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Episode 65 / July 24, 2023

Achieving Event Scalability with Standardization, Localization, and Continuous Learning

In this episode, Mathias Sondermann talks about SAP’s Sapphire and embracing standardization for scalability, the importance of localization, and the power of continuous learning.

Meet Senior Director of Events Mathias Sondermann, who has been with SAP for more than 15 years. In this episode, he takes us into SAP’s largest customer-facing event, Sapphire, and does a bit of cultural globetrotting as he discusses the power of standardization, regional adaptation, and continuous learning — all in the name of promoting innovation and enabling scalability. 

Here is a sneak peek of what you’ll hear about in this conversation:

  • How standardizing certain aspects of events gives teams space to innovate at scale 
  • The importance of localization and tailoring events to regional and cultural nuances 
  • How collaboration, knowledge sharing, and continuous learning can improve the quality of events across the industry

Mentioned in This Episode

Transcript

[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 on Event Experience, we take a trip around the globe with Mathias Sondermann, Senior Director of Events at SAP, as we focus on their largest customer-facing event, Sapphire. This one’s for our listeners who often find themselves designing exceptional experiences in different geographies. Join us as Mathias shares his team’s use of standardization in event execution to leave room for true innovation in their event experience.

[00:00:59] Rachel Moore: Our guest today has been with SAP for 15 years, and I’m looking through his essential mobility up through his titles, all surrounding events.

And so we are about to get a swath of expertise for the SAP events. Mathias, welcome to the podcast today. Thanks for joining us. 

[00:01:19] Mathias Sondermann: Thank you very much for having me, Rachel. 

[00:01:21] Rachel Moore: Could you dive in a little bit more for us, give us a little more specifics about your role at SAP, especially how you’ve evolved over the last 15 years with that brand.

[00:01:30] Mathias Sondermann: Yeah, it’s certainly been a very, very interesting journey so far, and I feel like it’s about to begin again. My life at SAP, and it feels like my life almost started there. Started as you know, the classical project manager for events. So I looked at individual aspects of events and managed work streams and then, you know, got to manage my larger projects, which evolved and got bigger.

And then it was a series of events and I took on responsibility for a number of event managers who delivered the events. Then I grew the role into managing a team of what we call project directors, so looking at portfolios of events for different audiences that we serve. And then basically my current role I’m looking across everything and that means standardization.

From delivering individual event experiences SAP has taken a step to look at this holistically and you know, across different types of events, sizes of events, experiences for different audiences and trying to standardize around that. And that’s the task that I’ve been performing and building and evolving over the last two and a half years and certainly been really, really exciting.

How To Use Standardization for Large-scale Event Planning Success

[00:02:52] Rachel Moore: I love standardization where you wanna try to create a system and try to, or at least try to create those standards of excellence that will be consistent in what you, what you aim for throughout all of your events. 

[00:03:04] Mathias Sondermann: Yeah, absolutely. And it serves a number of, of objectives, right?

So first of all when you look at the way that events are designed, we have great event designers, we have great project managers, and I think every other company and every, like, lots of agencies have to have great people. The question is how do you basically employ those people in the best way and how do you make sure that every event has the A-team to be performing at its best. And a lot of this has grown over, you know, a number of years. But how do you make sure that the knowledge that individual team members have and experience that they made, basically travel across.

So the main idea that we have with standardization, it’s to be more efficient, right, and be more effective. But essentially what makes events really, really special and what makes SAP events really special? And at the end of the day, you know, the goal that we have is to be innovative, to create, you know, the best events in our industry and, and maybe across. So our goal that we formulated actually is, to drive innovation at scale. So look at what’s the latest and greatest maybe, you know, helping find the latest and greatest, or define the latest and greatest. And then infuse that in, you know, first of all, our larger events.

And then, you know, break it down into the organization for the larger amounts of events. So that’s the charter that we have. We’re not looking at just standardizing for the sake of standardization. We’re looking for innovation at scale. 

[00:04:42] Rachel Moore: I think our audience is probably whipping out their notebooks now if they haven’t yet already, because they’re like, tell me more.

Are we gonna zero in on one particular event today? 

[00:04:51] Mathias Sondermann: I’d like to highlight a concrete example of how standardization can help achieve that excellence and also, you know, a certain innovation is a very important factor of it.

I think I’ll have to explain a little more around this before we go to the specific example. But one thing that we’re doing is we’ve been working very closely with the chief sustainability officer and his team at SAP to break down what the SAP sustainability strategy is, to what does that mean for events?

From very high level, so at SAP we want to speak about sustainability. We want to live sustainability, but we also want to sell sustainability solutions because we have them, right? So we sat down with them and looked at, what are the company goals for sustainability?

And then we looked at, okay, which of those goals can be translated into events? And how and what kind of tools can we give event managers to basically comply with the overall strategy in a way that is most easy for them actually. We translated goals like, you know, equality for instance, which is also part of a sustainability strategy into a quota for speakers, right?

So, general quota that we have is, you know, we want at our larger events, we want at least 30% of the speakers to be female. So that sounds logical, but I don’t know if, you know, every company has written that down into their specific rules for events. And then from a general sustainability in terms of green perspective, what are the aspects that we need to take into consideration, right, when it comes to food sourcing; for travel; when it comes to waste management, et cetera, et cetera. So we’ve defined goals that can be adapted to different regions and then measured, right? So the one thing that, that we then do and that’s where I think, you know, Sapphire can be a good example is we as a standardization team then starts to work with the teams that put the events in action. 

What is the SAP Sapphire?

For those who don’t know, Sapphire is our largest customer facing event. It used to be a singular event happening in North America. With the pandemic and basically the great disruptor, everything changed and we found that we wanted to get actually a little closer to our customers. And it changed into a tour. 

So this year, SAP ran three Sapphires. We ran one in North America, we ran one in Europe, and we ran one in Latin America, Brazil. When the Sapphire planning was going on, like the sustainability practice that we built and our consultants worked extremely closely with that team to identify, okay, like what is the concrete action that you can do in Orlando versus Barcelona versus Sao Paulo?

And work with the team on the checklist to identify, here are the things that are bottom line, like here are the things that every event should actually do, right? And here are the things that can happen in Orlando, and here are the things that can happen in Barcelona that may be very specific to the region. Right. 

So a good example of that is like a social activity, right? We’re trying to infuse a social activity into every single event that we do. And then, we equipped the teams with a tool that allows them and all of their vendors to actually track the performance of that.

And to be honest, I can’t share the results yet. But the beauty of it is, We did it already last year, right? So this year we can start to compare and see where we improved, maybe where we need you know, a little bit more of efforts to be really sustainable.

But I think this is a, a good way to show like, you know, how standardization can actually help drive a certain innovation when it comes to the area of sustainability, but also purpose. 

[00:08:55] Rachel Moore: When do you expect that those results for this year will be out? 

[00:08:59] Mathias Sondermann: We’re looking at the results, we need to analyze them a little bit. We need to ask a couple of questions. We need to dig deeper, and then we also need to make them presentable, so it’s gonna take another couple of weeks before we’re ready to go to share anything around that.

[00:09:11] Rachel Moore: By the time that this hits the airwaves, those results may be out and everybody should be scrambling over to SAP to find those. 

This seems like a huge endeavor particularly because you had mentioned too there’s a team that specializes in just this. Did I hear that correctly? Because you’ve got the events team, but then do you also have kind of this other smaller elite team that just works specifically on the standardization in the different geos?

[00:09:38] Mathias Sondermann: It’s a team that works in standardization, right? And part of the standardization is sustainability, but we’re also looking at standardization across things like diversity and inclusion. 

Our approach is, we help basically craft those things together because we don’t know everything, right? But we help those who are the experts, provide their knowledge and then we build it in the way that after others can consume it. And then, you know, with that knowledge, we kind of can become consultants, right?

So we can go to and work with the teams that are actually putting events in place, small or big and can help them run at their best around the various suspects of events. 

Insights from an Event Expert: Event Surveys and Localization 

[00:10:18] Rachel Moore: Is each locale pretty vastly different? You know, whether you mentioned Orlando in North America, or Latin America or Europe. Are we looking at pretty different approaches based on the geographies?

[00:10:32] Mathias Sondermann: I think the approach becomes different and will become different and very individual when we look at things like engaging an audience, for example. Or engaging individuals because people will in different regions of the world will act in different ways and expect different things.

I can give you like an example when, when you look at event results, right? So you run surveys after an event and you want your customers to rate the experience. If you want to report the best result possible, just ask Latin Americans. They tend to rate everything higher than everybody else in the world. If you want to have a not so great let’s say ranking of an experience, ask a German audience. They’re scoring everything a little bit lower. So you have to take these things into consideration, designing experiences for different audiences, different parts of the world, is also not necessarily easy, right? So if you look at Japan, for example, and how customers in Japan are traditionally treated by sales reps, for instance it is very different to North America or Latin America, right?

In Japan, they’re very reserved. I remember when, at a conference, when the customers came in the morning, all the sales reps were standing left and right and, you know, taking bow to welcome the customers. And of course the customers were sitting in the front row, whereas in many other events, you know, executives of the company sit in the first row.

But that’s kind of their expectation and that’s something that we need to take into consideration. Networking experience in Latin America is probably very different. Right. I think that the point that I’d like to make with standardization is there are those differences.

And actually I want to help everybody be able to focus on creating that special experience for every audience by infusing them with, you know, a certain amount of knowledge and experience that we continue to build, right? So everything’s evolving. 

But second of all, like by giving them the tools to not worry about, I can’t focus on designing the experience for my customer because I have to make sure I get the catering order in.

How To Achieve Sustainable Event Management

[00:12:42] Rachel Moore: It’s so important that you made that a priority to say, no, we’re documenting that this, you know, these are our goals in these different areas as we design experiences for SAP.

And then of course, share those tactics. It very much feels like the rising tide raises all ships. 

[00:12:59] Mathias Sondermann: Two aspects around that. First of all, sustainability, equality, et cetera. Those are things with a purpose that actually help everybody. I don’t think like it’s, it’s not a best kept secret and it’s, you know, there’s not a patent on it.

And like no one can be more successful by, you know, claiming that they’re the only ones who are or sustainable or more equal or neurodiverse or whatever. It’s a challenge for everybody, right? Especially, you know, with climate crisis and with all of the different culture and political aspects that are that are coming up, et cetera, right?

So it’s a common challenge. I think exchange only helps the purpose. So I was able to attend you know, the Google Experience Institute at the beginning of the year where there was a lot of sharing, especially around those topics that I think everybody can at the end of the day, benefit from.

Plus, as you know, I’m from Germany, there’s a German network of event managers from larger companies where we have a very open exchange around it and we say like, Hey, you know, what are you doing in terms of sustainability? Show us, share it with us. And, you know, we’re all doing that. 

If you can measure it, you can compare it. And as soon as you compare it, you also end up in some kind of, you know, maybe competition. Like, I wanna be better than last year. I wanna be better than my competitor. I want to be the best in, in all of this. And there’s a lot of purpose behind it, but in order to make, you know, the purpose work, we have to use some of the kind of other mechanisms that help it.

[00:14:28] Rachel Moore: Are there any key individuals or team members that you’d like to call out on this podcast to say, Hey, you’re part of this work and helping to, to make this a reality that we can all use to get better? 

[00:14:43] Mathias Sondermann: The one thing that I’ve found is as soon as you start to call it individuals you forget somebody, and then that person’s really sad, right? First of all, I wanna thank you know, my partner in crime and my partners in crime on the team that helped ideate and build it from the very beginning. I want to thank the vision and the leadership of marketing and SAP whose initiative it was to bring this forward, to design it with the, the purpose of driving innovation at scale and to continue to support it.

I have the luxury of working with people from all over the world and exchanging ideas and getting to know their cultures and it’s so enriching, I have to say. 

I’ll have a chance to attend a research project that we’re doing together with the German Convention Bureau and a couple of other companies in Germany about the future of events. Like how, how are events supposed to look like in like five years, right?

What is going to be important with changing behaviors, et cetera, et cetera. So what we do there purposely is, we walk out of the event environment and thinking and, you know, expose ourselves to very different experiences and times just to keep our mind open to think about, okay, like I, I’m not going to design the next thing based on what I know about the last one.

So for instance, last time we were in an old print shop. Now that everything’s digital, like how does in person feel again, like how does, how does paper feel and what’s the, like, what’s the benefit of that, for example, right.

Just as a small idea but, I think everybody can start to think about how you can use paper as something that gives you a different experience than at a current event that’s, you know, digital or hybrid or most of the time, like, you know, paperless. Of course it needs to be sustainable.

But I think, you know, the idea of what, what kind of tactile experiences can I infuse? So I think you can get inspired at every interaction that you have. And I would just ask everybody to, not pause, but just continue to explore and be curious. 

[00:16:49] Rachel Moore: It reminds me, I remember about a year into Covid, I think, where suddenly greeting cards and pieces of mail started to become way more important because we were all so closed off from each other. But to actually get something in the mail from someone, you know, was like, oh, wow. 

I have a few personal questions if I may ask you as we wrap up, this gives our audience a little bit more insight into you. And this one’s a little tough, unless it’s not it’s one of those questions where it’s like, oh, I can’t think of anything or like, oh, I can totally think of it. Can you name an item that you forgot for a work event that caused you some panic? 

[00:17:26] Mathias Sondermann: Yes. A trophy. 

Actually, it was like, let, let’s say I didn’t forget it actually. I, I just, I don’t know which, whether it was DPD or whatever, UPS, you know, somebody lost it, right?

But it was a trophy for a demo jam at a tech at event where hackers go on stage and you know, for six minutes run the demo of what they do and then, you know, the audience applauds. At the end of the day, they get a trophy. So we were there like the day before the event and somebody says, where’s the trophy?

And I’m like, where’s this trophy? So I ended up at the end of the day in a trophy shop and I didn’t know that existed in Vienna, buying a brand new trophy that we could just hand out to the winner. But that actually, you know, caused some headaches. 

[00:18:10] Rachel Moore: Is there anything that you’re listening to, watching or reading right now that you can’t put down? 

[00:18:17] Mathias Sondermann: I’m a huge, huge, I think soccer fan. And as you know, for those who don’t know right now, it’s between seasons in Europe. And I am kind of bridging that gap with a, a couple of podcasts that I’m listening to that kind of focus on like what were the.

Kind of, you know, noteworthy things about last season. One about, how did, you know soccer tactic in teams evolve? Like what made them successful last year versus next year, but also like fun shows and just, you know, a lot of stories from fans, et cetera. So that kind of distracts me and it’s and it’s super cool.

And, you know, soccer is one of the most, being in a stadium, in a soccer stadium is one of the most exceptional experiences you ever have. 

[00:19:03] Rachel Moore: For any of us who are listening and haven’t done that, I think we’ll have to try it. 

Is there a particular social post or piece of media or a hot take about events somewhere that you found interesting lately?

[00:19:16] Mathias Sondermann: I think what what I really found interesting, and something that I’d like to steer a lot of, you know, attention to is the initiative that Google took with the Experience Institute this year, a larger community that very openly shares and exchanges with, I think the aim of, you know, increasing everybody’s knowledge around events.

So, that is certainly, I think if I had to name something, you know, right now that’d be my, my number one. 

[00:19:41] Rachel Moore: Finally, where can our listeners find and follow you online 

[00:19:46] Mathias Sondermann: On LinkedIn. I think the fact that my first name, Mathias, just says one T is a bit, is a bit exceptional, maybe helps the search. 

[00:19:54] Rachel Moore: Mathias you are exceptional, not just in your spelling of your name, but also in the excellent wisdom you’ve imparted to us today.

Thank you so much for joining us on event experience.

[00:20:05] Mathias Sondermann: Thank you very much for having me. 

[00:20:16] Rachel Moore: SkillUp with Mathias as he leverages his 15-plus years with SAP to offer up this gem of a lesson for event planners everywhere:

[00:20:25] Mathias Sondermann: I would say build your experience, use your experience, but don’t rest on it. Be curious and take infusions from all parts of life. Every interaction that you have, every experience that you make can basically, change the way how we think about an event or, you know, aspects of an event.

[00:20:47] Rachel Moore: Thanks again to Mathias Sondermann 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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