Microsoft's Kelly Smith

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Kelly Smith, senior national events strategy manager at Microsoft Canada, began working for the company two-and-a-half years ago after six years as IBM's global integrated marketing communications program director. Every year, Smith oversees more than 600 Microsoft events across Canada, including educational programs, trade shows, and conferences, involving as many as 12,000 attendees; her responsibilities include developing Microsoft's overall strategic direction for events. She works with a team of 15 event leaders, including a full-time team manager from Maritz Canada who works on-site at Microsoft.

What's involved when you work with Bill Gates?

When we know he's coming to town, we try to wrap a tour or program of events around his stay. He visits Toronto about once every two years, and we usually get a reasonable amount of notice before he comes. The last time Bill was here, we were able to, among other things, get him to deliver a keynote address and do a Q&A for some key clients. Before he arrives for a visit, security gets nuts. His advance teams come much earlier, and we have to account for every last minute and detail of his stay. A profile of every customer he will be meeting has to be provided, and one person is assigned as his main handler.

What's the largest event you produce?

The national tours that are part of our two broad customer programs targeting information technology professionals and developers. These programs are designed to help customers and to build community. Events are critical to their success. The tours tend to be cross-Canada road shows traveling to as many as 12 cities.

How many people do the events attract?

Depending on the number of cities we travel to, we can reach as many as 10,000 people during the course of a tour. Toronto events are always the largest. We can have as many as 1,400 people in attendance in one session.

What types of venues do you use?

Because of the range of events we produce, our venue needs are wide-ranging. We often use traditional convention space, but we sometimes use hotels and nightclubs. And we've gone with movie theatres for many of our larger educational events. Movie theatres are a fantastic option. Audiences love the comfortable seating, and the large-scale screens are great when you're doing a technical presentation or demo. In addition, the Microsoft building here in Toronto has an event space that fits about 350 people. We run a ton of events in it.

What are the goals of these events?

Our objectives vary to a great degree. Many of our events are designed to act as broad educational vehicles for our customers and partners, but we also produce a huge number of highly targeted, in-depth educational events. We also produce media launch events to create awareness of new products. We host small events to support relationship building with key customers and partners. And we put on recognition events, such as our Partner Impact awards, which will take place this fall.

What are some of your technical requirements?

We often produce events with multiple presentations and demos. So we work with our preferred audiovisual provider to design layouts providing a clear view of the stage and screens. It can be challenging. For example, when you have a technical evangelist onstage demonstrating how to write a particular piece of code to a group of 1,000 developers, every person in the room must have a good sight line and be able to see exactly what is happening on-screen.

What unusual challenges have you encountered?

The list of what we haven't experienced would be shorter! Suffice it to say we've dealt with every kind of weather-related challenge that Mother Nature has been able to throw at us, not to mention traffic jams, power outages, malfunctioning equipment, and presenters with last-minute personal emergencies.

How do you keep your events fresh?

It's easy to slip into a predictable pattern, especially when we do a certain event frequently and customer satisfaction is high. However, our team meets regularly to discuss what's happening in the event business, and that's been an ideal forum for us to trade best practices and brainstorm on how we can improve the event experience. We're also diligent in holding detailed postmortem meetings with our internal clients, and we often get new ideas in the process.

What role do entertainment and decor play in Microsoft events?

We dial the entertainment and decor up or down depending on the circumstances. Entertainment and decor will play a larger role in a product launch or recognition event than in an education-based event. We're always very careful to ensure that our events reflect the Microsoft brand and our company values, and we have to keep in mind that audiences expect us to deliver an event experience combining great content with flawless execution.

How do you generate publicity?

We have some excellent Web-based communications vehicles and properties that we leverage for many of our broad-scale events. And we've built an in-house tool to streamline the invitation process. We can do mass distributions ourselves, or we can send invitations to our sales teams, who then forward them to their individual customers. When appropriate, we will also produce hard-copy invitations.

What is your favourite kind of event to plan?

I prefer product launches. They tend to be the most stressful, as they usually involve a series of events and experiences within the larger launch. But the excitement surrounding them is high, and I am always thrilled when our customers, partners, and the press come away feeling that they got a lot of value from the event.

What is the most bizarre thing you've seen at a Microsoft event?

Recently, someone attending one of our larger events began filling a small suitcase with the juice containers that had been set out prior to the break. It just goes to show that when you think you've seen it all, someone or something will surprise you.

If you could plan any event, where would it be and what would it be for?

Without a doubt, I would love to have planned Live 8, the series of simultaneous concerts being staged around the world to highlight the problem of global poverty and to influence the leaders of the wealthy nations to do more. There were a million people in attendance and a couple billion more watching on TV. I can't think of a better event in the world to be involved in.

How do you balance your personal life with your professional life?

I'm 35 and about to have a baby, so it's fortunate that I've worked in the industry long enough to know how to shut it off when I leave the office. I'm also careful to let my team, whom I trust implicitly, do what they do and stay out of the way. I know that if I don't create balance for myself, I'll burn out and not perform my job well. As a result, I'll end up making questionable decisions. I like the push periods, but I like the down times as well. It also helps that I am really organized.

Robyn Small
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