The Events Expert Interview Series #20: Leo Jakobson

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If you've been following along with us, you'll know that we've been interviewing expert event professionals in our industry, and sharing their insights, advice, and unique experiences. This week we sat down with Leo Jakobson, senior editor of Successful Meetings and executive editor of Incentive Magazine.

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1) How did your career path lead you to current roles as senior editor of Successful Meetings and executive editor of Incentive Magazine? What would you say has changed most about the industry in your 15 years with event publications? And what does a typical day look like for you now?

I started with Incentive magazine 15 years ago, and then joined Successful Meetings’ staff roughly five years later when both publications came under the same editor in chief.

As for a career path, like many if not most incentive professionals, I fell into the industry quite by chance: I had been working for a tech magazine, Silicon Alley Reporter, which folded with the tech crash. After a couple of years of freelancing in 2001 and 2002, I started looking for a full-time position.

When I learned a friend worked for a publication in a building three blocks from my apartment, I told him to find me something there; Incentive was hiring that week. Since then I’ve filled a passport travelling to places ranging from Las Vegas to Switzerland to South Africa, so hating a morning commute worked out well for me.

As for what has changed the most, I’d have to say the professionalism of the industry. Meeting and incentive professionals who once focused on the “wow” factor and said their experience taught them what works and what doesn’t now focus on strategy, work as partners in creating outcomes, and help clients measure the value and success of the events they plan.

A typical day is busier than ever. Websites have to be filled on a daily basis, deadlines are not regulated by monthly print production schedules anymore, and social media takes time to do thoughtfully.

2) What's the biggest challenge you face in your work?

Staying on top of everything that’s happening. This is a huge industry with a lot of moving parts.

3) What types of event-related technology do you use or interact with?

The event tech I interact with most are apps, which have definitely transformed the way I work at events and trade shows I attend over the past 15 years. The immediacy they provide and the depth of information available make a big difference in how I work a show.

That said, I think that app designers sometimes try to pack too much functionality into their apps without paying enough attention to the ease of use and simplicity of the interface. I’m just too busy at an event to spend a great deal of time figuring out how the app works and how I can get the most out of it. It has to be intuitive.

During a recent press trip to Walt Disney World, I tried out a Star Wars-themed virtual reality ride that really got me excited for the first time about what can be done with VR, and how much it can make you feel like you are really there. The ride had a section where you had to walk over a thin bridge over lava, and even though you “know” you’re in a building in Florida, the sense of vertigo it created was very real – stronger in many ways than I felt hiking up a high and relatively narrow mountain trail with a steep drop-off on a recent vacation in Glacier National Park.

I don’t think much has been done to use it as effectively as possible at many trade shows. And it’s not just walking somewhere with a video headset over your eyes. There are tools that dental and even surgical schools are using to let students realistically simulate the experience of operating on a live person using force feedback. There is so much opportunity there!

4) What do you see as the biggest trend(s) in events this year, particularly in relation to event technology?

Artificial intelligence and big data are coming – gathering and harnessing what you know about attendees and what will interest them, and then using it to enhance the attendee experience. This isn’t necessarily new, but I think it’s being used far more effectively and frequently now than it has been in recent years.

More mundanely, I think event organizers are still struggling to use social media effectively, and to get attendees to use social media to its best effect.

In event production, one of the most interesting comments I’ve heard in the past year or so came from Mike Dominguez, chief sales officer of MGM Resorts International, and one of the most knowledgeable people in the industry. MGM just opened a new state-of-the-art esports arena at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, and having looked closely into what may be the fastest growing type of event out there, Dominguez said many planners could learn from the production values of these live, head-to-head video gaming events. And that’s to say nothing of their use of technology. Matches at top esports games can run hundreds of thousands of video streams simultaneously.

5) If you could give event planners / marketers one piece of advice, what would that be?

Don’t be tempted, or let clients push you, into starting with where to go rather than what is the purpose of going there in the first place.