WHEN THE WORLDS OF EXHIBITIONS & ACADEMIA COLLIDE…
…You get great coffee, a fresh perspective and some fantastic feels for the future. Earlier this week I took some time out for a coffee with James Musgrave, Head of UK Centre for Events Management at Leeds Beckett University. It’s a good job we scheduled the meeting for 3.30pm – any earlier and we’d have spent the whole day sharing stories and developing ideas for bringing the worlds of academia and events closer together. The UK Centre for Events Management is one of the leading institutions for providing education and inspiration in the UK with over 1,000 students currently participating in various course formats. It’s an impressive campus with some influential alumni and staff but what did I learn in the lightening quick 60 minutes I spent with James.
CAN YOU ACTUALLY TEACH EVENTS?
It’s a question often asked throughout the industry and on almost every podcast we do guests tell us they “fell” into working in exhibitions without any proactive plan or training. So for the exhibitions industry specifically, do people even need formal events training to succeed? James’ perspective was that the craft is in finding an equilibrium between theory and practice and that both have equal merit in equipping students with the most effective skills and knowledge for an events career. The fantastic opportunity that event management qualifications give students is getting a helicopter view of the industry. With so many different sectors and roles students are given the space to reflect on what they’re interested in and what they’re good at, meaning they’re more likely to find the right job and start adding value for their employer more quickly. I was certainly impressed with the frequency and breadth of initiatives that Leeds Beckett delivers to help educate and inspire students to find their place in the industry.
For we employers in the industry, these courses are delivering knowledgeable graduates, who are up to date with the latest legislation, trends, insights and theories which can add value to organisations. They are also teaching and building a raft of transferable skills such as resilience, reliability and problem solving, that are used every day in events. And it’s not all theory, for example James was telling me about the practical assessments students undergo where they’re presented with a problem in a controlled environment and then have to explain their process for resolving it. As James commented, these practical scenarios are there to draw on like muscle memory when graduates face that specific problem out in the workplace.
Reflecting on it, my view is it’s not either/or on teaching events but that well prepared new recruits tend to have a combination of both. However, it’s our job as an industry to help give students the richest learning environment during work experience and not just the jobs no-one else wants to do! There is of course an equally valid path through apprenticeship and in-house training for those who decide uni isn’t for them… but that’s a whole other blog post!
Those who know me well will recognise my passion for lifelong learning and for me, everyday that goes by without learning something new, is a day lost! Even after this many years in exhibitions I learn something new every single day. But one of my (some may say unfair) criticisms of some educational establishments is the context of staff teaching business theory without ever having run their own business or worked in the corporate world. Looping back to the comments above, theory is great but it’s when it is applied to actual real world experiences that the richest learning happens.
So again it inspired me to hear James talk about the ‘Pracadmeics’ both in his team and the guest speakers they bring in for students. Although we both agreed we need to find a better term for it (answers on a postcard please) the combination of critical theoretical analysis with proven, practical experience surely gives our event stars of the future the best possible opportunity to learn about both the theory and reality. Those who have been there, seen it and done it have the most scathing and realistic judgement on why sometimes the theory doesn’t stack up once you get on site and those unplanned curve balls come your way.
WHAT HASN’T CHANGED – STRATEGY & RETURN
We talked at length about all the things that have changed in exhibitions over the last 20 years, and more frustratingly all the things that haven’t. Exhibitors lacking clear SMART objectives, lack of follow-up from events, the relentless focus on quantity rather than quality of visitors (for both organisers and visitors) and on and on…. the ”stuff” we all deal with day in, day out. However, what definitely hasn’t changed is the need for events and exhibitions to be relevant to the audience, aligned to a clear business strategy and to deliver a clear return for the participant and shareholder.
At ProExTra, one of the very first steps we take with any client regardless of the service they’ve contracted us for, is to clarify exactly what role the event plays in delivering their business objectives, and why that matters to their audience. Without that absolute clarity on commercial return, how can any of us defend the much heard response of ”Oh so you’re a party planner then” that we often get when we say we work in events. With budgets ever tighter and a possible recession on the horizon, relevance, strategy and return are going to be even more crucial in ensuring all our clients continue to invest in events.
So, I had a coffee and a nice chat but what does that really matter to you and why should you care! Well, this is an appeal from me to the exhibitions community as it feels as though we could / should have a louder voice in inspiring young students to join our brilliant industry. Leeds Beckett definitely sounded as though they’d be keen to hear from more experts in the industry to come and speak with their students – let’s not allow all event students to think there’s only music festivals, sponsorship platforms and conference organising for their future!
If nothing else, it’s changed my mind about event education. I wouldn’t say I was dismissive of it, but I wasn’t sure what value it added to the industry. In just an hour a lot of my preconceptions have been swept away – and I’m looking forward to exploring all the other opportunities we talked about to work together in the future. And a simple reminder to everyone… go have a coffee every week with someone you don’t know, you just might learn something useful!
Thanks to James Musgrave and the team at UK Centre for Events Management for making me so welcome…. I can’t wait to come back. You can find more details about their offer here