The Events Expert Interview Series #26: Keith Johnston

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We have been interviewing expert event professionals in our industry, and sharing their insights, advice, and unique experiences. With more than 15 years experience, Keith Johnston has worked on both the planner and supplier side of the meetings and events industry. He is well known and widely sought after as a resource for conference planning, technology advice, and social media know-how for event and association professionals worldwide.

1) You've been involved in the events industry for more than two decades, as a planner, sales director, publisher, speaker... could you tell us a little bit about how that path led you to your current role at i3 Events, and what a typical day looks like for you now?

My path in the events industry winds through some strange terrain. I started in the bar industry during college but, as you can imagine, that was sketchy at best. So, when I saw an ad for exhibit sales at the National Restaurant Show, I thought “I could do that." Bam, I was hooked. Once I was on a show floor with 2,000 exhibitors and 100,000 attendees, I knew what I was going to be doing for a long time, and here we are 20 years later!

After my big show stint, I took a couple of meandering side roads (which I recommend for everyone) which included time in sponsorship sales, catering, working as a trip director, in audio visual, and then into planning and logistics. After all of that, it was time for our own thing, so we started i3 Events and have concentrated on the small and medium sized association market ever since!

A typical day for me starts about 6:00am and with our varied client list and event schedule. No two days are the same, cliché yes, but happily true. One morning I may be working with our crew to get a new conference website and registration site launched, the next I might be sitting in a client’s office tossing around ideas on how to better engage attendees through educational programming, and by the end of the week I am sitting in San Diego waiting for trucks to be unloaded.

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

I have known this question was coming for weeks and it is still the hardest one on the list because I know the answer without hesitation. The biggest challenge and greatest blessing in events is technology. We all know good tech can help events scale, run smoothly, and create amazing attendee experiences. But the cost and complexity cripple many budget/time strapped organizations.

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

Because tech can be the biggest challenge, I spend a huge amount of time researching event technology solutions, testing them, and vetting them. We end up using some of it and run away from most of it… when a solution has promise but is too expensive, we will try and find ways to replicate some of the functionality with existing software and hardware. Basically we create Frankentech, so the little guys can run as well as the big guys.

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

The biggest trend I am seeing from many clients is a back-to-basics approach to technology because they have eventtech fatigue. Planners are sick of trying to implement solutions that are super expensive and never fulfill their promises or plugs the holes they were created for.

This year they are taking the time to fix what was broken but only halfway fixed. Going back and working on getting on-demand registration set up correctly, finally creating websites that are mobile responsive, paring back so that the event app has only the features that the conference or show needs. The trend is not looking forward but looking down at what is already there.

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

Regardless of where you are in your career, take a few hours out of your (crushingly) busy day and ask someone else how they do their job, ask about their equipment, ask about their kids. There are so many planners and marketers who have no idea what the A/V folks do, what the hotel back-of-the-house looks like, or what their registration/housing team does.

Go to the airport, hold a sign, and greet your own attendees for an afternoon, it can be life changing. To be the best in the industry, you must understand how all of the pieces come together to complete the puzzle.