Category Archives: According To Plan

Behold The Power of Events: Occupy Your World

It’s been 35 years now (yikes!), but I still remember being blown away after seeing a new movie called Network, where Howard Beale (an inspired Peter Finch) exhorted us all to go to the window, stick our heads out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  Here’s what he said: “I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street…all I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad!”  In the movie, his unscripted live TV rant inspired millions of viewers across the country to throw open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell!” out into the street.   It was a commentary on the power of the mass media to mobilize people to action.  Who knew that, a few decades later, social media would help produce the same kind of results?

Fast forward the DVR of your life to 2011. You see similar dramas playing out, no?  Only this time, it’s not fiction. First it was the historic events of the Arab Spring.  Then London got in on the act. Now it’s our turn in the US:  Occupy Wall Street.  Occupy LA.  Occupy Boston.  In case you missed it, last Wednesday it was Occupy Colleges Day.   I got a heads-up that morning from Elaine Young, a faculty colleague who is our resident social media expert, that a walk-out and rally had been scheduled for noon that day on the Champlain College campus here in Burlington, Vermont (as well as at 71 other colleges across the nation). As it happened, I was in class about an hour before that was to take place with a group of Event Management students, so I casually asked if any of them was planning on walking out.  Turns out only one of them had any clue what I was even talking about.  So I used it as an opportunity to talk about Occupy Wall Street and the wide variety of event offspring it was spawning.  There were a lot of unanswered questions.  We wondered about who the event planners were, what their objectives were, how they had managed to attract so many participants, whether anyone was really in charge of the “program”. We speculated about how they might define whether their event was successful—the ROI, to put it in current professional lingo.  What were they hoping to accomplish, exactly?

This reminds me of an editorial I read in the New York Times a couple of days ago about Occupy Wall Street. Here’s part of what it said:

“If you stopped by Zuccotti Park in New York and asked 10 protesters what their goals were for Occupy Wall Street, you might get 10 different answers…One protester said he and others were calling for “more economic justice, social justice — Jesus stuff — as far as feeding the poor, health care for the sick.” Another protester, a former Marine who was elected by Occupy Wall Street participants to speak for them, told NPR that he wanted to overthrow the government and reconstruct it.”  Now we have labor unions and other established interests joining forces with Occupy Wall Street, adding their own demands.  And that’s just New York—look at all of the variations in other cities around the country.   As the editorial points out, “This has led some reports to call the group unfocused, but that may be normal for an emerging movement.”  I’ve heard it suggested that the “We are the 99%” call is simply a way of establishing solidarity, a feeling of sharing a common purpose.  But at this point, the reality is that no one can say.  What we do know is that people are mad as hell.

Back to the classroom: after kicking it around for a bit, I got back to the business of talking about building an event budget, our topic for the day. Then–shortly before noon—all but three of my students stood up and walked out.  At first I felt a little insulted; after all, I’m busting my butt trying to offer them something of value here! Don’t they know this stuff is important to their futures?  But then I realized that they were motivated by honest curiosity, by the desire to find out what this event was all about.  And that’s really at the heart of education, in my opinion.  They were taking advantage of a unique opportunity to be part of something as it unfolded.  I still don’t know who organized that little event on our campus, although I did stop by the gathering in the courtyard about 20 minutes later (and yes, most of my students were still there–listening, absorbing, processing).    What I do know is that whoever initiated the event was successful at engaging a number of students, some of whom were inspired enough to take a turn speaking their minds to the small but intent crowd.  Oh, and the local TV station even showed up (perhaps because of a well-placed tip from our PR guy, Stephen Mease? Or does credit belong to the anonymous event organizers? Or someone monitoring social media channels?) to film the goings-on and help spread the word.

At this point it’s hard to tell what the outcomes of all of these Occupy events will be.  From an event planner’s perspective, they have been highly successful in attracting an audience–both the participants and the media reps who are telling the story as it plays out.  But so far “the stories” (as is the custom in modern-day infotainment) have focused mostly on the camera-friendly human dramas being played out, not about any particular issues or solutions to the problems people are saying they’re mad about.

It remains to be seen whether these events will lead to any lasting changes.  Events can be powerful tools for engaging people, harnessing their energy and ideas, and moving them to constructive action.  And as event planners, we know that it’s a colossal waste of time to go to all of the trouble of pulling an event together if there are no measurable results when it’s all over.   If you were in charge of the “Occupy” movement, what would you do to move these events beyond simply venting frustration?

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Why sustainability is not “good”

A couple of years ago, I saw Jeffrey Hollender speak at a Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) conference.  Jeffrey was a co-founder (along with a guy named Alan Newman, who went on to create another Vermont brand, Magic Hat) of Seventh Generation, a company that makes “environmentally friendly” cleaning products and is a leader in the corporate social responsibility movement.  Imagine an auditorium filled with a couple of hundred business people bent on being more socially responsible, and Jeffrey comes out with this: that he didn’t consider 7thG’s products to be good. Because there’s a big difference between “less bad” and “good”. He said that, “as much as I like Seventh Generation products–and I think they’re great–they are only ‘less bad’. All of our products create CO2 emissions, they create garbage, and they use natural resources. They’re better than our competitors, but they’re not good.”

He went on to say that it’s not enough to try to reduce the amount of damage we’re doing to the world—we need to renew and repair the damage that’s already been done, and to work towards positive change.  I figure that if we’re all headed for hell in a handbasket (although personally I’ve never actually ridden in a handbasket), the only thing “less bad” will accomplish is to slow down the ride a little bit.

Physicians taking the Hippocratic Oath agree “to do no harm.” Green hotels reduce their negative environmental impact by conserving energy, composting and reusing sheets and towels. Seventh Generation works hard to formulate products with far less undesirable chemical byproducts. And while producing special events may seem a whole lot different than manufacturing laundry detergent or treating patients, Jeff’s point about going from “less bad” to “good” still applies.

Don’t get me wrong; sustainable measures aren’t just good–they’re a great idea.  It’s fairly common practice to incorporate at least some sustainable practices into events these days and that’s definitely moving in the right direction, but we can do better than that. There are many opportunities to use The Power of Events to leave the world a little better place than before—and that’s good!


6 Event Power Tools for building positive change

What’s in your toolbox when you’re planning or executing an event?  It doesn’t matter what kind of event—it could be a conference, music festival, product launch, sporting event, trade show, or celebration.  As the builder of the event, you’ve got valuable resources at your disposal that can be used as effective tools for enhancing the overall impact of your event.  I call these Power Tools because, well, they give you the power to make a far bigger difference than what you could ever hope to accomplish on your own.  Here is a set of six power tools you have available for your use in the process of planning and executing any event:

PLACE – the site you select can have a significant effect on the surrounding area.  After Katrina, many planners considered holding events in New Orleans as a way to bring more economic activity back to the city.  Far-away destinations have become less attractive because of the significant carbon footprint from participants traveling to get there.  And wherever an event is held, there are people or organizations nearby that could be offered assistance or support. 

PEOPLE – events bring together LOTS of people: participants, volunteer or paid staff, vendors and service providers, exhibitors, sponsors, performers…and each one of them has the potential to contribute.  Within each of these groups, you will find people with specific experience and expertise that can be shared: helping to build something, teach or advise, or solve problems.  Your board of directors, hotel or food & beverage staff, contractors—they can all be invited to channel their talents and ideas to assist a disadvantaged population or provide a benefit to the community in some way.  You’re bringing them together; now make the most of it!

PROGRAM  – as you design the entire experience for participants, weave in opportunities to educate, inspire to action, or create a physical change that leaves a site or organization in a better place. Connect a cause with an audience by giving them the stage for at least a few minutes or, better yet, involving them in an interactive activity.  And while you’re at it, offer all participants the opportunity to contribute time, money or ideas to a cause during the course of the event.

PRACTICES – certainly group events are excellent opportunities to model and employ sustainable business practices.  Mandate recycling, composting, bulk water stations, printing stations…all measures that will reduce your lasting footprint.  Buy local.  Offer healthy menu selections.  Wherever it makes sense, convert printed materials to electronic. Specify your expectations in your RFPs to influence venues, vendors and service providers to meet your standards.  If they want your business, they will deliver.  Want some great practical examples? Check out this MPI Sustainability Report.

POSSESSIONS –
this one is about “stuff”, and events have lots of it! It’s just a matter of getting things organized.   The traditional fundraising approach would be to simply make a direct contribution of a portion of revenues from the event.  If you’re a vendor or exhibitor, you might consider donating a percentage of your sales: that benefits the company by promoting sales and also the consumers, who get to contribute to a cause “for free”.  Venues and service providers can donate space or services at no or discounted charge.  Targeted populations can be granted free or reduced-price admission.   Participants can be encouraged to donate money or unused possessions (discarded cell phones, used clothing) to the cause. 

PROMOTION – most events employ a number of promotional messages during the process of building attendance and communicating information people will need in order to participate.  In your messages, provide causes or non-profit organizations with the same kind of exposure that you would for any paid sponsor.  Whether it’s media ads, printed programs, social media campaigns, radio interviews, whatever…each message offers you the opportunity to work towards positive change by increasing awareness and concern for social causes, supporting behavior change campaigns, or inspiring others to action. And while you’re doing this, you’ll be making people feel even better about your event and the people behind it.

Of course, you always need to keep your focus on accomplishing the original objectives for each of the stakeholders, or the event won’t be a success.  But skillfully used, these power tools can get big jobs done.  How have you seen these tools used to build positive change through events?  And do you have any others in your own toolbox?

Toolbox for Change


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