Cynthia Richards, president of Toronto-based Event Spectrum Inc., says the experience of being a leading female entrepreneur in Canada has not yet become old hat.
That’s despite the fact that her firm — whose revenues grew to $5.4 million in 2004 from $97,000 in 1997 — ranked on Profit’s Top 100 fastest growing companies in 2005 for the third year in a row, and she has been recognized by Chatelaine’s Top 100 Women Entrepreneurs. ESI, which focuses on staging internal corporate events, targets a range of sectors, including IT. Richards spoke to Pipeline about the shift in marketing focus in that sector and how her firm is capturing the resulting opportunities.
Pipeline: I understand you opened a division that targets high-tech a number of years ago. How has that division grown relative to the other sectors the company targets?
CR: It hasn’t. It did and then it kind of faltered and now it’s coming back again. It was our timing. There was a huge need and then everything hit in the IT sector but it’s now coming back.
Pipeline: IT companies usually spend a lot of time and money on product launches to their customers and the press – are they changing the way they market their business to employees, do you think?
CR: I think they are. What we see is definitely a much more serious consideration of wanting to get the employees both educated about new products but also very excited, so it’s not just ‘here’s a pizza coupon, we’re launching a new product’ anymore. It’s really taking into account they’re a primary audience in a successful launch.
Pipeline: What are some of the most outrageous things you’ve done? I see a lot of dressing up photos on your Web site.
CR: We did a pig race with little pigs. The thing we always try to incorporate is the element of surprise. (On one occasion a company was doing) the typical coach transfer from here up to Muskoka for a golf tournament. We hired an actor to pose as a CSIS agent. This was with a client that had a number of people coming from the U.S. The actor was fantastic. He pulled the coach over, he had a lot of information on who was on the bus and he made the people get off and answer a lot of questions about their cross-border stuff. These people were getting a little nervous. We had captured everything on video but they didn’t know this. Then they had to do a funky chicken dance or something to get back on the bus so they finally realized something was up. So we’re always trying to take kind of a boring thing and turn it into an event.
Pipeline: Tell me a little bit about the process you go through in planning an event.
CR: Probably the most time consuming is the first phase, which is the research phase. We spend an inordinate amount of time asking questions, and really this is our differentiating factor because we don’t just say, ‘you want a party,’ we really ask meaningful questions. What does success look like to you? What do you need to get out of this event? Is this integrated into a marketed strategy that’s going to be one or two or three years down the road? We really need to get inside the head of the audience. Then we come back here and brainstorm. There are 14 of us and we put out there that this is what the client is looking for and we brainstorm ideas, so then we analyze and develop it. Then we put the concepts together. We present the creative ideas to the client, and hopefully the client loves them. Everything we do is customized and that’s when we slowly build the program. We have one person who does the negotiating, so (she takes care of things like) air, hotel, ground transfers, décor. Then we deliver – we put together the critical path and execute it.
Pipeline: Once a company holds an event like some of the ones you stage, it must set the bar a bit higher in terms of what employees expect from their employer. What happens after that?
CR: It does. Then we continue to have to reset the bar and I would say that is always our challenge. We’ve done very well so far. Typically, we do set the bar, we raise it, and it’s a challenge because budget may be an issue or timing of product. So the bar always needs to be reset but if budget isn’t there, or the product isn’t getting so much attention, we just look at it in a different way.
Pipeline: What are some of the most interesting internal events you’ve done for IT-focused firms recently – would it be the MSN/ Bell Sympatico event?
CR: That was a very interesting one. This was for 6,000 call centre employees, and they had an extremely tight deadline. They needed to get the communication across as to what the product was, so a little bit of education, but most importantly to get them very excited to sell the product. In the past they had done things like ‘here’s a pizza coupon’ and ‘here’s a lunch and learn.’ This (event) was really difficult because these were call centre employees who only had half an hour in a day to have lunch, so our strategy was simple. We actually created an event in a box. We took the event to 23 call centres in Quebec and Ontario within a 10-day period. It was a summer beach event and we created a beach at every single call centre. We had sand brought in, we had music, palm trees, décor was sent via trucks, we had beautifully catered lunches served in sand pails, and we had lots of prizes. The product was launched and we had trivia questions where people could win prizes and then they could go online to win more prizes based on their sales over a three-month period. Some of the prizes were really good. It was a huge success, and it was because these people felt valued and special.
Pipeline: To what do you attribute the huge growth in your business – obviously you’re offering a service businesses are looking for but what other explanation would you give?
CR: For sure there has been a definite shift from the Tier 1 advertising marketing dollars. All of our clients have shifted dollars to realize events are ranking up there in terms of return on investment, so that’s helping us a lot. No. 2 is probably our corporate philosophy. We’re kind of a midsized firm, but our philosophy is we treat our employees extremely well so they’re really happy and excited about work and it spills over with what we do with our clients. because at the end of the day we get a lot of referrals – that’s how we get most of our business. I would say it comes from the enthusiasm everybody has here. It sounds hokey but it’s true.
Pipeline: Tell me a bit more about the metrics end of an event – what are companies looking for in judging whether an event was a success or not?
CR: There are usually a few things that would be typical sales incentives so say a client’s third quarter sales have been dropping and they need something to inject some excitement so one would be increased sales and that’s very easy to measure.
Pipeline: What’s your growth plan in terms of employees?
CR: It’s that constant balance of looking to grow your client base but to also make sure your service levels never dip, so our goal is to continue growth but in a managed way.
Pipeline: Is it a conscious decision to have an all-women team or is that just coincidence?
CR: No, and in fact we’ve hired a gentleman who is starting on Wednesday. It’s just that this industry tends to be women dominated.
Pipeline: Are some industries more open to dealing with businesses headed by powerful women?
CR: It’s never an issue.