Alyssa: Hello everyone. What has been going on in this wide, wide world of events? My name is Alyssa and I am joined today by my fellow co-host, Paulina.
This week, we are going to be talking about something that's very near and dear to our hearts because we just hosted one ourselves. It is the sales kickoff. I know that we are just past the peak of annual kickoff season, but many of you may not be familiar with this concept or this phenomenon that is very akin to the corporate world.
But essentially, every year sales organizations host this thing, which we call SKO - sales kickoff is a longer name. Where we bring, depending on the organizational size, we could bring dozens to hundreds some very large enterprise organizations are bringing thousands of people together to essentially have this massive pep rally inflection moment in their year that aligns all of the sales professionals to those key business objectives, revenue targets, at the beginning of the fiscal year. So oftentimes in the corporate world, that is the January, February timeframe, and this really sets the tone for the year. and it's what gets the whole team hype to sell the products hype to sell the services or whatever it is that you're promoting and selling within your sales organization.
Now, I just alluded to this, but Cvent has hosted one of these, and we do this every January or February since we started in 1999.
Now, our guest today, I'm really excited to introduce, hasn't been with Cvent quite that long, but certainly has seen enough of the changes and the SKO space over the time.
He also interfaces with our clients and customers on a daily basis who are also producing these internal meetings - both small and large, so he's got something to say on the matter.
So I am really happy to introduce Chris Kearney, Senior Manager of Sales in our Enterprise Solutions team. Welcome Chris!
Chris: Yeah, thanks for having me. Excited to be here. This is a topic that's near and dear to my heart. I'm going on almost 12 years here at Cvent, so I've been a sales rep, attending them, participating in that capacity. But I've also, the past couple of years, been a people leader and a manager of sales professionals.
So I'm seeing it from a little bit different lens. And so something that I think is a critical event for sales teams every single year. I know many sales reps very much so look forward to the annual SKO. Same with, the sales manager, so excited to dig in and talk about our event, but also just what we're seeing in general in the industry.
Alyssa: Happy to have you on. This is the first time for you, Chris. All right.
So I am gonna start the conversation oddly enough with you, Paulina, as the lead planning professional on our SKO. So we'll start micro and then scale back up and think about what's going on broader in the space.
But Paulina, I would love to hear from your vantage point as a planning professional, give us kind of the rundown of this year's Cvent sales kickoff - SKO for short. It was, I know our first time all back together post pandemic. We've had hybrid versions or modified versions of this gathering over the past couple of years.
But I'd love to hear from you, Paulina, what's the same, what's different? What were kind of your aha moments?
Paulina: I've been working on the SKOs for the last nine years, so I feel like I've seen a lot of iterations and evolution with the program that Cvent hosts, for context purposes. And for convenience purposes, I'm gonna call it CAKO because yes, there's a sales kickoff, but the sales kickoff program is one of six actual programed events across four days.
And we typically do a Monday through Thursday pattern and historically it's been the second week or third week of February and as we were looking, down the line in 2022, at our end of year programming, we decided to move it a month earlier. We thought it would have significant impact to the business. We thought, it's so much more convenient actually starting off the year with the business's goals and objectives in the first month of the year. So that was a big change and challenge for our team just a significantly shorter runway of planning promoting a program that we haven't supported in almost three years, or about two years.
So those were some of the fundamental shifts that I think from years past we've seen just from an overarching footprint, perspective and timing perspective. I think we did some really interesting things though when S O and company-wide were virtual, and a lot of it came down to understanding what the real core takeaways are for our attendees, our employees, our colleagues, right?
And it came down to really refining the content and really refining the experience. Historically, the program has been, you know, a day long event and obviously, in the digital virtual space, a day long program for an internal meeting just really isn't productive. We didn't find that it met our attendee needs, in the same way it would for an in-person event.
But saying that, as we were looking at our agenda design this year, there was no way we were gonna return back to the 2019 program footprint. We just know people's attention spans are far more different. And, we also were gonna try a couple different things, we're in this sort of disparate remote workspace, right?
We have some employees at HQ. We have some employees that are, working from home completely remote. We have, remote offices. We have what we've been calling remote clusters of employees, so large, demographics of people in a city or just outside a city. And we really wanted to create these opportunities of basically like micro communities, if you will.
So in addition to the onsite experience that, people who were able to join us in person for, we were live streaming out to as many micro communities as we could. And that ended up being a big, uptake in scope, right? My team is coordinating with sourcing venues, food and beverage for meetings or people getting together anywhere from 10 people to 50 people.
But then also liaising with our remote offices and ensuring that the remote office teams are having just as great of an experience as those who are joining us on site at the HQ venue. And it really was very much a global effort, a huge undertaking for our team in terms of designing an experience, making sure we're optimizing it for everyone regardless of how they're tuning in.
And I think that was really part of the unique experience with this year. It was the first time we were back in two years, but I think we were refined off of what we knew worked really well in 2019 when we were all together in person. And we took the best of from the virtual experiences these last two years and, combined them together.
Four days, six programs, probably 10 that aren't officially programs, but, tons of networking experiences for those who are able to fly in and join members that are at HQ. Alyssa was talking a little bit about, you know, What is the subset of people that you're comfortable flying in? What can you hold at your office, the venue?
But obviously budgets are in play, with how you get people there. And, for us, we flew in, a couple hundred, em employees across various departments. Sales of course being one of the largest. But, it was a really rigorous conversation. we had to have real honest conversations around this is gonna really be impactful for this employee in person because of X, Y, Z. And I think those are some of the hard conversations, but really important conversations to have to ensure you're delivering the right experience for the right people across the week.
Alyssa: What I've noticed, I would say specifically within planning professions, but also the HR community is that we're starting to think about our employee population in those types of segments, these micro communities, how we activate. SKO and the sales profession is almost one of the most historic, ways to segment your business. But I would say even within our sales profession, we're thinking about segmenting, acknowledging the differences and the styles between our sales professionals and giving everyone a different way to experience even just that one programming element, which was SKO this year.
So I found that really interesting. Sorry, Paulina. Not to take us fully off script here, but micro community is us being one of the big takeaways for me is that that's the way to really activate and engage, which is ultimately the outcome that you're seeking from an SKO type of event.
But, Chris, anything to add there?
Chris: I was gonna say we could apply that principle to any event, really. if we were doing a customer conference, we can take that same principle and apply it to really deliver some effective results. But yeah, the move earlier in the year was much appreciated for those of us that have been going to it for a long time.
It was a running joke that it was always the week of Valentine's Day, so I spent my Valentine's Day with all of my coworkers and had to remotely send my wife flowers and apologize while I wasn't there. Thank you Paulina, for moving it. So I wasn't in the doghouse this year.
But yeah, no, this was an interesting year cuz I think we had an employee base with a lot of fresh faces over the last 18 months and hadn't met many of their peers in person. So I think the anticipation leading into the event was higher than I'd ever seen. People were super excited, buzzing to be there and get the opportunity to meet a lot of these people in person.
And my experience is, I think leaving open space for networking and like engagement and employee morale is super important at these events. I think sometimes we say, hey, we're flying all these people in. We gotta make the SKO jam packed. And I felt like this year the agenda was a really good mix of hey, here you get a little bit of downtime, but also here's some great content, with a north star in mind to really provide the value that employees are looking for in a couple of different angles.
Alyssa: Think that's a really good segue to the next question that I had. Paulina, I'm gonna start with you on this one, but we know that, this notion of getting people really excited about the business, but also feeling like they belong to the organization, you want them to leave super inspired.
I'm curious how you tie those business objectives that are very internal to the broader agenda design, which you described as very complex.
Paulina: Yeah, I think, as I mentioned, we took the very best of what worked for the virtual space and the virtual programming, and we took some of the best practices from our 2019 program. I actually wanted to call out in 2018. We started live streaming our company-wide meeting and our sales kickoff meetings.
So hybrids been around and it was trialed with this actual program, this internal program back in the day. So that was some of the guidance that we've leaned on in terms of our experience with hybrid programming, because we had such a vast, remote office attendee base.
But back to your question about agenda design, you know exactly what you were saying. There are topics, there are themes that we wanna make sure we're touching on. What is the business critical content that needs to be said? State of the union, content roadmap, conversations, what's coming down the line, what's gonna excite sales to share with their customer base?
Those are business critical elements and programming that we basically have every year. And what we do is we try to finesse the timing or the way it's delivered so that it feels unique every time, right? It's not just presenter to audience. Maybe it's more like a newscast style or maybe it's a panel conversation.
But either way, those are the staple program pieces of content that we start with. And then from there, to your point, what do we want our attendees leaving with? We want people to feel that this is a people-oriented driven, company, organization. We want the mission and the values of the organization to really permeate through the audience and the screen.
And so something that I think we do really well, and it's just a testament to the people, is that we source internal employee talent. If you're a singer, if you're a dancer, if you can tell jokes, you know, we have a pretty rigorous process, but people have really shined and it can be a really unique experience for employees go through that, right?
Being able to say, hey, I have this other skillset other than what you know, me for on screen. And it just creates a whole other sense of community, like understanding that Cvent values people beyond, just this sort of workspace, if you will. I think on the other side of that, in addition to talent, it's allowing the students do some of the teaching. The learners do some of the teaching, if you will. And so we have this really interesting segment for our sales kickoff where people across different career levels, get on stage and they talk about their experience with where they are in their career or what's driven them to be in their role today, or take us through your career path. And so we call it career success stories, and it just talks about the unique paths that everyone can take to get to where they want to be, and people who are, very young in their career getting up on stage and talking about, I'm here, but let me tell you where I was four years ago, and all the hopes and dreams that I have going ahead.
And you see executives shaking their hands and saying, I was so inspired by your story. And I think there's something really beautiful about that role reversal, that it's not always the leaders on stage. You know, the other piece to it is we really allow for personal stories to shine on stage, and we give people a chance to tell these incredible life experience stories and in many cases, I think so many of our Cvent employee stories have well surpassed some keynotes that we've sourced for, you know, and paid six figures for.
And so if you're thinking about your programs for next year, I just cannot say enough, the value of exposing and shining a light on your internal talent, it can really create a captivating experience for those tuning.
Chris: Yeah, no, I want to double down on a couple of those points. I think sourcing the internal talent was a turning point for our SKO. That totally changed everything. And I remember that we had some external speakers and it was always really difficult for a long list of reasons. We didn't know what we were getting. They said they were gonna do one thing and then something else happened. They were boring. But consistently, time and time again, our employees are just absolutely crushing it when they get on stage, cuz they take it seriously. They understand the audience and I think there's a an overwhelming pressure to present in front of your peers, executives, all that.
I've been on the main stage before at SKO and it is terrifying. I practiced so hard to nail that presentation because of who I knew I was gonna have to impress. So that was just kind of an interesting personal experience. I think I was on the main stage in like 2017. And that was when we really started to dive into the personal stories.
I remember one in specific, our colleague Mark Jacobs, telling a really impactful story of his life, his journey to get to where he is today. And there wasn't a dry eye in the house. So this was really interesting because had nothing to do with sales, had nothing to do with Cvent. It was about Mark's journey and how he arrived, where he is at on stage, and how inspiring that was for the rest of us.
And I felt like this overwhelming sense of camaraderie with the peers around me and this kind of like pure north star that just like shines so bright after that. And as someone who was a sales professional at that time and not a people leader, that's what I needed after a long year before a really brutal Q4 where I felt like I was just in the trenches the whole time.
That's the type of spark that I needed to get up and keep doing what I'm doing. Lots of very unglamorous days of being in sales and that type of speech motivated me in a totally new way. So I think Cvent sort of really good job of bringing that to the table as well as the other strategy, big picture company stuff. But in many ways the personal stories are what motivate and bind people together in such a compelling, interesting way.
Alyssa: I'll ask the question then, cuz I think this is the hardest part, there's so much value here, but how do you prove that value when it comes to, speaking to your C-suite? Right. And that's consistently a conversation that we have on this podcast.
It's consistently one that we have on webinars and all types of conversations with customers is proving the value of the events that you produce. Because what we're talking about here is so qualitative, right? It's the goodness. It's the greatness, it's the camaraderie. It's like all these words that aren't necessarily data driven.
So do you guys have suggestions for how you might start to measure that? And I'll leave this open to either one of you who wants to answer.
Chris: I think this is really hard. Obviously, I would recommend is just a baseline, like asking people what they want to hear going into the event. Poll your audience and get them to do a survey and what their expectation and what would get them excited, you can measure that and it's okay, how do we meet these goals?
That's like baseline. And then after the event, I think being really militant about getting survey responses cuz that's really what you have to hold onto. And then also I think looking at it periodically throughout the year saying hey, these are the people that were, very engaged during the event and they're over-performing against their numbers.
And I think, in various event platforms, especially Cvent, we can measure engagement during an event. Like how did these people participate in a meaningful. And then maybe we can say, hey, six months later, this person was a high performer. They were super engaged in the SKO in this way.
So being able to find some ways to connect some dots, I think it is a bit of a leap, but, I think the survey is like the one critical thing and I don't think all companies are as aggressive as Cvent where you send out like four reminders until I actually respond. And then we also get the people leaders to come over the top be like, hey guys, this feedback is extremely important. We invested a lot in this event. We wanna make sure we delivered and met your expectations. So reframing why the survey is important and having leadership help drive that message as to why employees need to provide feedback if they really wanna make these events great, in a good use of everyone's time and.
Paulina: Those top engaged employees from company annual wide kickoff and the top performers from Q1. I am gonna deduce those names and see if there's a correlation there cuz I love that idea.
Alyssa: And you also can look at that in. I would say non-traditional ways, but this also feels very traditional, is there a difference between those that speak at the event, right? That those are the sharers versus those that are passively listening, and might there be opportunity to activate individuals who may be quote unquote lesser engaged throughout the year.
Paulina: Through an event program like this to put them on stage to almost, I don't wanna say force the hand, but to try to get more out of the employee experience because we know that they can bring more to the table than what their current work may be. May be showcasing. Yeah, I think Chris, you really nailed two of the huge ones that are big for us. we take a very, Strategic approach to how we measure our event success. With surveys, we have a standardized total event survey, right? That everyone gives us a total event, feedback, but then we have at the program level, different surveys, right?
And that way we're able to benchmark every year. This is what the, event was rated, but then at each program level, we're able to say, hey, content was rated, 4.2 out of five, but I think you're right.
We do have a really great response rate. We've started getting pretty slick with our follow-up messaging. We said, hey, we found this, you left something at sales kick, reply here to get it back. And it's really just the link to the survey, right?
We actually really lean in on those numbers. If there's a certain area where we start to see things dipping or declining, we're gonna really look at that and say, is this programming necessary? Do we need to revamp it? Like it is something that we take very seriously because like I was saying, there's such a limited amount of time for programming because we definitely don't wanna over program.
You never wanna over architect an internal event because so much of the goodness is around balance, like Chris was mentioning - the opportunity to network, create relationships, meet new people, first timer experiences, right? It's very similar to approaching the agenda design of that of a traditional customer, external facing event.
I think the one piece for us is we always look at our budget, from obviously like a hard cost versus incremental cost perspective. And our hard cost are things that we really can't change the cost of, right? Flights are a certain thing, hotel rooms are a cost, but what can we modify that can either, move the needle one way or another, right to find for cost savings or for, program enhancement. And so a lot of that is, you know, there's a per person cost for attending this event in person.
And so are there areas that need to be cut, are there are areas that we really need to think about blowing it out to make it that much better? So just from a budgeting exercise perspective, we always think about it as a hard cost versus incremental cost and look at the total spend on a per person basis, and that helps us sort of rationalize some big, programming decisions year over year.
Alyssa: Yeah, I was gonna say the one big kind of missing piece to all of this conversation is HR as part of this process because retention is obviously one of the downstream impacts of these types of mass internal events, right? Not just from the sales angle, but bringing all of your leadership and beyond to, HQ or wherever it is that you're hosting people.
And so I think trying to connect the dots between the success of your program and or those that are engaged as part of that program and their propensity to be a retained employee is certainly one that can be aligned to dollars and cents at the end of the day because we know that it costs more to onboard a new employee than it is to retain an existing.
So I think that would be another area of opportunity is to try to align or realign the events programs and trying to associate a true dollar value to the engagement that happens at these types of events. To Paulina's point, that all comes into the ROI of the event overall.
Chris: Yeah, I think this is something we were chatting about a little bit before we got started, but I think SKOs have a little bit different tone this year, depending upon what company you work at. Some companies were facing headwinds going into the year, so their messaging to the team was, hey, here's what's going on, here's what we need to do.
Other companies are doing their SKOs later in the year and have maybe have done layoffs. So that's a very different tone. And at that point you have to instill confidence in the team. I think it's very interesting to see how SKOs are kind of falling into place this year because of some of the economic uncertainty, layoffs in the tech space.
There's a bunch of stuff going on that can really impact the messaging and the perception of this event for the people that are attending. So that's another thing. I think it just, is gonna make planners lives a lot harder this year.
Alyssa: You can actually do major brand damage at an internal event like this that sometimes we might dismiss that I know I'm guilty of focusing much more on the events that we attend and host and that attendee experience. Sometimes we forget just how important these internal events are to the brand experience as well, and how that brand gets reflected and exemplified in the employees that work there.
Paulina: That's a great point. A lot of people have been saying, if your marketing budget is shrinking, turn to your internal stakeholders, your employees, to solution for the spend that you would in digital ads or social ads, right? So lean on the amazing company culture that's established at these in-person events and use that as a brand tactic or a messaging tactic.
I think that was certainly something that was top of mind for us. I think, we typically have a really strong social following just with our employee base alone, but, tons of new faces meeting for the first time. We wanted to capitalize on that. We wanted to say, in-person events are back, employees get together and have fun.
There's tons of opportunity to bank on that amazing content that just elevates and expands your brand.
Alyssa: From a personal standpoint, I think it worked. I could feel that differently. I actually am operating in a new capacity. I was much more closely tied to the SKO experience this year than I have been in years past. And I could feel the momentum coming out of that experience, and I felt closer to the Cvent brand coming out of it as well.
As a, just a personal testimonial, I feel the good that you guys do really does work.
Chris: That's so critical cuz I think going back to the retention thing, salespeople are fickle, right? They're only there because they think they can sell this product. Many are very money motivated. So as soon as they don't see that path forward that hey, this company is still marching towards something bigger or greater, and I have an opportunity to provide for my family and hit my goals, the top performers are out the door. And so SKO sets that tone. And if you're not setting that tone, you're gonna lose a lot of really good people in the sales world, and they're very hard to replace. So that's something that, again, going back to employee retention, there's a huge value in keeping some of these employees happy that in many ways keep the lights on at a company.
So as someone who is a sales professional, I'm extremely biased. That is something, again, impossible to truly measure, but we should be thinking about this event as an employee of retention. How do we get our top performers engaged? How do we show them that this is where they belong and we need them here to accomplish this mission that we're rolling out at SKO many years?
So that's something that I've always thought about is like, how do I fit into this bigger picture? And I think Cvent has consistently done a good job with that messaging. So that's another tip I would say to event planners is how do you tie the individual to the big picture? And your content should be focusing on that in a bunch of different channels.
But I always leave that event feeling connected and part of the brand and part of a community and a micro community, within Cvent as a whole.
Alyssa: It's a very complex web, really, honestly, Chris, that you're describing. It is connecting micro to macro, personal to big picture. Like it's a lot of zooming out to zoom in, which is much easier said than done. And I do think to your point, acknowledging all of those differences in communities segmenting your employee base in all of those different ways, acknowledging their differences and then celebrating those differences is really how you make all of those broad connections, feel like it's intended and intentional and very personal to the individual.
I like also what you mentioned, Chris, before we kind of bring our last thoughts here, was just this opportunity to reengage those that are lower engaged or lesser engaged or potentially on the cusp, right?
Sometimes we only focus on the people that are doing things well, or we're gonna be there to celebrate the leaders or the people who are getting promoted or there's awards or those that hit their numbers. There's also opportunity to reengage with those that didn't, right? This is a chance to tell them it's okay, pat them on the back, embrace them back into the organization, show them that they are part of something bigger, and that there's an opportunity to shift a new narrative moving into this new year.
It's that wiping of the slate cleaning something new and that notion of reins inspiring, which I'm sure Paulina drives a lot of the decision making in the agenda design too.
Chris: Yeah. I think that feeling part of something bigger, the great resignation was all about that and these younger generations in our workforce, you know, I'm a middle-aged millennial, so I'm a little bit different than like a Gen Z. And I think for them, feeling like they're part of something is so critical.
And so companies have to nail this with these events is how do we get them to feel like they're a part of something bigger, that they bring value to the event. Maybe you didn't hit your quota, but you have something to strive for and we can show you how to get there. I think there's a lot of things that we need to be thinking about because we see a lot of buzz in the news and on other podcasts, like, how do we engage these Gen Z? it's this labyrinth, this black box that no one can figure out. But many of them are telling us, I don't feel engaged. I don't feel like part of your brand, a company. So this is an event where you can attack that head on and retain top talent that's in there, maybe early twenties who might have a wandering eye, and this is your way to bring them back in to keep them close to the brand and the north star, the organization.
Paulina: I, I think I'm speaking on behalf of my team. Internal events are some of the more exciting and fun programs that we as event professionals get to be a part of. And we're always so busy being behind the scenes for internal events that sometimes I feel like we're missing out on the delivery of the experience.
But there's something to be said around being backstage and being with someone who is early in their career and they're about to take the stage for the first time. I will say it is probably one of the most rewarding moments. You are hype, girling them up, you're there, big supporter, cheerleader from the wings, quite literally, and when they get off the stage and you're taking the microphone and they're shaking and you're like, have some water sit down, it's about to be a party. It's those moments for us as event professionals that I feel like we don't get to sing from the rooftops and share with everyone, but these are really inspiring opportunities for us as well. We get to be way more creative. I think there's a lot more license for creativity when it comes to internal events.
We're our own attendee, right? We're planning the event for peers. So I think there's a little investment in the experience there as well.
For the planners on the line listening, take stock in what you accomplish in your SKOs or internal programs because there's a lot of you that I think that's reflected in what comes out of them. And we don't always get to take a second to admire the shop, but these are some that I think have some really interesting impact on our industry as a whole.
Chris: Yeah, no, I think I saw an MPI study that asked event planners what type of event is the hardest to plan, and it was like overwhelmingly responded that internal events are so much harder than external. So I think that's something for the event planners - thank you. Cuz often this is a thankless event.
But like, I think sometimes customer facing events, there's a longer parade of thank you's cuz there's something tangible that say, hey, you've generated this much pipeline, you did this, you did that. The user conference was amazing and customers will seek you out to say thank you.
Whereas I think sometimes the sales team isn't as good about that. So on behalf of salespeople everywhere, thank you so much. Event teams all over the world for planning SKOs. We know how hard these events are and I wanted to stress again that these events are so important to salespeople. They look forward to them every single year.
This is often a turning point for many of us. The rallying cry we need to go up and get and do our job and do it at a high level. So I think just remember that at the end of the day because I know this can be thankless. So know how much it means to the sales teams and how it can change their whole outlook on the year ahead.
Alyssa: Thank you guys so much. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I feel like I say that at the end of every single podcast, but I genuinely feel that after every one of these I'm re-energized. I'm reinvigorated. I'm inspired by the people that we talk to here. So listeners, I hope you feel the same way that you enjoyed this chat as well, that maybe you found some inspiration, certainly some takeaways, that could inspire or re-inspire your own SKO programs as you think about planning them for not just this year, but the next year and beyond.
Of course, if you do have any topics or people that you'd like to see adding to this chatter and this dialogue that we have every week, and add to our 2023 season, make sure you DM us on LinkedIn, Instagram, or of course, you can always send us a note at email@example.com.
Once again, I'm Alyssa and thanks for tuning in to Great Events. See you next week!