Ankush Gupta (00:33): Hi, I’m Ankush. I’m the founder of Eventible.com, and this is Building Awesome Events. Our special guest today is Ashley Priest, former head of event services at Hopin. Ashley has worked through so many different things. She’s moved from the fashion industry to the event space, and I’m very curious to understand how she made that transition and talk about all things event marketing. So welcome to the show, Ashley. It’s great to have you here.
Ashly Priest (00:57): Thanks so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Ankush Gupta (00:59): Wonderful. Let’s get started. Ashley, let’s start from the very beginning. I was seeing that you spent almost six years in luxury design in the fashion space with large brands like Victoria’s Secret and La Senza. How did the move to events happen? What got you thinking that you need to be in the event space? Was it serendipity or something that you worked towards?
Ashly Priest (01:22): I think it was a little bit of serendipity. It was actually 10 years total in the fashion industry. I was also in London for a bit with some boutique brands on my social calendar. I’ve always been passionate about events. My friends jokingly refer to me as the field trip leader. And I actually used to write, in my twenties and thirties, an events newsletter for New York that was called the A-List (Ashly’s Awesome Activities). I always did that on the side. My path to events in a more business-oriented professional sector actually started with nonprofits. So I’ve been a supporter of “She’s the First” for more than a decade. And that foray into fundraising events started with a benefit concert that we held called Girl Through Rock. Our headlining artist was from American Idol.
We raised $3000 and sponsored an entire class of students through a school in India, actually called Shanti Bhavan. And now we’ve been doing that for over a decade now, and actually, unfortunately, I was laid off from L Brands, which is the parent company of Victoria’s Secret. Selling underwear was not saving the world. I wanted to do something that was more beneficial with my skillset, and I’d always leveraged my industry contacts in the fashion world to support fundraisers in different aspects of events. So I was at the time involved with a social enterprise organization called Social Ventures. And they partnered with another group called the Columbus Foundation that helped nonprofits develop social enterprises so they could have a revenue stream that existed out of the grant cycle.
And it was this great mash-up of my design, marketing, retail background and understanding of how to market a business and sell a product and helping these nonprofits understand what they could take as a skillset that was either a service or a product and share it with their constituent base and has sustainable revenue. And that evolved into working with startups. And then, I was an advisor for Columbus Startup Week, which used to be part of the Techstars program, which is part of Chase for Business. And that is where I met the founder of Women in Digital, which is now Women Together Digital, and I became their National Director of events.
Ankush Gupta (03:43): That sounds like a lot. And the one line that really stood out for me was that “selling underwear was not going to save the world.” I think I’m going to use that to promote this episode. So after the Women in Digital experience, you moved on to managing the Women in Analytics conference. What was that like? Talk me through a couple of the jobs after that where you were really working in events. What kind of events were these, large format events, in-person events, and really what is the experience that you gained during this time?
Ashly Priest (04:25): So the whole point of my role in both of those organizations together, digital, which is what they rebranded as together, digital and Women and Analytics, they are business associations. They do have a membership base, and we did have a growth model, an aggressive growth model, as we first did. I was one of the first three employees at Together Digital and was just for a while consulting at Women and Analytics as they grew. And we were able to double the national conference in size every year. We had a really smart marketing strategy, but very grassroots. A lot of it was word of mouth. And we were giving a platform to women in both of these industries that are very heavily male-dominated, that are STEM fields that you don’t always feel like you have a peer that understands that you can go to.
And it was a lot about community building. So what I did at Together Digital is not only did I do our national annual conference every year, which was at the quarters in Columbus, Ohio. It’s influential in the team that became an official partnership with South by Southwest. We had events last year. We had membership discounts for our members. Additionally, we had 25 City chapters, and so every single month, we had 25 member-facing events in cities across the US. And then Women in Analytics is a more global footprint. They have ambassadors as far as Singapore, Berlin, and other parts of Europe, and obviously other parts of the US.
Ankush Gupta (05:51): That’s great. And, sounds like a really enriching experience, Ashley. And finally, you made the move to the virtual event management software side of things, with Hopin that must have been a little crazy. Tell us about that because, that’s a sector really on an unpredictable edge right now with, in-person surging so much. And a lot of people are wondering what’s going to happen with these companies. But just tell me a little bit about your experience. What was it that you were tasked with at Hopin? What were, what were you tasked with doing, and how did that sort of play out?
Ashly Priest (06:22): So similar, I think Hopin is facing a lot of similar challenges, as the world moves into the future of the event space where I think hybrid is definitely the way we’re going to go. And virtual is never going to go away. We have seen the benefits and the drawbacks of that. But we all know the benefits and drawbacks of being at in-person events. And I think the, the one thing I can say about Hopin, is that they, they hired very talented, passionate, but also some of the most genuinely kind, sincere, wonderful people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. We still put together once a month to connect. But the challenges that they face is, I think, they were still trying to straddle both of these worlds. And their whole motto was about connection and the, what I spent six months doing was developing a return to in-person events. And I don’t think it fully aligned with the leadership team’s vision of what a community platform could be. And they didn’t have a strong, in-person event background. A lot of them had data, a lot of them had marketing, a lot of them had resource allocation, operational things. They didn’t come from that nitty-gritty event side of knowing what it’s like crawling under a table, looking for an extension cord five minutes before going live. There’s a different aspect of that that I don’t think they could reconcile.
Ankush Gupta (07:46): And I think those aspects are difficult to reconcile with a piece of software. It’s really going to be tough. Things like networking have not yet been solved. The fact that you’re going to shake somebody’s hand or go out and get a drink at a pub nearby or a bar nearby. Those are things that technology has not been able to solve yet. So as the head of event services at Hopin, what was your mandate? What were you really doing at Hopin?
Ashly Priest (08:11): So we had a team across seven countries. We had our event managers that worked very closely with our customer success team. And there was the way that the customer journey went is that we aligned you with the different platform features that you needed. There was some training, and then my event managers, depending on what level of client is. We would be there with you in your virtual platform, making sure that everything ran smoothly, giving our best recommendations, and also helping you troubleshoot depending on if it was, a one-off event, maybe a charity doing a non-profit or … We had larger, larger companies. We were with Coca-Cola. Asia was actually one of our partners, that we were doing all of their internal events. So we went up and down the scale of event size from five people to, 5,000 people.
And what I was doing for Hopin was eventifying some of their language and practices, and policies so that you were an event planner as a professional seeking out this platform. The lingo and the application of the virtual component to what have been the real component made sense to you. Because we, they, weren’t quite using event terms that made sense to everyone. And even when we called things production. Production in the event space means so many different things to different people depending on your role.
Ankush Gupta (09:26): Right. Yeah. And now that, you’ve been through this experience, actually, how would you view a virtual strategy versus an in-person strategy? I mean, when you’ve seen someone should, like, go towards either of these and so what would be your go-to and for what reasons?
Ashly Priest (09:41): I do think, as I said earlier, if virtual is here to stay in some way, maybe it’s hybrid events, but I think you have to decide what are your event goals. What are your event needs, and what are your attendee goals and attendee needs, and how do those align, and what is best suited to that purpose? If it’s more of a workshop, maybe does everyone need to travel and pay for a hotel and be there in person? Like, we have seen that educational components work in a virtual capacity. So maybe a virtual event is just fine for that. Are you having a really famous speaker with a tight schedule? Is it OK to just zoom them in? But the rest of the conference is live. Every event is its own unique creature. And think trying to blanketly say one is better than the other for your event doesn’t always apply. And it doesn’t lead you to the best results.
Ankush Gupta (10:29): Right. No. Well said. I agree. Completely that it’s all about, what goals, what are the outcomes that you want out of the events. And you really have to go with the flow based on what it is that you’re trying to pull off.
Ashly Priest (10:42): You wanted to check off some things of a list to help you figure out your strategy. The things that I always look about is not just for the speakers, but also for the attendees. What kind of accessibility do they need? Is it ADA-compliant? What kind of cost are you looking at? A lot of times, people think virtual’s cheaper. If you’re doing it cheaper, you’re doing it wrong. Oftentimes, it costs us as much as an in-person event. What kind of on-demand viewing are you going to have post-event access to speakers? Is it better for them to not travel and be virtual? Are you doing it only locally? And then things like replays and social sharing and how that builds into your larger pre and post-event marketing strategy.
Ankush Gupta (11:18): Yeah. Absolutely. And my next question actually would be that from a tech perspective, there are like a gazillion tech platforms out there, right? And that’s probably part of the struggle, and in-person is surging the 800 companies like Hopin in the pond. But what’s the one that you would rely on? I mean, have you been exposed or have you tried anything other than Hopin?
Ashly Priest (11:39): I have tried almost a gazillion of them. Like you said, there’s so many platforms out there. I think I said this a little bit earlier, but the better question to ask yourself is always, does this platform align with my event needs and goals? Do those align with the attendee experience and the attendee expectations? What are the features of this platform, and what kind of support do you need as the person producing it or executing it to make it run smoothly? Because depending on the platform you use, you can have a lot of customer support from the customer service team or manager team, or however they’re calling it internally. Sometimes it’s like you get one hour of training, and it’s sink or swim for you.
Ankush Gupta (12:20): You’re going to go into an area of endless demos because if you’re sure, just want to try on how do you find it actually here. I’m going to take a second and really plug an application that a friend of mine has built, Marian from Amsterdam, and he’s built an application called Eventmender.com.
So for people listening, if you want to find a good virtual platform based on your precise objectives, check out Event Mender, and I think you can answer five or six questions, and it recommends what the best virtual platform for you should be.
Other than that, I think actually what you said is absolutely right that you have to really understand what your goals are and then select the best platform for you. But in the absence of a tool like this, you’ll just get sucked into doing demo after demo, vendor after vendor.
Ashly Priest (13:04): Yeah. I mean, I have some I would recommend. So obviously, Cvent has been around for a very long time for a reason. It does work. I know. Not dogging them at all. Some people find that the infrastructure in the user interface is a little bit archaic, but it works platform.
Obviously, Zoom is a good old standby. I think Zoom is getting to the point where it has features like a Cvent and one of the other more specialized platforms where you have customization options. You have different applications of how you’d use it, whether it’s a workshop or it’s more of a Talking Heads panel kind of thing.
I really am fond of Bizzabo. And it’s, I think that they have a whole ethos of event education as part of just their company and what sharing their newsletters and their free resources and tools that they do provide to other professionals. And then another great networking one that is that you can interface with your platform that I have a personal great experience with is called Twine.
Ankush Gupta (14:02): Oh yeah. I love Twine. I think with the speed networking kind of thing that it does and the way in which it matches up people, I think it’s really cool. It’s made some headway in terms of networking, but as I said sometime back, that the whole experience of meeting someone, that whole serendipity experience of meeting somebody new for the first time, grabbing a drink with them, you know, that’s something that can’t be replaced. Other than that, I think Twine is great.
Ashly Priest (14:28): Yeah. I think I have a unique story with Twine. One of my best friends I met on Twine. Actually, it was on the event manager’s blog, which has been acquired by Skiff actually. But they had Twine come on, do a segment, and then everyone got to try it. And I connected with this wonderful person named Jared Hatch. And Jared and I realized not only were we in the industry together in New York, we lived about 20 blocks from each other in Manhattan. And so we met up for a coffee in person afterward. And now he’s one of my dearest friends, actually. So, Twine, who wants a plug for users of your application in real life, they should reach out to me.
Ankush Gupta (15:05): Yeah. Twine is going to get acquired by Bumble, I think.
In terms of traditional marketing, Ashley, tell me how have you been able to create awareness for your events, and what are some of the channels that you think work best around audience acquisition? Has this been a cross-functional activity where you worked with other marketing folks, and how involved have you been with this side of things?
Ashly Priest (15:27): So I think first and foremost, and this is one of my personal strategies, the event does not start when the attendee shows up or signs on. It starts from that very first touch point, and whether that is a tweet or a save-the-date email, that very first mention of the event is when that attends journey begins. And I think people lose sight of the pre-event marketing. And I always work very closely with the cross-functional team, especially being in larger organizations like I was when I was at Convene and when I was at Hopin. Your operational strategy shouldn’t just be having an event for the sake of an event. Where doesn’t it fit into your larger campaign for three months, or six months for the year? As part of your whole storytelling and it’s critical to the success of the event and the attendee experience that they feel like they’re part of this community from the get Google. Right. And if it’s just one reminder email that’s doing nothing to promote your event before they even get there.
Ankush Gupta (16:31): Yeah. And “community” is a buzzword currently. People are debating whether, event organizers, event marketers should move to a community-led model. But does that really work? I mean, how do you really go about creating a community around your event?
Ashly Priest (16:48): I think, the way that I would look at that, and I actually thought about this too, is that the concept of community is everything right now. It’s in, and I would say you, the universal, you, you’re nothing without your supporters. Right. You’re nothing without your community. And so, for me, how I would define community is that this it’s a fellowship of not just shared ideas but often ideals. And that your attendees do and should care about this. So, it’s, we’re here to share knowledge and experience and whether or not the overall was a good experience. It like was it worthwhile for your time, your money, and this collective consciousness of your community having that shared set of ideals.
I think when you don’t have authenticity in your community, it shows like if you’re just doing the event to do the event, cause it’s trend, it’s fun, whatever. You’re not going to have longevity. You’re not going to have the opportunity to build any legacy into your events and have them be ongoing things the way that South by Southwest is now. Is it a little inflated? Yes. But there’s a strong community around that, and there’s a reason they go every year, and there’s a reason that they attract speakers.
Ankush Gupta (17:56): Absolutely. Finally, Ashley, you know that we are the first the world’s first review platform for business conferences, and our goal is to help marketers further their brands through the power of social proof and community marketing.
What really the social proof mean to you? How important has that been in your Arsenal, and do you really think that your attendees care about it?
Ashly Priest (18:14): Yeah, I think for me reviews are very important. And especially in professional circles because if you’ve had a bad experience somewhere, whether that is a restaurant or a conference or an interaction with a vendor, you are so much more prone to take the time to leave a bad review than you are to leave a good review. So there is so much inherent value in those good reviews. And these are being left by our peers in the industry. That is what gives it social proof.
That’s what makes it so powerful. You’re more likely to believe your peer in the industry than anyone else’s opinion. They’re not some random person on the internet. They’re actually someone doing what you would be doing in your same day-to-day and sharing that they found value in.
Ankush Gupta (19:01): Absolutely. Thanks so much for that, Ashley. I think that makes complete sense, and for folks listening, I think this has been a great episode. A lot of little nuggets here. The show’s going to be up, the transcript is going to be up. So, please take a listen.
Ashley, thank you so much. We loved having you here with us. It is a short show intentionally to allow people to consume it quickly. Love having you here, and all the best with your career going forward.
Ashly Priest (19:24): Thank you so much. It was wonderful to meet you. And thank you for having me on the show.