy looking at the way people think that are, you know, creative and innovative thinkers. I like how they approach things and I see different ways that I can bring those perspectives into my world.

[00:21:35] Rachel Moore: Where can our listeners find and follow you online? 

[00:21:40] Howard Givner: So I’m mostly on LinkedIn. I guess the next biggest place would be Twitter. Just look up Howard Givner or PCMA. Most of the content put out there is LinkedIn, by far is the biggest one because it’s all mostly business focused. So PCMA or you look up Professional Convention Management Association, or if you just find me, you’ll be able to find PCMA. 

[00:22:05] Rachel Moore: It’s time for the official Skill Up segment of the pod, and Howard has wise words about how we can best serve our clients and stakeholders with our expertise.   

[00:21:14] Howard Givner: It’s almost unfair to ask for only one piece of advice. I would say is be able to talk to your client, whether it’s an internal client or an external client as a trusted advisor means helping them define why you’re doing this event, what the goals are, designing an event to accomplish those goals, being mindful of the personas attending and the demographics and all that. But you know, at the end of the day, that’s the difference between a trusted advisor and an order taker. 

[00:22:46] Rachel Moore: Thanks again to Howard Givner for joining us on Event Experience, and thank YOU for listening. 

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.

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