01 Dec Q&A: The Secrets of Tech Event Success With DC Inno’s Alex Fleming
Alex Fleming is the event coordinator at local digital news and events company DC Inno, part of the larger American Inno brand (full disclosure: I am a former employee there). DC Inno throws a growing number of events catering to the area’s tech, startup, and innovation scene, including the 50 on Fire awards, and the Tech Madness competition. Figuring out how to best plan and market an event for entrepreneurs, investors, engineers, politicians, and more is a daunting task. I spoke with Alex about how she got where she is, and what lessons she can impart to anyone looking to attract the attention of those in innovation to an event.
SBX: How did you end up in your position?
Alex Fleming: I started working for our Union Activities Board at North Carolina State University as the Concert Chair when I was a sophomore. From that experience, I came to find I really enjoyed planning events so when the job search started as I approached graduation, I looked at positions in events and happened to land a spot at an event planning firm called The Webster Group in D.C. in 2015. I then joined DC Inno in the Fall of 2016.
SBX: What does your job entail?
AF: I would say 40% of my job is event logistics, 50% engaging the community with our events and 10% is sponsorship management. Obviously while planning events, logistics are key. You start with an idea and then have to find the perfect venue, food, drinks, etc. for the occasion and then bring all those players together to make it happen. You also have to have an audience so I work with our editorial team to align our content with what purpose our event is serving and make sure that the social media to promote the event align, making people want to come out. I also plan the programming for our events so make sure that is engaging and insightful to our attendees. Also, with any event, sponsorship is key, so, making sure we are maintaining those relationships throughout the entire planning process and even after the event.
SBX: What have you had to learn as part of the DC Tech scene? What surprised you?
AF: The DC Tech scene is a fun but unique audience I would say. With doing events all over the country you have to figure out what works best for each city and sometimes things that work in Austin, Texas do not work in Washington, D.C. People in D.C. are overly busy and there are events happening every day and many times, one person is interested in going to 2-3 events a week (especially in the Tech scene) and you have to make sure that your event is not only worthwhile but also is engaging and provides a takeaway that the attendee is willing to put time forth for. D.C. is a networking city so there are so many events occurring that revolve around networking and that market is really saturated.
What has surprised me though is the energy at every event. I can say, it is rare to go to a DC Tech event where people are not enthusiastic about being there which is so great to see. Everyone wants to be there. They want to be talking to the interesting people in the room, they want to be engaged and they want to have a good time.
SBX: What does it take to make a great event for an eclectic mix of entrepreneurs, investors, policy people and others?
AF: Space, obviously. You want a space where people can mix, mingle, have a good time and sets a good tone. Also, programming. You want your attendees to think, engage and converse. Ultimately though, I think you want the right people in the room who are able to help each other out. With each event, we want to support the community and that means allowing an entrepreneur to connect with an investor so on and so on. You want to make sure you’re targeting the right people and getting those people in the room as well as create an environment where people are able to connect and take away something from the event that will only strengthen the community.
SBX: How do you see your role and the role of DC Inno in the entrepreneurial/tech ecosystem?
AF: DC Inno strives to strengthen and support local innovation through both our content as well as our events. Through our daily newsletter, the Beat, we provide daily updates on what is happening and then we are able to use our events to connect those players we talk about with the larger community. We keep people engaged and aware of what is happening in the ecosystem.
SBX: What are the biggest obstacles to your success? How do you overcome them?
AF: It is tough to keep people engaged and make sure your product (editorial and events) is fresh, new and exciting. It’s easy to fall into a formula and keep doing what you’re doing but you always have to be improving and coming up with new ideas. To overcome this is definitely case by case and always a learning process; but ultimately always just staying up to date on trends, reaching out and accepting feedback and criticism and make sure you learn from past lessons.
SBX: What kind of trends do you see in events in general? How do they differ when it comes to your events?
AF: With there being so many events, you really have to bring out the pizzazz to make the event stand out. I think for events, we always have to be coming up with something new or else people won’t come out for another year. Specifically, with Inno, we have our staple events, which have now been occurring for 3+ years. It’s very easy to think events go by a formula but that’s not true at all. If every year is the same and you plan it the exact same way, you’re going to lose your audience’s attention and you want to make sure you’re providing something fresh each time. How do events stay new and fresh? I think you figure that out on a case-by-case basis but mixing things up like the venue is a huge factor, as venues are always changing and adding different kind of hidden gems that really make the audience enjoy themselves. Also, making sure the takeaways are always on point. Whether that be a keynote speaker or a panel, I think events are going to serve a purpose
SBX: What’s your favorite moment so far in your career?
AF: My first 50 on Fire with DC Inno was really stellar. At my first job with The Webster Group, we did amazing events with very high profile individuals, which was phenomenal. A lot of great memories there but 50 on Fire was unique for me because you and your team have ownership of the event. When you plan an event for a company you specifically are invested in and want to see succeed, you put so much time and dedication into it. Then, seeing it unfold and watching as people make those connections and you hear the amazing conversations, you know all that hard work was worth it. Even though the event only lasts 3 hours and you put months of work into, what comes out of those events is very rewarding and it was amazing to see for the first time at 50 on Fire 2016.
SBX: What advice would you give those who want to get into what you do?
AF: When you’re an event planner and people find out, you often hear “oh, so you plan parties?” Yes, that is true. I do get to plan some awesome parties that are attended by even more amazing people. However, that’s not it at all. Event planning is hard work. People are spending their time and money on something you planned and you have to make it worth it. If you’re looking to get into event planning, do not mistake it for the same thing as planning a birthday party with your friends (even though that is often more work than you anticipate as well…) but know that you’re ultimately selling an idea to a crowd of people. Most of the time people are familiar with the organization, so they will want to come to the event. You have to make sure what you’re doing at events aligns with the purpose and mission of the company and that’s hard work. You also are doing multiple things at once all day, every day. People email you constantly, you’re trying to figure out where to put the stage meanwhile writing social media content to engage your audience. If you want to go into event planning, make sure you’re passionate about the events you’re planning so you’ll work even harder and be proud of the events you’re creating. Plan an event you would want to go to and invite your friends to attend.