When i2 Technologies decided to expand its Planet user conference to Europe, planners had less than six months to make it happen.
You're finally winding down from producing the largest meeting in your company's history, a meeting that broke all attendance records. A meeting that won accolades from attendees and the press. There's only one way to celebrate. Do it again. And this time, do it in Europe. You've got six months to pull it off.
Those were the marching orders for Melis Jones,director for i2 Technologies, a Dallas - based supply chain management company on the cutting edge of Internet b2b solutions. Planet, i2's signature event, has evolved from a simple user conference at its launch in 1997 to an industry-wide event.
"In the three years we had been producing Planet, attendance more than doubled each year, with the Las Vegas Planet of 1999 attended by 4,500 of the world's top supply management and business-to-business professionals," says Jones. "With the feedback from our European divisions, and their attendees, being so positive, we knew a European version had to be a top priority."
Right after i2's Las Vegas Planet in November 1999, i2 committed to opening Planet 2000 Europe the following May. While i2 naturally wanted to make the most of the momentum behind its U.S. conference, scheduling issues also played a part in the short lead time. "We didn't want to have the event over the summer holidays, or in the fall," says Jones. "That would conflict with the U.S. Planet. That only left the spring. And while we have had a number of events in Europe, this was going to be our first international Planet, and that's a whole different ballgame."
Vienna Gets the Nod To have the curtain go up by May meant i2 needed some planning heroes. The three-day event required keynotes, 50 breakout sessions, an expo hall, and parties each evening, all produced with the flair of its U.S. conference. Premier Productions International, i2's event production partner got the call.
"'Can we find a venue, coordinate, and produce an event that achieves the quality and excitement that Planet has come to symbolize in the industry ... in Europe ... in May?' was the question posed to us," remembers Bob Krause, CEO of San Diego - based Premier Productions. "What else could I answer? `Absolutely.'"
The first order of business was to find a venue. "Nationalism is a very real consideration in Europe," says i2's Jones. "Our European offices were very helpful in our effort to narrow down the initial site selections. There are just some cities that some people from other parts of Europe wouldn't feel comfortable in, and that would factor into their decision on whether to attend.
"Another consideration," continues Jones, "was the size of the event and the lead time. Most European meetings are more regional in scope, so most of the venues available to house and host our target audience of 1,000 attendees were already booked. From our research, we found that Vienna has become one of the top convention sites in Europe. It is centrally located, used to diverse groups, and is just a beautiful city, especially in the spring."
A couple of weeks before Christmas, Krause put together a top team, including event producer Elaine Franklin, and headed to Austria for the first site inspections. Although Vienna offered a great location and experience with conventions, neither factor guaranteed a venue.
"With the time-frame we were working in, our choices were somewhat limited," says Franklin. "In fact, at first glance they were nonexistent."
Krause elaborates, "We looked at a lot of different places and were stretching quite a bit to find a suitable location. We even seriously considered an abandoned train station, but decided that the effort involved to get power and basic amenities up and running wasn't worth the trouble. Besides, it was cold in Vienna, and the wind whistling through the broken windows just didn't seem very appealing at the time."
In the end, working with Peter Martin at the Vienna Convention and Visitors Bureau, i2 found space at the government-owned and -operated Messe Wein Congress Center (www.messecongress.at). "My first impression of the Messe Wein was, well, drab," says Krause. "The walls are sort of a pastel salmon orange, and the room itself isn't as big as we were used to for this size event. But that's what we had to work with, so that's what we did: We got to work."
Local Considerations The next step was to identify and choose local vendors, and the on-site team broke off into their specialty areas. With Peter Martin's help, Premier's hotel and transportation coordinator, Christine Wessel, put together a package of rooms and transportation arrangements that spanned 10 hotels, including the Plaza Hotel, Hilton Vienna, and the ANA Grand.
Franklin and Brendon Hayne concentrated on venue and off-site event logistics and were instrumental in identifying the cultural differences between American and European event management so those factors could be taken into account for budgeting and time management. Simple things like the expected length of lunch breaks and labor overtime policies are key considerations when working in a foreign environment. "Europeans structure their work day differently from most Americans," says Franklin. "They rarely start before 9 a.m., and they end their day at 5 p.m. And, for example, lunch for me is an exception, but it's more the rule in Europe. It is their time to relax and enjoy."
For the event to run smoothly, everything that contributes to the production, no matter how small, needed to be addressed and understood by everyone. "We interviewed about five vendors in each of the primary categories," says Franklin. "In my 23 years of event management, I've found that you always need to be comfortable with and confident of your local vendors. When you're coordinating an event from the other side of the world, that becomes even more critical."
Whiz-Bang-Wow With his team nailing down the fundamentals, Krause was able to focus on his specialty, what he describes as the "whiz-bang-wow" element. "Our primary challenge at this point was the venue," Krause says. "Besides the generally drab color and architecture, the ceiling was extremely low, about 13 feet, and the room itself wasn't laid out to accommodate the `big stage' look we like to provide."
After interviewing a number of audiovisual and production companies, Krause hired Vienna - based Buro Wein, Events and Incentives. "[Buro Wein's] Michael Mullner had worked on events for some of the top telecommunications companies in Europe and was used to events that were both fun and different," Krause says. "That, and the fact that he and his staff all came from theatrical backgrounds, really clinched the decision for me."
Theatrical backgrounds drove theatrical solutions. "We overcame [the building's] obstacles with oversized signage featuring i2 and other sponsors' logos, and simply overwhelming lighting design," Krause says. The final staging featured 98 "intelligent" lighting fixtures programmed to music for the opening sessions and speaker introductions.
The stage itself was backed by three rear-projection screens seamlessly joined to form a 10-by-36-foot solid wall of video. Three 7,000-lumen projectors cast images fed by computer-controlled digital disk recorders, or DDRs. "The use of the digital playback devices allowed us to instantly change the look and feel of the background elements to introduce the speakers and augment their presentations," Krause says. "We had all the elements, such as titles and background graphics, constantly moving across the 36 feet of screen; it was incredible."
Another challenge of the building was a dearth of breakout space. Individual rooms for the 50 different breakout sessions were not available, so areas had to be defined by using modular walls in larger rooms. They created three breakout rooms as well as 15 small offices for sponsor meeting rooms, a speaker room, PPI's offices, i2 offices, and so on. Each meeting room needed a complete AV setup with sound reinforcement. The potential for "volume wars" had to be avoided. Krause brought in Maarten Vanneste of Abbit Meeting Support based in Turnhout, Belgium, (www.abbit.be) to provide the solution. "Maarten and his staff are experts in low-volume speaker support. They basically sound-designed each room, utilizing multiple speakers throughout the area running at very low volume. The effect was fantastic. Very intimate, but incredibly clear."
Success Breeds Success "Perfect," is how Melis Jones characterizes Planet Vienna. "We have a reputation to maintain. [Our events] are entertaining from the moment the attendees arrive to the moment they leave the last party. Our first European Planet was no exception."
OK, you're finally winding down from producing your first European Planet, a meeting that you designed in six months. A meeting that broke attendance expectations. There's only one way to celebrate. Do it again. And this time, do it in Asia.
In 2001 there will be an April Planet Asia in Singapore, a May Planet Europe, and an October Planet U.S. in Las Vegas.
l On working around the time difference: "A major factor in planning and coordinating this event was the time difference between our San Diego location and Vienna," explains Premier Productions International event producer Elaine Franklin. "I rearranged my entire life for 41/2 months. I found that if I could get into the office and be ready to work by 4 a.m., then I could call Vienna at noon their time. With lunches and such, I could get about three hours of available teleconferencing time per day."
l On budgeting: "Europe is much more expensive than the U.S., in terms of putting on an event," says Franklin. Little things such as gobos (lighting devices that cast patterns such as logos and geometric designs) cost 10 times as much there as here. Items that we are very comfortable with, and estimate very accurately based on our previous experience, had to be checked and double-checked to ensure their accuracy in Europe."
l On currency: "When you're getting paid in dollars and you're paying out in local currency, the actual price you're paying for goods and services varies on a daily, or even hourly, basis," says PPI's CEO Robert Krause.
l On labor costs: "The price you are quoted is the price you pay," Krause says. "There aren't any overtime issues, mainly because the crew doesn't work overtime. As long as you are aware of this, you can work around it. It's not being aware of this cultural difference in work ethics, or choosing to ignore it, that can get you in trouble."
l On getting the AV right: "The logistics of designing and outputting animation across [three] screens was quite a challenge to our graphic designer and animator," Krause says, "especially since it all had to be in PAL, the European television format. We tested all the elements for sync and transitions across the screens here in the U.S. on rented PAL equipment, and then re-input and synced up the project on site."
"Our event marketing department is a savvy operation. We utilize custom-tailored direct mail, e-mail, and Web-based tools to entice prospective attendees," says Melis Jones, i2 Technologies' event marketing director. "We dig deep into the targeted companies' needs and concerns and tailor the message to say how attendance will benefit them. We would normally handle this operation from a centralized location for both economies of scale and a unified look and feel."
Not so fast. When marketing in Europe, it pays to consider the varying cultures of your target audiences.
The i2 offices in the UK, Germany, Italy, Brussels, France, Sweden, Spain, and South Africa - the target regions for the event - convinced Jones that all the marketing materials should be routed through them for translation and final massaging of the message. "While we did not produce separate invitations or other printed collateral, each country's office provided feedback while the material was in the design phase. That ensured that the unified look that we strive for was acceptable in all the locations."
Jones may have given up some control of the marketing process, but sensitivity over efficiency seems to have paid off handsomely: Attendance for Planet 2000 in Vienna came in 40 percent over target, a total of 1,400 attendees for the first-time European event.