Hi Jack, tell us how you came to the world of events?
I was born into events – my father worked with Waddingtons to host events like the Subbuteo World Cup, before starting his own business. I remember doing my first live event when I was 16, attending with the likes of Bryan Robson, Gary McAllister, and Gordon Strachan. My pocket money was cleaning, packing vehicles and wrapping corporate gifts for giveaways.
Yet I made a conscious decision not to walk straight into the family business. I didn’t want to be the son. I studied at university, but there was no such thing as Events Management back then, so I took a sports degree, and ended up developing my communication skills in the public sector, working with young offenders. After 12 years went by, I thought I could finally bring something to the family business.
Four years ago my father was diagnosed with a critical illness, requiring a life-saving transplant. For about two years, I’ve been running the business by myself. With family up here in Northumberland and business down in Yorkshire – plus, you know the events industry, when you’re on a project you’re never at home anyway. It came to the point where I could count how many nights I’d slept in my own bed that year. Something had to give.
It wasn’t easy, so we put the business up for sale. But the business that offered to buy us out wasn’t right, I had no time or respect for and didn’t feel comfortable telling our long-term customers, this was the right way forward. There are more important things than money to me, I’d rather have closed the doors and kept my father’s reputation. So that’s what we did. I sent a message out and within an hour I had 10 of our clients on the phone saying: “you can’t do that – we have events coming up and need you there.”
So Saward Marketing & Events evolved into a freelance project management business. I don’t see myself as a contractor who builds stands, I see my role as an event project manager who is an addition to someone’s team. Many businesses are now suffering from employing more and more people to deliver projects they should never be chasing, becoming recruitment rather than events companies. When you get to that stage, you’re taking on work simply because you have a gap in the diary, and that doesn’t do your customers any favours because they just become a number.
I let my clients know, whether I’m providing a pop-up banner or helping them organise an international exhibition, they are just as much of a priority. I pick up more business from word of mouth than by any amount of SEO and the quality of those enquiries are far more worth my while.
Although all our booked events from 2020 have been postponed, we’re being realistic in terms of our focus and we’ve shifted towards freelance project management for other sectors – for instance, I just got a call from the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games which was nice!
How has it been for you during the pandemic?
I’m passionate about north-east England, but the nature of the industry takes you all over the world. When COVID hit in March I was seeing the lights turn off in Las Vegas as I was taking down an event. On the flight home, I made a conscious decision to soak up as much information about the impact of the virus as possible, because I knew that all my customers were going to be asking: “Jack, what do we do?”
I’ve since attended dozens of industry training sessions and virtual platforms, and I’m now able approach customers and say what type of events work well under the circumstances. Some disagree, but I think certain things like networking can work well work online, but I’ve yet to see a good virtual exhibition. You don’t get the immersive experience and engagement and importantly attendees won’t purchase huge chunks of equipment when they can’t physically see the product.
I don’t like the term the ‘new normal’ – I believe the industry has just fast-forwarded. You can see that in terms of virtual platforms evolving as they go. The two statements I live by are user experience and user journey. Live or online, get those two things right and attendees will engage, but make them too complicated and you’ll lose them. You need to make your platform as welcoming and easy to engage with as possible.
My personal view is that we’ll come out of this recession far better than we did in 2008. This time people still want to build, exhibit, and in most cases, spend money – it’s just a matter of when they can go out and spend it.
And the word from your industry colleagues?
Our industry is built on mutual support. We never leave site at an exhibition if we see our fellow events staff struggling. We spare an hour before we hit the road, because that’s what our sector is all about. If one of us is hurting, it’s going to hurt us all in the long term. That hasn’t changed just because we’re stuck indoors – we’re still upholding that support network.
Colleagues have taken time and actually stopped and thought about their journey and businesses. We move so fast, we don’t stop to reflect and give ourselves a pat on the back for what we do. We’re doing our industry no favours if we let our fellow colleagues leave the sector. People don’t understand, we’re not just talking about project managers and technicians, but the whole raft of people who help deliver a successful event. There are so many well-trained professionals involved in incredibly niche roles behind the scenes that we can’t afford to lose.
So how did the idea for The Events Insight podcast come about?
I’ve appeared as a guest speaker in a few industry discussions, but I’ve got a voice for copy and a face for radio – so it was never my intention to start a podcast. But people were telling me: “why don’t you do a podcast and share your experience?”
I was always getting asked why I was so positive when the world was falling down around us. If we’re talking negatively about our industry, customers are going to see that. I believe we can control the message and have a responsibility to keep things moving in a positive direction. Eventually I succumbed and agreed to do the podcast on the condition we weren’t going to focus on the current negativity – there are enough people doing that. I wanted people to be able to tune in for a reminder of why we love what we do.
I’m a strong believer in people doing what they do because they’re good at it. So why try to reinvent the wheel when there are many experts out there whose experience you can draw on? So our main focus has always been around getting guests to share why they are involved in events and what they learned along the way. We’ve stuck by a very simple Q&A format and we have a little bit of fun on the way. Our aim was if we could help one person, it was worth doing – but we’ve been downloaded across six different continents, which we never expected. We’ve had some really good feedback and we’re now working with universities to try and share some of what we’ve learned.
This isn’t about making money, it’s more a labour of love. I’ve personally had to invest a little in the infrastructure of the platform, but it’s been a real collective project involving all these fantastic professionals we know, from musicians, photographers and web designers. I have a great co-host in Ellen, a true Yorkshirewoman, who I met by chance at a networking event six years ago. Together we bring a nice balance of PR and events experience and a nice atmosphere for guests.
Who can we expect to hear on your show?
The beauty of the podcast is we welcome people from all walks of life. This afternoon I was recording with Emma Holling, a maths teacher turned music festival director. She said: “I really don’t want to talk about how things are going.” I said: “good, we don’t want to hear about that, tell us about the experiences that have made you smile.” Listeners can hear the enthusiasm in our guests’ voices – it’s infectious.
Pioneering environmental events director Judith Patten MBE was our very first guest – I didn’t tell her she’s been involved in events longer than I’ve been alive! Then we had Brazilian architect and urban planner Ariel Fertonani. I worked with him on the 2014 Commonwealth Games and could have joined him for the Abu Dhabi 2019 Special Olympics, which I was gutted I had to turn down. I’m all for immersing in as many cultures and environments as you can, because they will all contribute to you being a better event professional. You find out something new about everyone you speak to and that’s all credit to our guests being willing to open up.
We’re exploring how to get more listeners involved in the podcast, and it’s their encouragement that will help us evolve and direct us towards the people we should be speaking to. We’ve also toyed around with doing it as a vlog, but we’ve purposely kept it in the podcast format because people like to listen when they’re on the treadmill or taking the dog for a walk.
We’re just trying to provide a half-hour energy boost that people in the industry can tune into if they want to learn something new or are just feeling a bit low. We’re getting as much out of the conversation as the listeners, and if we’re enjoying it, I think that comes across.
To get in touch with Jack and to listen to The Events Insight podcast, visit Saward-me.com.