A Longtime TED Producer's 6 Key Rules for Events

PDW Inc.'s Katherine McCartney shares insights for booking speakers, launching a new event, producing international conferences, and more.

McCartney produced all of TED's conferences for 18 years.
McCartney produced all of TED's conferences for 18 years.
Photo: Bret Hartman/TED

Katherine FullPhoto: Courtesy of Katherine McCartneyKatherine McCartney is the executive producer and co-owner of PDW Inc., a Vancouver-based integrated experiential agency. She has produced events around the world, including all of TED's conferences for 18 years. McCartney has been in the event industry for more than 35 years, previously holding roles at Maritz London, IETO, Sunquest Incentives, and Tourism British Columbia.

1. Innovate, be brave, take risks—when appropriate.
If you’re planning the same event year after year, it’s important to understand where to take risks and what not to touch. The community and the speakers on stage are the key, so be sure to get those right. But that still allows for a lot of room to get creative around other elements. Everyone feels the pressure of innovation for innovation’s sake—but it’s important to curate change. 

Engage community in the process, walk your survey talk, ask good questions, listen to the answers. Programming, venue, food and beverage, social interactions, workshops, partner activations, exhibits, space planning, wayfinding, even credentials—they are all areas where creativity can abound. Every detail is an opportunity to make a difference.

2. It’s all about interaction.
For every event, the speaker program, workshops, editorial exhibits, and even the social program should have a central thread or idea. With that starting point, adding creative flair can help attendees engage. Sixty-five percent of humans are visual learners—consider that as you design your event. 

Give attendees opportunities to meet speakers one-on-one through speaker dinners or meet-ups. Think about space planning; you don’t necessarily need to use the entire venue, and you want your attendees to be able to meet up easily. If you showcase technology on the stage, give your attendees the opportunity to use it. Play to the five senses, and think about them all as you review your plans for each component.

3. Book speakers with authentic stories to tell—and work with them throughout the process.
It’s important that speakers tell their story and use their authentic voice in their narrative. The role of curation is to find stories and messages that are suitable for your event.

If you want to leave no margin of error when it comes to speakers, have several touch points built into the planning process; if anything needs editing—like cutting superfluous information, changing the tone to suit a specific audience—you need to know that in advance. I’ve worked with organizations who insist on script submission in advance, phone reviews of the script, and rehearsals prior to arriving onsite. Time, budget, and resources will play a role in getting a process in place.  

4. For a new event, it’s critical to start planning early—and to have the right concept.
New trends, new industries, or a gap in the market is where new events tend to be born. Profitability may require three years, so you need a good plan for the revenue stream. First and foremost, be realistic with the initial budget and base it on three different revenue-level scenarios, which will help you know what your priorities are if you are falling short in year one. Solid programming, innovative marketing, and sponsorships are the bedrock to gaining interest for all your constituent groups—attendees, sponsors, speakers.

If you’re planning a public event, involve city officials and local community members early and have them assist in getting the message out. You need them and you need their endorsement. Begin the sponsorship drive early, as partners are key to budget and hype and it’s not always easy to sell an idea that has not been tested. It also takes longer than usual on a new event to gain commitments.

Consider your liability for the event very carefully. Secure an insurance policy and rider right away because you will need it every step of the way. Attach “purpose” to your event with an element of giving back. Continue to focus on the one element that is the most important—it will give the event its brand and place. And be prepared to make announcements for the following year’s event while your event is still live, when you have the media’s attention.

5. For international events, work with a local liaison.
When business is being conducted in another language, I recommend finding “boots on the ground”—whether that is an individual or a company. A close relationship with the CVB and tourism boards, mayors’ offices, and economic development boards can provide introductions to key local contacts.

In some cases, the country may have a structure where they require a local business number to purchase services. Also, hiring a legal firm abroad is useful if visas are required to enter the country. Be aware and consider the local custom of how business is conducted and respect it. Think through your emergency plans. Investigate taxes on expenses and any revenues you may collect while in the country. Talk to locals; during site inspections my drivers are always invaluable sources of all kinds of information.

6. To succeed in the event industry, think throughout where you want your career to go.
I have a broad hospitality-industry background that prepared me for owning my own business. I don’t believe two years in a role is long enough to learn the craft well, so think about your exit at the beginning, right when you accept the role. Know in the back of your mind what you think your tenure could be—it will help you focus while you are in the position and will help you negotiate your way through promotions to areas you want to learn. You may end up staying longer, or leaving earlier, but you are no longer leaving your exit completely to chance.

Let focus be your guiding principle. Be strategic, loyal, and curious. Skill up, and do not take shortcuts. Know when to move on, and embrace change, challenges, and opportunities. Strive for excellence, and own your mistakes. Be kind and generous, keep your sense of humor, and love the journey.

This story appeared in BizBash's Spring 2019 issue.

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