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Jonathan Holloway succeeding

Tips for succeeding with events of all sizes

Posted on January 13th, 2020 in Blog, Customer-Centricity, Event Legacy, Leadership, Memorable Experiences

Whether you’re putting on a small, intimate affair or you’re throwing the party of the year, there’s a lot of thought that goes into making the event a success.

We spoke with Jonathan Holloway, until recently the artistic director and co-CEO of the Melbourne International Arts Festival about his approach to events.

Jonathan has experience with events of all sizes. He has put on ‘one audience member at a time shows’ as well as The Giants, which is the largest single arts event in Australian history.

Focus on the audience members

No matter what you’re doing, or how big an event you’re putting on, you need to make sure you’re thinking about your audience at all stages of your planning and execution. If you stray from that idea, you could easily find yourself struggling with ticket sales or return visits the next year.

Another thing to keep in mind is the way content is delivered to audiences. People no longer want to just be handed answers on a plate – they want to be a part of the discovery process.

Jonathan said, “I think the mistake people make is thinking that 300,000 people behave differently than one person. We always need to think about the individuals. People don’t necessarily remember the difference about being in a big crowd or being alone with the things they experienced.

“Falling in love and going to the Glastonbury Festival are not dissimilar in memory; they’re both things that changed our lives at different moments. Being at a football match and watching your team win a cup or sitting across from that one person and thinking ‘I’ll never forget this conversation because you’re incredible’ – they’re both really intense. I think as event organisers we must keep searching for intensity.”

“There used to be a time when people wanted someone to hand them the answer. Nowadays, people want to be part of finding the answer themselves.”

Be different, be better

One of Jonathan’s keys to success — he’s won several accolades, including the Helpmann Award for Best Special Event three times now — is to always try to put on something spectacular.

It may not always come off, but there’s a lot more to be said for someone who tried to do something special and failed than someone who attempted the same-old with okay results.

He said, “I think people do need to reach for the stars. People need to have big ideas that are transformational because it’s the same amount of effort to do something average as it is to do something extraordinary.”

“I shouldn’t use vernacular, but for years, I’ve always written on the top of whiteboards ‘Don’t be a little bit shit’.”

“If something goes terribly badly, if something’s so wrong and so awful, there’s something interesting in that. The worst thing is to just be a little bit disappointing.”

Don’t be afraid to experiment but avoid overpromising

In all walks of life, there’s this untold pressure that we need to be perfect. We’re constantly bombarded with media stories and social media posts that show people at their best, so when we don’t match up it’s easy to get disheartened.

However, no one is perfect all of the time and even though Jonathan has organised some incredible events, he’s the first to admit that he’s had his share of failures too.

The important things are to learn from your mistakes and to make sure that if you fail, it’s because you’re trying to create something special.

He said, “I’ve been fortunate to have been the head of teams that have won a bunch of awards, but I’ve also run events that were meant to get 250 people that got 8, and half of them left. Each one has been because some element didn’t go right but I’ve learnt far more from the ones that didn’t go right.”

One mistake to avoid, however, is misleading people. “I think storytelling is vital, but not overselling. Nowadays, you’re told the name of the coffee bean and where it came from and how it lived a happy free life or how it was gently squeezed into your strong flat white. Storytelling is so universal, everyone is using that. It can be a hollow trick.”

The key to success

Of course, as well as the failures, we’ve been witness to plenty of amazing events put on by Jonathan. When asked about how he consistently puts on top events, he had two key bits of advice: build strong teams and never stop believing in yourself.

He said, “Aaron Sorkin said ‘If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.’ Surround yourself with brilliant people and then just keep doing it.”

“You have to maintain your childlike belief that this one will be different. Running events is a little bit like falling in love or dating or having friendships. However much you learn, you need to start each new relationship with the belief that this one will be the one, it’ll be different from all the others.”

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