Episode 8

Published on:

19th Oct 2023

S3 E8: Post-COVID Insights on Events with Frédéric François

Frédéric François discusses the current state of live events and the challenges and opportunities they present. He notes that while most events are back, there are still some issues with international attendees due to travel restrictions. He highlights the importance of networking in B2B events and how online platforms cannot replicate the physical networking experience.

Frédéric also mentions the disappearance of small meetings that could be easily conducted online, which has had an impact on the event industry. He emphasizes the need for events to focus on creating a multi-sensory experience and explains how his company incorporates content, demonstrations, and networking opportunities into their B2B trade fairs. Frédéric also discusses the challenges of finding and booking technical personnel in the post-COVID era and the importance of sustainability in event planning. He concludes by expressing his belief that AI is an ally to event organizers and that physical events will continue to thrive due to their unique ability to engage all five senses.

About the Guest

Frédéric François is General Manager of Two cents agency in Brussels, Belgium. With a majority of his career spent in the event space, Frédéric has extensive experience in planning and executing live events. He is passionate about creating memorable experiences for attendees and helping organizations incorporate events into their strategic communications plans. Frédéric spent the first 10 years of his career at Brussels Expo as an exhibition organiser with special interest in the marcom aspects. He then created two companies: Advanced Fair, which specialises in trade fair organisation, and Two cents, which specialises in PR, content, and digital marketing. Why choose between two activities when you can combine both?

About the Host

Abbie Fink is president of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, crisis communications, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations.

PRGN Presents is brought to you by Public Relations Global Network, the world’s local public relations agency. Our executive producer is Adrian McIntyre.

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Adrian McIntyre:

From the Public Relations Global Network, this is PRGN Presents. I'm Adrian McIntyre.

Abbie Fink:

And I'm Abbie Fink, president of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. With public relations leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we serve, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise, and connections in markets spanning six continents across the world.

Adrian McIntyre:

Our guests on this biweekly podcast series are all members of the Public Relations Global Network. They discuss such topics as the importance of sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance programs, crisis communications, content marketing, reputation management, and outside of the box thinking for growing your business.

Abbie Fink:

For more information about PRGN and our members, please visit prgn.com. And now, let's meet our guest for this episode.

Frédéric François:

Hi, I'm Frédéric François from Two cents in Brussels, Belgium. We are active in PR and also very active in organizing events.

Abbie Fink:

So I was having a conversation with a colleague about some upcoming conferences that I'm attending And I was very excited about the idea that I was booking a flight and going to physically go somewhere to attend a conference. As much as I appreciated the opportunity to participate in events during COVID, thanks to technology, I'm really excited about the idea that we can again return and be present with others.

You have spent a majority of your career in that event space. And so, must have been a real challenging time over the last handful of years, but what's it looking like for live events again? Are we beginning to come back to them and are organizations considering them as part of their strategic communications plan?

Frédéric François:

It depends from event to event, and if it's B2B or B2C, but most events are back. Some are even back in a very strong way, even stronger than before COVID. And then I'm talking about B2B, because like you said, in B2B, one of the most important things is networking.

What you can do with platforms, with online events, is giving some information and presenting some things, but you never can have this physical networking that people love. So these events are back. The ones who are really focusing on a majority of international visitors or attendees, these ones sometimes still face some problems with countries in Asia, for instance, who still are afraid to come to big events abroad. But most of them are back.

What we see is that the very small events, and when I say very small events, it's really the small meetings that you have in institutions like the European Commission, for instance, or NATO, a lot of very small events with five to 10 people. These ones disappeared. They disappeared because they discovered that they didn't have to fly two hours to have a meeting of one hour that they could do that with Teams or Zoom.

So that's really, really, really good that it disappeared because I think it's better for our planet. But it's a game changer for a lot of people in our sector, for cities, for instance, Brussels, where the European Commission is based, was focusing on attracting a lot of small meetings. A lot of hotels were focusing on that. A lot of event companies were focusing on that. So they have to refocus now, but for the rest, I think our event industry has really recovered in a very good way.

Abbie Fink:

One of the things that I found so fascinating in the evolution of events, I actually started my career doing PR for special events 25 plus years ago. And of course, then it was all physical, right? We attended something, we had a ticket, we had a name badge, you know, whatever that would be.

But as we experienced, you know, over the last handful of years and with technology being what it was, which allowed the definition of an event, I think, to change, right? It meant attending, but it didn't necessarily mean physical. But it did mean that those experiences that people were getting needed to be equally as powerful if they were doing it via a screen as they were when they were coming into a physical space, a ballroom, or a concert hall, or whatever it would be. So I think that we, as planners, had to also take into consideration what the experience was going to be.

So now that we are looking more about bringing people back together, what are some of the differences that you're seeing in events today versus what we might have been doing five or six years ago? You mentioned a difference between business to business or business to consumer, B2B or B2C. Talk a little bit about what those differences are and what should be considered when you're thinking about bringing back a group of people together.

Frédéric François:

When you are considering having B2C events, you really have to focus on experience. If you don't do that, you're lost because all the other things can be done through not digital events, but through digital communication. It is not the same using social media, Google, and so on. So you really have to focus on this experience.

Some things change also in our organization. That's what I see a lot during this post-COVID period. One of the most important things that changed is finding the good people for us to work and to organize events in technology.

Finding technical people in audio-visual or IT to work in the event industry has become really hard because during COVID, they had no job. They had to find other jobs. And they did. They managed to find other jobs and they managed to see that they could work and earn money without having to work long nights and long weekends.

So they didn't come back. So that's really a problem. It's the human capital that we lost during COVID. And we still face problems to find them. And so we have to plan a longer time in advance to book people. We have to pay more for those who stayed in the industry. That's a really big issue for us for now.

Abbie Fink:

When you're talking with prospective clients or businesses and organizations that may be considering an event, whether that's a meeting or a special event of some kind, what are the conversations that you have in terms of the strategy or the strategic reason behind bringing an event?

From an attendee perspective, we're looking at networking and interacting with, but what are businesses thinking about when they're going to consider putting on an event and how do you advise and help them understand the value of what an event like this could be for them?

Frédéric François:

The big difference that we can have organizing an event towards all the other kinds of communication tools or sales tools that you could use to manage your business is that we use five senses. We can use five senses. It's the only communication or sales tool where you can not only hear a presentation and see that presentation, but where you can have some smells in an area where you come in, where something is baked.

If you are in bakery, where you can taste products, when you can feel the tiles that are going to be used by the house builders or something. So you really can use your five senses in a very special way. And that is one of the things we always try to focus on and try to explain to our customers is that use the most senses you can during your event because that will create really an experience they will not forget and they are not able to find somewhere else.

Abbie Fink:

What do you think has changed in the way you organize events or businesses are thinking about bringing events? Are you doing things differently? What changes have been made, you know, whether that was because of COVID or just a different way of approaching, you know, the planning of these type of events?

Frédéric François:

We have to plan a long time in advance, longer time in advance, because of this human capital problem. We have to find and book people a long time in advance. And that is contradictory with what we see. And that is that budgets are decided very late.

So people are back in events, but we see that the customers wait a long time to really say, okay, we give you a go and you can organize the event. So that's a problem because we are later than what we were before.

And we need more time. So it's on a planning basis, it's very, very difficult.

What we also did that we had a lot of work to do with lawyers during COVID and just after because we saw that our general conditions, our own general conditions for cancellation policies, for instance, and that the general conditions of our insurers also for cancellation matters were not up to date or were not made to be able to face that problem. So we had to refocus and reinvent some things there. So lawyers were happy to have a lot of work with us.

Abbie Fink:

Yeah, I learned how important it was to read the fine print in all of those contracts because I never needed to know what force majeure was until I was planning events before and then what was leading into it.

And I think there were some lessons learned in this past handful of years about that. I think we're all a little bit more aware of the contractual obligations that we make, what our out clauses need to be, what kind of guarantees we as the producers of the events need to make, but also what our expectations are of those that we're doing it on behalf of. And that's a good thing, to be a little bit more aware.

Frédéric François:

There are also other good things, I think, because a few things I said were more negative, But I think one good thing that changed is that people now are more aware about sustainability.

We saw that sustainability was coming also in the event industry, but thanks to COVID, it got a boost. And now today, most of our clients, most of the institutions, it's in the basic guidelines. You have to be sustainable. You have to bring food that is sustainable. You cannot use any single-use plastics anymore. a lot of regulations that are new. So that's, I think it's good again for our planet.

And what we saw also is that we had to learn to be even more flexible and our teams get more agile. And I think that that was a good thing to see and because we managed that. And I think it was good for us to see that our species is able to adapt in a very fast way.

Adrian McIntyre:

Frédéric, I have a question for you about experience design. You mentioned that consumer-facing events needed to have the experience at the center because of course there are many other channels that you could use to communicate them. So if you're just doing that again, there's no point in having the event.

It seems though that the same thing is true now for B2B and I think you were pointing at that as well. You have to ask the question, why isn't this a digital meeting? Why isn't this online? So I'm curious how you're thinking now in some new ways, maybe some new vistas, new opportunities with regard to experience design, specifically in B2B because why not?

I mean you mentioned the textures and the smells and the things of that nature but obviously event experience is more than that. So lighting, sound, spaces, movement, flow, all these things. Talk a little bit about that aspect of event planning.

Frédéric François:

What we do a lot for B2B trade fairs for instance is that before there was only booths with products. What we propose now is a kind of a mixture between trade fairs and congresses. We try to bring in also a lot of content. Also content can be experienced when the content is brought in a good way, with good speakers, with interaction.

We try to make demonstrations. We try to push exhibitors to give demonstrations. And when we see that they don't do that enough, we push the organizer of the exhibition to do it. So it's a lot of work. It's a lot of investment.

All these kinds of things next to the usual product presentations are really enjoyable and we see that also in B2B people like to have something more than just the product presentation and of course always find good networking opportunities, give the time to the people to be able to see and meet and chat with each other.

In Belgium, we are also used to have a good beer together in a B2B event. So it's really important to focus also on that next to the products and the knowledge.

Abbie Fink:

I think here in the States we like to have a beer with our colleagues at these events as well. So that might be a universal experience.

One of the, you know, the experience and, you know, technology all are playing a factor in events, but we probably need to talk about the options that are presenting themselves now through artificial intelligence and, you know, what are you seeing? And maybe it's a little too soon to know for sure, but is AI going to be a value part of events in the future? Is it going to change the way we do what we do? Is it going to replace events or is it going to be an enhancement?

Frédéric François:

I think AI is an ally. I remember when I started my career at Brussels Expo 35 years ago. It was the websites were coming up And the boss then said, we cannot make a website because if you make a website, people are going to find the information there and they will not come to the trade show anymore. We are killing ourselves if we do that.

So he has retired some time after that, that was good. So, and it's the same with AI. People are afraid AI will kill or will replace events. I don't think so. I think we have to use and embrace AI.

I think AI, from an organizational point of view, is very valuable because organizing an event is, I think, about 50% communication with potential attendees, with attendees, with a lot of target groups. And if you can use AI to take over at least 50% of your work there, Imagine the time you win, imagine the events you can organize with the same amount of people, you can organize more events and in the end, your profit is better. So you really have to embrace it. I don't think AI, like digital events, didn't replace physical events. I don't think AI will replace any good physical event.

Abbie Fink:

And projecting ahead, what do you think the future is for live events?

Frédéric François:

Organizing events with our five senses. That's really the most important. It's our most important USP is organizing our five senses because there is not a magazine, not a TV or radio station. There is not a website or platform where you can use maybe two or three senses. Here we can use all five of them. So that's really our USP. And if we do that, the future is still bright and we will win.

Adrian McIntyre:

Thanks for listening to this episode of PRGN Presents, brought to you by the Public Relations Global Network.

Abbie Fink:

We publish new episodes every other week, so follow PRGN Presents in your favorite podcast app. Episodes are also available on our website—along with more information about PRGN and our members—at prgn.com.

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About the Podcast

PRGN Presents: News & Views from the Public Relations Global Network
Leading a business effectively in today's fast-paced and interconnected world requires expert guidance and a strong communications strategy. The Public Relations Global Network is here to help.
PRGN Presents is the essential podcast for international business leaders, non-profit executives, and those who hire public relations, marketing, and communications firms. It provides an exclusive look into the ever-evolving world of PR and communications, featuring experts from the Public Relations Global Network, “the world’s local public relations agency.”

Is your message winning hearts and minds? No matter where you do business, there is a PRGN member agency in your region with the deep industry expertise, international experience, and local market knowledge you need to connect with your target audience and achieve your goals.

Whether you're an executive looking to improve your organization's communication strategy or an in-house marketing professional looking to bring in an outside firm to support a specific campaign, this podcast will provide valuable insights on how to communicate effectively and build lasting relationships with customers, staff, and communities around the world.

In each episode, you’ll hear PR professionals and industry experts share valuable insights and perspectives on the latest trends in public relations, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), media relations, crisis management, investor relations, stakeholder engagement, executive thought leadership, and strategic communications.

About your host

Profile picture for Abbie S. Fink

Abbie S. Fink

Abbie S. Fink is president of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of the Public Relations Global Network. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations. Abbie is often invited to present to a wide variety of business and civic organizations on such topics as media relations, social media and digital communications strategies, crisis communications, and special events management.