An Event: Part 1

Meandering Thoughts on Event Experiences

This is a reflective essay from the pre-listicle age where any insights are the byproduct of the reaction words on a page and the landscape of each reader’s experience.

“I am not your target audience” by way of greeting is, at best, on the creative side of a social fail. The second after the words sailed out of my mouth, I wished my social barometer was broken, too. Though they say non-verbal cues make up majority of communication, my smile (genuine, because I thought it was funny!) could not salvage the wreckage.

The woman had waded through the crowd to greet me, and she did not laugh. Her face remained impassive, though her eyes betrayed her surprise. We had met at an office party just before I had moved back to Hong Kong nearly three years ago and run into each other again once or twice. She had the energy of a host, which was a frequency I could not quite match extend compliment on the company’s blog content. That thought, and another one about how it would be better for her to network with new people, hovered on the brink of articulation. Within another polite sentence or two, she drifted on to more promising conversation.

On paper, I was not only her target audience, but her target customer. Her company is in the FinTech space and has an expanded portfolio of product offerings that now includes providing online accounts, corporate credit cards, connecting payment gateways to receive earnings, and make worldwide multicurrency transfers. They had organised a meetup event for travel and digital nomads, who would not only be natural customers, but potential evangelists for the brand if anyone was a KOL or content marketer. It was this astute business decision that was attractive. So for the evening, I wore a different type of learning hat.

When I exited the lift, there were at least three people at reception, standing with smartphones ready to check off attendance. The design was meant to process high volume traffic quickly, both a audience experience consideration as well as a method to ensure all attendees are captured. The foundation of events for business is e-mail capture, which makes registration key. When she found my name and checked me in, the woman asked if I had a business card. I smiled, said no, and walked in before waiting to hear about the lucky draw that justifies the request.

The room was packed with energy, which is impressive to late comers and sets the stage for the main presentations. The only beverage that I could see was water, though maybe there was beer on tap (this was one of those well-resourced co-working spaces). I floated around the space, noting the bags on empty seats, looking at the foam boards in the booths. It did not take long before someone spotted me a friend of another friend came over to say hi.

I casually asked him how many people on his team were around, how he had been doing, whether he was working on new projects. As my shrinking small talk questions were running out, I threw out the only one that had a direct relevance to me: did he listen to podcasts and have any recommendations? One of the most rewarding moments of the evening was when he handed me his phone to copy down his titles — more to add to the pile!

Eventually, the hosts called everyone to sit down and the main programme began. The founder and CEO welcomed everyone, introduced the company’s core offerings before moving on to new currency support. He mentioned that their product had previously built its base on a main corridor of between Europe and Hong Kong, the company had procured Chinese investment through its multicultural team, which transitioned smoothly into introducing their new Chief Customer Officer, who is from Mainland China. The narrative structure is a sophisticated building of company image by demonstrating competency through a focused product, ability to procure seemingly difficult investment, and a diversified team. The company site seems to back their claim for at least gender diversity with 13 out of 29 people are women, of which there is at least one female engineer, department head, and lead.

The next section of the event was a series of pitches by partner companies. All the companies presenting were succinct and most had perks for attendees, such as discount codes. Though the presentations were brief — probably no more than 5 minutes each — the number of people left standing by the end had nearly halved. I was tempted to leave as well — because it was 7pm and neither venue nor content supplied enough to keep starvation at bay.

To buy time, I pulled an emergency apple out of my backpack. Uninterested in straight up product pitches from companies I already knew, I focused on how they were presenting. I would have focused on the what if they had repackaged the 2–5 minutes to one concrete learning to share. For example, one company provided bundled discounts for five-star travel could have shifted the angle a bit to share how the travel industry worked. The company that offers local experiences did share an interesting fact: that their Bali Instagram Tour was their top selling one. It would have been interesting to learn how they assembled their first products, sourced local guides, or guaranteed quality. Even though these services are probably of interest to us attendees, such as solar powered travel gear company, I was not interested in hearing them talk about something I could see at their booth later. I was interested to learn about their experiences building their products and companies, or even their tips about travel in general.

As I chewed on my apple and my thoughts about switching pitches to after the presentation(s) (after people get their takeaway content, but also when their energy levels dip), I looked around at the audience. What did everyone else think of the pitches? Since I was in one of the back booths, I couldn’t see the number of smartphones pulled out, a condition endemic to events in this city. But when I walked around, some phones came up to scan the QR code offers. Whether the event had yet to prove itself for content, but at least the partners were probably getting conversions.

A friend who spent months backpacking through Sub-Saharan Africa and visited countries like Iran had arrived just as the presentations began. She scooched into the booth and in between listening, we caught up on latest projects and work. Our whispers came in sputters and starts, between attempts to listen.

By the time the fireside chat had begun, I had a clear view of the panelists from the booth. The moderator asked each of them how they juggled remote working with their teams, tools they used, best practices they could share. One mentioned Slack as a lifeline, while others used multiple channels to communicate. Others talked about administrative hurdles of opening bank accounts. By this point, the pizza had been delivered and the tide of focus turned. As the conversation progressed, attentions continued to slip.

Attention finally fell off the a cliff when the team began to bring out the pizzas before clearing the tables. With food waving temptingly in the air, heads turned towards the back of the room. They never turned back. This is unfortunate because the fireside chat was just concluding and the host was making closing comments as well as encouraging people to join the lucky draw. By the time she finished, the hungry hordes had forgotten the propriety of clapping.

It’s not likely that audiences would remember this detail. With food served, beer bottles opened, and conversations started, the event had made it through the trough and was back on the upswing.

Before heading out, I spoke to the person standing beside me out of politeness. She worked for one of the leading startup platforms in the city. Most of the conversation was mapping out startup events, companies with mutual contacts, and organisations that we knew. It was a studied exchange where names were dropped, test sentences were thrown out, positions adjusted accordingly. That I knew her boss meant something. That I knew someone in her former company something else. The way she assessed my prior organisation as an “institutional investor”, suggested that it would be an effort to share the organisation’s learnings about funding and sustainability. I took her opinion and kept mine to myself.

The conversations around the two of us flowed with ease. The companies with booths had curious visitors. Name cards were exchanged. The pizzas had disappeared, but smiles were everywhere.

The host team was dispersed ubiquitously with their company t-shirts. Their site would probably get some uptick in traffic that night and likely a few downloads. With the location and catering, they were likely to get a crowd in again next time. This was their third time holding an event. Would they build a reputation as the company that threw great pizza parties at a fancy coworking space, the one that could get cool people for fruitful conversations, or the one with useful content that people could not learn elsewhere?

My conversation caught a second wind when she mentioned she had a social enterprise addressing poverty alleviation. Keen to learn more about it, I asked what it did and what its business model was. She admitted that they were figuring it out and aiming at CSR departments as clients. I suggested that she find a way to reach marketing departments, which have larger budgets, to sell the CSR component as long as the positioning is done well. She politely took the idea, and eventually worked back to CSR departments. At that fork in the conversation, I could continue learning about her business and throw ideas around. The effort needed to establish my credibility on the subject was too much for 8pm. I wished her well on the project — perhaps I would read about its success story one day. But for that evening, I decided to keep my eagerness in check and release us both from the conversation. She would probably need to network more to make her time worthwhile. So would the organisers and partner companies to get the conversions.

“Did you want to go?” I reached over and asked my friend, who was on her phone while waiting. With that we headed out, glad we both attended.

Thinking about the intersection of social justice and tech, with a LGBTQ and POC lense.