2020 has been a year of unprecedented disruption for the events industry, but there have been many positive stories and opportunities to come out of the crisis. We spoke to four RX leaders about the challenges they have faced over the past year, how their roles have changed, and what they have learned along the way.
Putting the ‘vision’ into venues
Martina Candillo, Director Congresses & Events, Messe Wien Exhibition
RX’s reputation is built on organising and delivering live events, but few are aware that we also manage one of the world’s leading congress & exhibition centres in Vienna. As Director of congresses & events at Messe Wien, Martina was forced to close the doors of the fully-booked venue overnight in March 2020 when Covid-19 struck. Over the past year she has had to draw on all her strength, creativity and communication skills to oversee projects she could never previously have imagined.
Martina joined RX Austria in February 2005, shortly after RX acquired the management contract for the newly opened venue. “As the newly appointed Sales Manager for Messe Wien it was my job to build up a customer base of international organisers and attract their events to our halls. It was an incredibly exciting time. There was no precedent for venue management in RX, and we felt like a start-up company.”
It wasn’t long before the team was attracting some of Europe’s leading congresses, alongside corporate, cultural and sporting events – not to mention RX Austria’s own trade shows. Martina was appointed Director in 2018 and the calendar kept on filling. 2020 was on track to be a record year with 13 major international congresses amongst the 70+ events scheduled – and then the pandemic shut everything down. Well, almost everything.
Within days of lockdown, with her team all home-working, Martina received a call from RX Austria’s CEO, Benedikt Binder-Krieglstein asking her how quickly the Viennese exhibition halls could be converted into a medical facility for Covid patients. “It took us three days to turn the venue into an 800-bed field hospital, with the help of our stand-building company STANDout, who supplied and installed all the cubicles. Within a week, we had extended it to over 3,000 beds.”
“It took us three days to turn the venue into an 800-bed field hospital, with the help of our stand-building company STANDout, who supplied and installed all the cubicles. Within a week, we had extended it to over 3,000 beds.”
Over the next few months, Martina oversaw the venue’s transformation into an examination hall for over 5,000 university entrants; a mass Covid-19 testing centre; and, for a short period in January 2021, a vaccination centre. But Martina was also creating opportunities, as well as responding to calls for help.
“When we realised that the pandemic wasn’t going anywhere fast, I talked with our AV partner on site, Steiner Live, about cooperating on a state-of-the-art broadcasting studio. Opened in November 2020, this has allowed our clients to continue to share and present their content virtually, and to reach out to new prospects. We collaborated with STANDout to develop a virtual site visit of the venue. This extraordinarily realistic experience allows clients to conduct site visits in times where travel is restricted. And we upgraded the entire venue with WiFi 6 in order to meet the high demands of high data transfer rates needed, for example, for streaming virtual content during live events."
All the while, Martina was working with her colleagues to develop safeguarding plans for the safe and secure return of RX and guest events; and working with her team to reach out to clients, postpone upcoming events, and manage constantly changing expectations around when they might be rescheduled.
“The most challenging aspect of the entire year has been not being able to plan ahead. Congresses & events need months of pre-planning and we have had to continually shift our horizons. It has also brought home to me how important clear and regular communication is when you can’t meet face to face. I went into the pandemic with a strong team of very capable people. I knew their personal strengths and abilities, nevertheless it has been very important to me to reach out to each and every team member on a regular basis.”
Above all, Martina says that the past year has highlighted for her how much she enjoys the strategic aspects of her leadership role, solving problems and bringing people together to make things happen. She has missed the ‘magic’ of delivering live events and while 2021 remains uncertain, she can’t wait to re-open Messe Wien’s doors and welcome back RX’s customers.
Developing RX’s global sales capability
Scott Stevens, VP of US Business Transformation and Global Head of Sales Solutions
Scott Stevens enjoys working with RX so much he’s had two careers with us! He joined the Corporate IT (now GTECH) team in the UK in 2008 working as a business analyst, before leaving the company only to re-join our US business unit in 2014.
Before the pandemic, Scott was fully dedicated to the US implementation of RX’s Global Business Systems (GBS), in addition to supporting the US on local technology and process improvement driven projects. Mid-lockdown, alongside his role as VP of US Business Transformation, he also took on responsibility for the global rollout of our Global Sales Solution, with a focus on sharing best practices, optimising sales, reducing costs, minimizing sales administration and generating new revenue opportunities via systems and process.
Implementing a global sales system remotely is no easy task, and Scott has learned over the last year to expect the unexpected. “It has been a huge learning curve. Typically, we would go on site to each country during the various project phases, requirements gathering, testing and training, to support rollout, so lockdown required a whole new way of working” he explained. “I’m fortunate to be working with an incredible tech-savvy team who are open-minded, highly skilled, driven and willing to be flexible in their thinking, and their working hours. They adapted quickly to the new constraints, and we recently completed our first fully virtual first wave rollout in China.”
Scott is someone who enjoys the buzz of a busy office, so adjusting to the lack of face to face contact has been a challenge. “But it’s been fun too, as we have found new and quirky ways of keeping ourselves happy, motivated and engaged online. At the same time, I am very conscious that Covid has blurred the lines between the personal and professional, and so I have worked hard to support each member of the team, empowering them and trusting them to deliver.”
For his own part, Scott has always found RX to be a supportive and stimulating place to work but this has been particularly apparent during the pandemic. “There is a real innovation culture at RX which accepts that innovation is often about failing fast, and then learning from it. The “Digital pivot” has emphasized this even more than ever. It makes your role more exciting when you are encouraged to go out of your comfort zone and try new things. Having taken on my new global responsibilities it was very reassuring for me to have an open door to my line managers, and an Executive Sponsor on the ELT who I can use as a sounding board. Having that support has really helped me to develop as a person and a professional.”
"There is a real innovation culture at RX which accepts that innovation is often about failing fast, and then learning from it."
Given the challenges of the past year, Scott has really enjoyed the opportunity to look at RX through a global lens, alongside his focus on the needs of the US business. “My global role has really opened my eyes to the many people, countries and cultures within RX, helping me to respect our individual differences, as well as our many similarities. Using the best of both to drive a global sales solution”
As for the future, Scott said it’s full steam ahead for RX’s global sales platform as the remaining countries are brought on board. Japan due to go live with the first wave of shows in August and France in H1 2022. In parallel, the team will focus on driving adoption, enhanced Sales reporting for the leadership team, launching our first Global Sales Survey, enhancing synergies and value with other central teams (digital product, marketing and finance solutions teams etc) and adapting to marry to the changing and growing needs of our business. “We’re already seeing early benefits from having a consistent sales technology across the business in terms of sales efficiencies, data capture & sharing, customer insights, integration of new revenue streams, reduced sales administration and global brand selling. Once the Covid brakes are off, there will be no stopping us.”
“We’re already seeing early benefits from having a consistent sales technology across the business. Once the Covid breaks are off, there will be no stopping us.”
Project managing through a pandemic
Janice Chen, Senior Finance Manager, Singapore
Janice Chen joined RX Singapore as a Finance Manager in 2011 and for the last 10 years has been a key part of their accounting team. Today, as Senior Finance Manager she leads the Accounting Teams for RX Singapore and Indonesia, but over the past year she has also overseen the roll-out of RX’s global finance system (GBS) across Singapore and Indonesia.
Taking on a project management role for the first time is always challenging, but Janice assumed her new responsibilities in March 2020, just as much of the world went into lockdown. “As the local project manager it was my job to work with the GBS team to implement the new finance system in Singapore, and then Indonesia. Until this time, other RX Business Units had conducted face to face training or User Acceptance Testing on the new system, but for Singapore everything had to be done online via Teams.”
Communications and team training aside, Janice said the biggest challenge she had to face was adjusting her mind set from the fairly steady world of accounting, to the less predictable world of project managing through a pandemic.
“In accounting you deal with exact numbers, clear SOPs, and there are black and white answers to most issues. But in project management there is not always a right or wrong answer and you have to take informed decisions based on your best understanding of the situation. In my accounting role, I can plan my timelines; but managing the finance system rollout required me to be flexible and responsive to unexpected events which I couldn’t plan for. It has been a learning curve, but the global GBS team has been brilliant, sharing all their knowledge and providing me with various possible solutions. I have also had strong support from my team, my supervisor and my peers, helping me to grow and gain in confidence.”
"It has been a learning curve, but the global GBS team has been brilliant, sharing all their knowledge and providing me with various possible solutions. I have also had strong support from my team, my supervisor and my peers, helping me to grow and gain in confidence.”
Needless to say, Janice delivered the global finance system on time in Singapore in January 2021, and in Indonesia in May 2021, enabling the two business units to benefit from RX’s new globally integrated finance tools.
Alongside her project management role, Janice maintained her financial responsibilities, and here too, Covid-19 changed things in ways she hadn’t expected. “Before the pandemic we were still printing out all our invoices and other financial documents for physical sign-off. With everyone working from home, everything is now done electronically by email. I could not have predicted that within the space of the year, our financial processes would have almost all become digital. That has also been a challenge, but we have successfully adjusted to these new ways of working.”
Now she is looking forward to the time when she can spend more time with her team and colleagues in the office, having missed their personal interactions. She also can’t wait to attend one of RX Singapore’s events again. “Although I don’t interact with customers directly, I love the feeling of being on site. Having worked closely over the year with each show team it’s great to see their hard work and effort coming together for three or four amazing days.”
Pivoting to digital sales and sponsorship
Ben Dunster, Head of Partnerships and Sponsorship, WTM
Back in 2014, when Ben Dunster started work as a temp for World Travel Market (WTM), recruiting buyers for their speed networking programme, he little imagined the trajectory his career with RX would take. Offered a permanent position as Sales Executive, Ben was quickly promoted to Sales Manager for Sponsorship and Digital across WTM’s global event portfolio – a job that took him all over the world to meet with clients, and tailor bespoke solutions to their branding and marketing needs.
Today, as Head of Partnerships and Sponsorship for WTM’s global travel portfolio, Ben is responsible for generating non-space revenue across our events, including sponsorship, onsite branding and digital and content opportunities – a role which has changed in ways he couldn’t have anticipated when he took it on in July 2019.
“In early 2020, as we were forced to postpone or cancel our physical events, we quickly began pivoting them to virtual” said Ben. “Most of my focus over the past year has been on designing, developing and selling new digital products and packages that enable our clients to continue to achieve their sales and marketing objectives in a digital WTM space – be it brand awareness, lead generation and/or thought leadership.”
“This has involved working with many different parts of the business, from our marketing technology teams to our revenue management team, as well as working with third party platform vendors to understand their capabilities and ensure they can deliver for our customers” he explained. “Another key part of my role has been ensuring that our sales teams have the skills and knowledge they need to sell our new digital products. It has been full on, but fun too.”
Arabian Travel Market (ATM) (1-3 June 2020) was the first RX global travel event to move online, and the first travel industry event to fully embrace the potential for virtual events. “Our biggest challenge was educating our customers on the new digital products and platform and how to use them” said Ben. “We were proposing an entirely new event model which required a great deal of explaining and reassurance, all of which had to be done remotely on Zoom and Teams.”
ATM Virtual exceeded all expectations attracting 12,000 online attendees from 140 countries. One year on, Ben is proud to have been instrumental in delivering one of the WTM portfolio’s largest ever branding and digital packages to Saudi Tourism Authority, who had a major presence at both ATM 2021 in Dubai in May, and the subsequent ATM Virtual which ran a week later.
“As more of our live events come back, my role is now focused on increasing digital revenues across the business” revealed Ben. “Having experienced the power of digital to create brand awareness, generate sales and open up new markets, many of our sponsoring partners are keen to explore packages that work across our physical and virtual events, and even reach out to the travel community year-round, with all the access to data and analytics that brings them.”
Ben says that the last year has taught him to be ready for anything: “I’ve enjoyed the fact that we have had to constantly change and adapt, and the challenges that come with that; but I have missed the client-facing part of my role. I’m really looking forward to being able to meet with our exhibitors and sponsors again in person.”
“I’ve enjoyed the fact that we have had to constantly change and adapt, and the challenges that come with that; but I have missed the client-facing part of my role. I’m really looking forward to being able to meet with our exhibitors and sponsors again in person.”