The Allen Key; Interview with Samme Allen

By June 10, 2019Features
Samme-Allen

The tables have turned, as H&E North interviews the interviewer, Samme Allen, on her move from attending to hosting events and what event organisers should be looking for from an MC.

Samme Allen has been immersed in the events industry for the best part of two decades, having worked with some of the UK’s biggest venues, including Twickenham, the Barbican and the SEC. Upon leaving her role as Head of Corporate Business Development at the SEC in 2016, the industry veteran went on to establish a successful business consultancy, Sequoia Venue Solutions, yet after suffering an “annus horribilis” decided to take her career in an altogether different direction.

“All this MC stuff was slapping me in the face for a long time, but I just didn’t do anything about it.  I’ve been moderating industry events in a voluntary capacity for years, but I only started genuinely MCing at a multiple hub meeting in February last year called the Fresh Conference. The prize from the delegates across all the hubs for best audience engagement went to the facilitator. That was probably a sign, but I chose to ignore it, and continued to have this miserable year feeling I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of my business.”

In August 2017 in a hotel room in Florida, Samme received a call from the organisers of Fresh Conference, offering her the opportunity to moderate a pharmaceutical conference: “I said ‘you must be joking, I can’t possibly do that – I only know about the events industry!’ But they told me you don’t need to know anything about the subject matter, you need to know how to engage people.

“I’ve never been more petrified in my entire life, I was convinced it was all going to go wrong. I had a sleepless night before I flew to Switzerland, but it was a tremendous success. I didn’t need to know anything about lung cancer, but I played a small part to facilitate in conversations that will help cure these horrible diseases. It was an amazing feeling to connect participants with content in the most engaging way.”

Convinced by her partner to jump with both feet into the world of professional MCs, Samme developed her website and picked up the phone to break the news to her business partner: “Ironically, she was volunteering on the MPI board of directors, running their European meeting and events conference. When I told her I was about to launch my career, she said we don’t have an MC, so I sent a hastily written resume over and I was hired.”

Samme continues to moderate a diverse range of events from the HBAA Annual Forum and IACC Europe Knowledge Festival,  to Euroanaesthesia, the international conference for the European Society of Anaesthesiology. However, she admits that the job of an MC is not about being an industry expert, but facilitating those who provide the content.

“You’re multitasking around people rather than the industry topic. I’m certainly not an expert in anaesthesiology or pharmaceutical compliance (which is next week) – my skill set in understanding what output organisers want from their participants, how to link themes, how to run an engaging workshop and sense the mood of the room. Fundamentally, you have to be a good listener, which is why it’s quite a tiring job!”

Samme Allen has also taken on the role of Chair of Judges at CHS Awards for two years running and back in April, led the CHS19 keynote Q&A session with TV chef Simon Rimmer: “Some people just give you a bio and tell you to read it out. That’s not how you’re going to engage your audience. All I knew about Simon, was that he was just a guy off the telly, so I spent a lot of time researching his background, pulling together a set of questions trying to put myself in the shoes of the audience. I don’t need to be a PCO or an association member, I just need to understand some of the challenges in their career and what might interest them.

“All industries have similar issues, especially with gender equality, sustainability and wellbeing, so there’s often a lot of crossover. But on the other side, you just have to think on your feet, because it can all go horribly wrong. The idea of bringing an MC in, is to bring energy and passion and you can’t rehearse that – that’s what keeps me on my toes.”

Having supported the development of a number of events she has hosted, including the CHS Awards, Samme’s biggest tip for readers is to bring your moderator into the event planning process from the get-go: “It’s so important to have someone to support you in the production stages who understands how discussions and workshops are run. As an event planner you’ve got so many things to be doing on and leading up to the day –having someone take that weight off your shoulders is priceless.”

Blogging on her website as ‘the female MC’, Samme Allen is keen to encourage other women to represent a rare sector of the event industry which remains a male-dominated sphere: “I’ve heard plenty of blokes say: ‘she’s an excellent MC but why does she need to brand herself as a female?’ Well, it’s because how many times have you been to a conference with a female MC?”

When asked why she believes there aren’t more women on the circuit, she replies: “Why are there not more women in Fortune 500 businesses? Why are there not more women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies? Why are there not enough women in leadership in anaesthesiology? Maybe people don’t know there’s a great career out there. But we’ve all got to step up in terms of diversity, look at how varied our audiences are and represent that on stage.”

“Being Caucasian, I may not be the best person to champion this, but I know I’m getting a positive response, hopefully because I’m doing a good job, but also because I’m a reflection of an industry primarily made up of women. As an event organiser, you need to ask yourself, what are your speakers and content reflecting – the attendees that you’ve got, or attendees of a bygone age?”

To read Samme’s blog, head over to Sammeallen.org.