The Events Expert Interview Series #22: Tara Thomas

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We've been interviewing expert event professionals in our industry, and sharing their insights, advice, and unique experiences. If you don't already know our interviewee this week, you should - Tara Thomas is an adept and agile marketing professional with more than 20 years' experience leading teams in the full spectrum of marketing strategy and execution. She has experience including marketing technology applications and online services to B2B, enterprise, financial services, publishing, real estate and automotive markets, with expertise ranging from product strategy to digital advertising. 

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1) Could you tell us a little bit about how your career path led you from B2B software marketing roles at companies like Oracle and IPIX to founding your own company, The Meeting Pool, in 2013?

Sure, as you noted, I had a long career in San Francisco and Silicon Valley in mainstream tech for companies like Oracle and Visa. Then, I worked in automotive marketing up in Seattle. And when I moved back to San Francisco in 2010, I ended up working for Certain, an event management software vendor. That got me acquainted with the meeting and event space from the perspective of a tech company.
 
As a marketer for decades, I had worked on events as a customer, or the organizer, or managing planners. I had a very good understanding of events from the corporate perspective, and the trade shows for different industries I'd worked in. But at Certain, I got the full perspective of working in the event management space.
 
So, I understood how agencies and meeting management companies worked, and as I started to really see how tech was being utilized, I became enamored with working in it. When I decided to leave Certain, I started The Meeting Pool with a former business partner. 

Our aim was to focus on the variety of technologies in the event space and be a resource for event organizers, producers, and professionals. That's led us to create The Meeting Pool Blog and The Meeting Pool Directory.
 
After doing that for just a few months, people began asking us to give tech information live at events. That's how we came to also do the TECHbar, which functions sort of as an Apple® Genius Bar, but you can ask any tech question on any tech topic. These have become popular both at industry events and other professional conferences. 

We now do TECHbars all over the world. We bring tech gadgets for people to play with. Event attendees can ask us any tech question from social media to business applications, etc., and we give what we call TECHbyte sessions. 

2) What kinds of clients does The Meeting Pool typically work with? 

We work with two types of clients. First, we work with event organizers, helping them source technology. People ask me questions all the time about their particular event scenario, and which tech vendors might be good candidates for a demo. 

We also work with event tech companies. Those are my primary clients I have on retainer. I help with strategic business decisions, product development, product marketing, and strategic marketing endeavors of a variety of types.
 
It's a mix because when I do industry shows like IMEX, we take appointments, and we give people free information to help them with tech decisions. That could be a variety of people, from a professional conference organizer in Europe to a planner at an association looking for a new way to work with budgets and direct payments.
 
Working this three-pronged approach with event organizers, event planners, and event tech companies—as well as doing a TECHbar at events, and understanding how people consume and use technology at events—gives me a unique perspective to make informed recommendations about what might work at any given type of event or scenario of events.

3) What does a typical day look like for you?

It could be anything from helping a client source venues for an event they're producing, to answering questions on technology choices for a planner who wants to do something specific like track people in sessions, or check in VIPs, or is looking for a new event management solution. 

It could be people who saw me speak at an event and have a general business technology question, an event tech company looking for marketing budget allocation recommendations, or any number of things.

And my team and I implement traditional marketing programs for some of the companies we work with as well. So, it's a great variety.

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

My biggest challenge is having enough time! It's a global world; events are happening all over, in all different time zones. We have a distributed team for client work, but it's kind of a 24-hour cycle sometimes with events.

Events have a hard stop: things have to be done, they have to be ready to go by the time the doors open. It can be a lot of work to make sure people get things done professionally the way they need to, in a timely fashion. So the element of time is the most challenging aspect of our business.

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

We work with a variety of technologies. Certainly, one of the things that's used most frequently is event Wi-Fi. We have to make sure that works for the events where we have a TECHbar. Sometimes we help our clients actually get better Wi-Fi, and we have one client at The Meeting Pool that actually provides event Wi-Fi. So, we understand all the ways event Wi-Fi is used, especially in high-profile or experiential events.
 
Second, we help with choosing the right event management platform for registration and check-ins. Different event scenarios are ideal for different types of registration platforms or event management software platforms.

And a growth area where we use and we encourage everyone to use technology is budgeting—looking at things that help planners with event budgeting and payments.
 
Finally, there is also a session that I do that is very, very popular. This is something we really subscribe to as a company. I have a session called "Break Your Excel Habit and Use the Right Tool for the Task."

Excel is an overused tool. It's not meant to be shared typically, so it can be difficult to manage users and file version control. And many people in the events space are using it for things that it was never designed for: as databases, as CRMs, as long forms, etc... So, we try to give people in all walks of our business options to use newer apps and tools that will do the job better than Excel for their specific tasks. 

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

One of the trends I think is a huge one and I'm really glad to see is AI. There are companies enabling people to provide on-site support for the technologies being implemented at events, and to have basic questions answered through AI chatbots. It's a great trend because it allows people to get the information they need without requiring a human until they reach an escalation point, and it's immediate.
 
There are other types of AI like x.ai which helps people schedule meetings better; it's more efficient than the typical multiple rounds of group email messages to find a time when several people can meet. Instead, you send x.ai out and it queries all of those people and tells you the best time to schedule a meeting.

So there are lots of different ways AI can be instituted and I think it’s a progressive and positive trend.

7) If you could give event planners / marketers one piece (or several bits) of advice, what would that be?

My first piece of advice is to understand your demographic.

The second is really look at exhibitor and sponsor value every year. Make sure you're providing new, interesting, innovative ways for people to sponsor your event; that may include them sponsoring elements of technology.

And third, make sure you're working with a company that's a good implementation partner.
 
Event professionals are often choosing anywhere from five to 15 technologies they're using for an event—from the event app, to attendee session tracking, to ways to drive productivity and networking, etc. Make sure you have a good implementation partner who can help you ensure that these things work together seamlessly.
 
So, if you have social media walls and check-in apps and new kinds of registration technology, and even AI, make sure your implementation is solid and that you have partners to help you QA, test, and ensure a great experience for your participants.

Finally, hire a good partner (like The Meeting Pool) to be on-site to help folks with all of the technology you've purchased for your event. Having an on-site help desk with tech people can really bring value to attendees. Most people truly appreciate having a place to go for help.

That was a lot of tips from my end.