VP of Global Events for Equinix Lisa Hempel talks to Daniel Halpin
On the back of winning Best Motivational Event at this year’s ICE Awards, VP of Global Events for Equinix Lisa Hempel talks to Daniel Halpin, one of our ICE Judges about taking risks, the importance of bringing people face to face, and the impact events have on the wider business strategy.
ICE: Coming from a background in marketing and communications, you’re probably more prepared than most for the shake up the event industry is going through. How did you make the transition from marketing to managing a full blown global event team at Equinix?
LH: I’ve been in the tech industry for 30 years (sad for me to say that out loud because that makes it seem like I’m old!). It’s an industry that’s constantly changing - even if the function of your role stays the same the substance is always different.
For six of the eight years I’ve been with Equinix I ran their global marketing and communications team so I had responsibility for a huge variety of functions, which included events, public relations, social media, all of our digital efforts, vertical marketing, analyst relations, crisis communications, executive communications...you name it, I was involved in it!
But after six years I was ready to move on to something else. I actually resigned from the company, but they asked me to stay in a smaller role - to run their global events like Connect, our global sales kick-off.
To be honest, when I took the role I wasn’t sure I’d be challenged enough - but when I really set my sights on what was happening across our organisation I realised that we had an opportunity through events to take the work we had been doing on Connect, really continue to expand that, and take the same philosophy and apply it to the events we had going on around the world - to give the events team a different perspective towards their seat at the table, to not be just an execution arm of someone else’s ideas but to be the team creating those ideas.
ICE: What makes Connect different?
LH: Connect had always been my baby. When I first started, I had a meeting with the Head of Sales for the Americas and the Head of Events to plan what to do for that year, where should we have our offsite dinners, who from the executive team should be doing a funny skit…your basic cookie-cutter format. I asked if they would be interested in doing something a bit different - maybe shake things up a little by bringing in an external speaker.
The events person got very uncomfortable and the sales person responded “could we do that? That would be awesome!” With the backing of a great CMO who was creative, willing to take risks, and was game to try something new, that year we had an incredibly cool agenda of outside speakers and a mix of internal training - blending what they had done before with a completely different lens on what might be interesting to the sales team.
One of the simple changes we made that we’ve carried forward to this day (that sometimes makes me pull my hair out) was that we used executive chairs instead of the typical ballroom furniture. People were raving not only about the content but about their ability to sit in a room for six hours - they really felt that this event had been designed for them to sit back, relax, and absorb company information and outside perspective.
The essence of what we’re trying to do is surprise people and make them think differently. I get emails in February/March from people asking “when are the emails going out? I need to block off my calendar! how many invites will go out?” - people begging to go to their sales meetings, which isn’t always the case with companies.
ICE: What’s the impact of Connect on the global organisation?
LH: Equinix is a data hungry organisation - we always come to the table with data to prove what’s working. For Connect, we conduct an extensive pre-event survey process, including one-on-one sessions, focus groups, and quantitative interviews with sales and sales support teams which sets our goals for the event and a post-event survey which has a huge uptake because people really feel that they’re being heard when they see their ideas being brought to life year on year. It’s about the experience that everyone has - an event like this makes you feel like you’re part of something bigger.
Even if you’re sitting there listening to what the new product roadmap is you’re feeling inspired in the way that it’s being presented. It’s an opportunity to bring our international teams together to cooperate, to understand each other, and to understand the offering that Equinix brings to our customers that everyone - in all of our international offices - is contributing to. That ability to use the same language to communicate and understand each other is paramount.
You can create these experiences in so many different ways - it’s not just about spending money on a big-name speaker but it can be about bringing about that emotion and that sense of personal connection to what’s going on. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to take risks on creative ideas and use funding to spend on something that might not work. Two years ago, we created an experience where the 800 attendees were split into groups of 10 to create a piece of art together on a 2x2ft canvas, all of which were then brought together to spell out the word “Connect”.
As people were placing their individual and interesting canvases on the wall it became a really emotional experience - the groups of 10 were proud of the work they had created and as they came together people were high-fiving and hugging and wanting to take their picture with this thing they had created.
ICE: Why do you feel events are such an important part of a global marketing strategy?
LH: Every year we have the same debate: is it worth bringing everyone in from around the world as the organisation continues to grow when the costs are so high? But that debate quickly gets put to bed because we understand the importance of physically getting people together, getting to know each other and understand each other. Our challenge as the event strategists is how to make that three or four day period as effective as we can.
Last year, we took our Connect data and compared it against the broader Equinix salesforce surveyed data and the correlation there was that people who attend our events are more likely to recommend Equinix as a great place to work. The people who have the opportunity to come to Connect are more invested in the business, are more likely to stay, and are (hopefully) more productive because they believe in this thing that they are a part of is bigger than they are.
ICE: What role does employee wellbeing play in your event strategy?
LH: Equinix Impact is a program that’s ever-present in our company culture - it has its own dedicated team. Impact is a combination of three pillars: be well, do good, stay connected. It’s about being part of a community - the immediate Equinix community and the broader community in which we live and work through volunteering and donating time or money. It’s about how we bring a healthier individual self to work everyday and into our lives - that’s not just about health but about play and creativity.
We rolled out a wellness program with its own brand for Connect which was designed to take the Impact notion and have it be something accessible to everyone throughout the event.
That included giving people information on how to take care of themselves each week - we’re offering you meditation, we’re offering you yoga, you can take time to go for a walk or a run with a colleague, here are ways to stay hydrated or take a break in a quiet place, all kinds of tips and tricks.
To improve our carbon footprint, we donated over 1000 pounds of food to a local charity (the events industry being hugely wasteful as we always provide more food than anyone could ever eat), we removed all of the plastic bottles from the hotel rooms and the event venue, and we encouraged all of the attendees to request that they not have housekeeping service their rooms during the event.
In addition to this we added wellness to the event curriculum - one example being we had a coach come in to lead people in sessions on how to think about their lives holistically, how they balance their life and work, and build a life plan. We’re trying more and more to incorporate this idea of bringing your whole selves to work, giving people the tools and resources to learn about themselves.
ICE: Where do you think the events industry is going next?
LH: The attendees will continue to demand new experiences - no one wants to sit in an uncomfortable ballroom chair and stare at a powerpoint presentation for hours. They’re going to start voting with their feet and getting out of there! I know there are some companies out there that are doing great work to change this - on a much larger scale than we are.
I also think one area that’s going to have to make a major shift is hotels (and other event venues) - they need to start thinking seriously about the environment, to get out of the old-school way of thinking, and to start thinking about new ways to create a positive experience. We all need to push each other to do things differently, to think differently - then I think the business of events can become a way for people to reconnect face to face.
We’re so caught up in our computers and our phones - we need to give people a reason to want to be with each other physically, to have that human connection, to have that experience, to broaden your horizons because of the people you meet and the experiences you share together.
Whether it’s for a company or whether you’re doing something personally that you do together, people need that reason to come together and be with a community of like minded people or with similar interests. If we can continue to innovate in events the way technology has innovated in other ways I think we can accomplish that - people will want to come together.
ICE: Thank you Lisa I'm sure your thoughts will help to inspire our Corporate Event Planners