The expectation of what special events can deliver is going through a period of "radical transformation," says Richard Toscano, senior director of special events for experiential agency George P. Johnson.

From his base in San Francisco, Toscano collaborates with global brands to create corporate special event experiences that drive engagement and build brand affinity, ranging from private concerts for more than 50,000 attendees to intimate VIP meetings for C-level executives.

In an exclusive interview with Special Events, Toscano discusses some of the major shifts happening in the special event industry now, and how strategically integrated events are now increasingly thought of as important drivers of business performance.

SPECIAL EVENTS What is better in event marketing since you started, and what is worse?

RICHARD TOSCANO I think the singular effect of technology on everything we do now has really upped the level of sophistication of special events. From event promotion to the experience itself, technology is making special events richer and more personal, while also bringing people together. I’m thinking about things like being able to solicit attendees’ personal photos and comments in real-time at an event, to have an audience interact with an entertainer on stage--just amazing.

The flip side of technology is that the always-on nature of this medium means contending with the threat of attendee distraction and a significantly increased the pace of the events. More content--especially audience-created content--requires more flexibility and adaptability in planning and execution.

SE Is there one thing that every client is asking for today?

RT There’s no doubt that clients want something new every time. I work with some of the most innovative organizations in the world, and they want their events to be as cutting-edge.

My marketing clients expect unexpected designs, themes and experiences that will not only entertain but also create the opportunity to move the business forward. Because of this, a big focus for my team to is be constantly out there in culture, art, fashion, technology, entertainment and other areas so that we are always in a position to bring fresh ideas to clients.

SE What have been some of the major shifts in event marketing since you started a decade ago?

RT Social media is huge of course, and the rise of spontaneous “unconference” meeting models and virtual events are big shifts. But if you look under the hood at these activities, what’s really going on is that people are looking for better content and ways to connect with one another. So I’d say the big thing going on in event marketing is a move away from pure tactical execution or event management to a “storytelling” and content-driven marketing mind-set, and using experiences to influence purchase behavior and affinity.

SE What major factors are shaping event marketing now?

RT Without a doubt, it's talent. Creative talent, technical talent, people who are comfortable in multiple cultures and are more marketing-oriented. It used to be that event marketers were totally execution-focused, but today that’s no longer the rule--we’re getting people from advertising, digital, entertainment, management consulting, architecture, higher education and other fields who are having an amazing impact on the industry.

SE Along that line, which skills should people who want to do well in events and event marketing be acquiring now?

RT I think the overall approach to success in the industry now has to be a balancing act between strategically understanding how brands operate and where events fall within an integrated marketing mix, and then the need to develop proficiencies on the execution side as well, on everything ranging from what we call “experience design” to venue and vendor management, entertainment and other “traditional” event activities.

The industry is being led by big thinkers and brand people who also understand execution is in the details, and that it’s the small things done well over and over again that set the stage for real brand relationships based on trust to develop.

The entire text of this interview will appear in the November-December issue of Special Events. The magazine is free to ISES members; subscriptions can also be ordered here.

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