Data smarts in events: build or buy?

Trevor Foley and Mark Parsons ask ‘What about the people’? Where is the event talent that is to set up and deliver the future?


Data is here to stay, and event organisers need to use it or ignore it at their peril. The pandemic only accelerated an existing trend. Many major organisers have been exploring this area for 20 years, but they certainly were not the only ones.

However, event organisers never really had, nor needed, big data before the pandemic. We held shows once a year, with average exhibitor numbers in the hundreds or low thousands. In the quest for new attendees, we started to build data collection and refining into the marketing function. Progressive organisers had also been exploring data capture during shows, and several niche businesses exist to serve exhibitors and attendees after shows, but overall there weren’t that many data points to join up. 

The move online over the past 12 months and the likely hybridisation of events have increased exponentially the volume of data potentially available, as well as customers’ expectation that some of this data be used to give their customers (the attendees) the best experience possible. Examples include arrival alerts, custom content campaigns, and omnichannel marketing. And there is much more to do. With great data comes great responsibility, to paraphrase Spiderman. There are many considerations on how to make the most of data (how to gather, store, refine, mine and use it), but a question that pops up more and more often is ‘What about the people?’ Where is the event talent that will set up and deliver all of this? 


What about the people?

As strategy teams explore the benefits of building data-led organising companies, event directors must wonder how to make all this change when the challenge of organising a major physical event is a day-job and a half. These questions stem from the fact few players in the industry have significant experience of using data (and for sure not big data) to drive results. Basically, the underlying issue is: we don’t have the people who know how to do this. Where do we find them?

Let’s acknowledge the events industry is one of many facing this problem. A 2020 McKinsey survey  found that 60% of executives expect up to half of their workforce will need retraining or replacing within five years. And more than one-third said their organisations aren’t prepared to address the skill gaps anticipated.

Business books and common sense indicate one of three strategies: build, buy or partner. 

Build essentially means develop your existing staff. 

Buy means hire externally. 

And partner is getting the service from a third party. 

Assuming an organiser has already decided what to keep in-house versus outsourcing, we’ll explore the first two strategies. Although not a focus here, there is also a broader point on the need to upskill not only the ‘data experts’ but also management – so they understand what data can do for events, can set the right vision and ask the right questions.


Building data expertise in-house

Traditionally, big organisers have competitive intelligence or research teams, and every show has a marketing team. There are a range of roles emerging, but much of this is nascent and different organisers are building different capabilities and creating different roles. 

One way to look at this is to study B2B media companies that took a different path over the last 10 years. Events Intelligence built a ‘Digital Media Leaders’ panel to understand what roles current digital leaders have. This gives an interesting perspective on where our industry might be in five years’ time. An example company within our panel would be Ascential – formerly the B2B event division of EMAP, now reshaped and on a very different path. Based on the titles and responsibilities of over 1,500 roles in the panel, we created a word cloud to summarise the most common words which describe data-relevant employees. 

However, neither titles nor tenure can predict who can be upskilled versus not. On the bright side, the brain remains plastic into adulthood – so people can learn. It is probably cheaper to upskill, assuming you have the right ‘clay’. Not everyone will get it, but most event professionals should be able to understand what data can do for them and what they should ask of external providers. 

It boils down to the question: how difficult is it to upskill? Not all of our current marketers, research and data people will have the required curiosity and motivation to start fresh. Employees in other parts of the business should also be considered (e.g. digitally native salespeople). The other complication is that marketers are likely the busiest people in our industry right now. They had the most exposure to data pre-pandemic, so they would be natural candidates – but they are working flat-out to deliver hybrid experiences. We could see retention, burnout and churn issues. How to solve it?

Upskilling programmes are not one-off trainings. What works is gradually building awareness, understanding and confidence – not least through learning-by-doing and coaching support. This also builds motivation and retention. It may take longer, but it’s very rewarding when successful. 


Hiring new blood

One way of acquiring skills is, well, through acquisitions – known in the tech world as ‘acquihiring’. But assuming that buying a digital marketing business or a market research company also has other strategic rationales, we’ll focus on hiring individuals.

A client recently asked: “If I bring in people without an events background, will they get it?”. We answered “Yes, most of them will – eventually”. There are industries that are much farther ahead, like tech and FMCG, and it makes sense to get new ideas in. But this also raises the question of attracting talent: how can organisers make themselves attractive to a highly skilled (and often younger) workforce that may see high-tech firms as the employer of choice? And then how to retain them?

Looking at our Digital Media Leaders panel also helps us understand which industries current employees worked in previously. The main sources of external talent are market research, tech, retail and FMCG companies:

• Market research companies (e.g. Nielsen, Kantar, Euromonitor);

• Data merchants (e.g. Dunnhumby, Experian);

• Broadcasters (e.g. Sky, BBC);

• Traditional tech companies (e.g. Sage, Paypal, Apple, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft);

• Retailers (e.g. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S); 

• FMCG companies (e.g. GSK, P&G, Estee Lauder).

Some sectors are ahead of events, and we should use this insight when looking for new talent.


The right mix of build and buy

Back to the original question: Where is the data-smart event talent going to come from? The answer is “It depends…” It’s probably both build and buy. Large companies may afford to invest and add FTEs to build mixed teams, but for many small organisers it could be an either-or. 

With marketing so busy running digital and hybrid shows, another choice is to put the data-led focus at director level, accelerating the trend of event directors evolving into product directors who build solutions that monetise a community, rather than run a show.  

Events need fresh thinking and leaping ahead by applying lessons from other industries like tech, retail and FMCG. These new stimuli are powerful because we are, at heart, media businesses focused on the quality of our content, not technology businesses focused on data and the processes that create this data. The good news is that the events industry doesn’t need ‘bleeding edge’ data smarts today, because it still needs to explore and grow into its data-led future. We have some time, so let’s use it wisely!…


Mark Parsons is founder of Events Intelligence, a big data business which uses machine learning to understand similarities between companies and find new exhibitors at scale. 


Trevor Foley is managing director of tfconnect, a global recruitment and executive search consultancy built upon his extensive network across the global events industry.