From XU Magazine, 
Issue 24

Interview Craig Macfarlane, Managing Director, Accounting Business Expo

As the saying goes, ‘the show must go on’. Pivoting to virtual in unprecedented times, how Accounting Business Expo is adapting and making the move to go completely virtual. We catch up with Craig Macfarlane to hear how Accounting Business Expo is modifying its business model to not just survive but thrive...
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XU: You were 2 weeks away from opening the doors for Accounting Business Expo 2020 when the decision was made to postpone, how have you developed the show over the past 5 months?

CM: We (Terrapinn Australia) acquired ABE in 2019 and we’re still in the transition period on top of everything else to navigate. We were devastated we couldn’t run the show in March. We worked tirelessly to develop the high standard National Media had established but the health and safety of our attendees and staff is of most importance.

The first thing we did was postpone ABE till November. Secondly, we merged our other accounting show - – into ABE, so as not to fragment or confuse the market. Between March and November, we’re running a highly successful series of webinars, some of which have been collaborations with the Australian Taxation Office. These have been very well attended, usually with well over 1000 viewers per webinar.

We’ve partnered with a robust and professional virtual platform provider called Swapcard, which is used by many of the largest event organisers in the world. Our sponsors and exhibitors have been very impressed with the demos we have done to show how Swapcard works.

The good news with going virtual is that we have more opportunities to grow, improve and re-work the content and platform and we’re motivated more than ever now to put on a great virtual show.

XU: The event industry pivoted on its head in favour of virtual, how do you think this reflects on the people on the ground in the industry?

CM: Our industry is full of amazing and resilient people and it’s this that is going to ensure we can come out the other side stronger and more together than ever before. The cornerstone of any business is the right people. I am very lucky with the team I have – technology enables fast, efficient growth, and I take my hat off to my team that have jumped in and gotten on with the job with professionalism and grace.

Our staff are as committed as ever to deliver an amazing event to all our attendees and partners.

XU: Events like large scale expo’s and tradeshows are known for bringing people together, will hosting the same experience virtually amplify this?

CM: The delivery method may be different, but a virtual event still delivers the same objectives of a physical event: leads, data, demos, education, connections, meetings, special offers, entertainment, PR and sales. Whether ABE is ‘virtual’ of physical, it’s still about bringing people together, supporting the industry and uncovering opportunities. With so much disruption happening this year, ABE is more relevant and important than ever before.

In a year where we have no other choice, going ‘virtual’ is an excellent business idea for both buyers and sellers. It’s amazing how quickly most people have adapted. Everyone soon realised they can’t meet face-to-face, so they simply adapted. In some ways, the ‘virtual’ experience is better and more effective than a physical expo: its cheaper and easier to attend; attendees can pop in and out; its more accessible to a wider, bigger and more global audience; it’s easier to collect data and share information; easier to schedule meetings; simple to hold one-on-one meetings; presentations are hosted on-demand for 30 days after the event; and exhibitors don’t need to spend as much time, money and resources on building and attending their trade booths. Not to mention the superior AI matchmaking, back end analytics and reporting.

We are providing on-going training and coaching to attendees and exhibitors prior to the show, so everyone will be familiar with the ‘virtual’ platform before the event starts.

XU: How do you guide your firm and provide answers to your clients through this change?

CM: The first reaction of most people is to resist change and blame someone. However, when they realise this change is unavoidable and there’s no one to blame other than the Coronavirus, they start to realise that it makes good business sense to embrace the new-normal and get on with learning and building.

As the organiser, we are delivering loads of training, tutorials, demos and webinars to educate the market on how the virtual platform works and what both buyers and sellers can expect on the day of the event. The idea is that by the time ABE runs, everyone will feel comfortable and ready to engage and do business.

XU: As more and more event organisers turn to virtual events as an alternate way to deliver their content the question that comes to mind is can virtual events fill the live event gap?

CM: Absolutely - virtual events can deliver everything that physical events can deliver: education, insights, thought-leadership, connections, lead capture, demonstrations, meetings and conversations. People have already adapted to the new-normal. Many of the biggest companies in the world have already shown flexibility and pivoted to virtual events, including giant multinationals like Microsoft, Google and Apple. The only element missing from a ‘virtual’ event is the ability to touch one another and physically shake hands. However, in this environment, most people don’t want to touch and shake hands, so ‘virtual’ events make complete sense.

XU: Speaking of flexibility, do you think virtual events will continue to grow in popularity after the pandemic has passed?

CM: I think virtual events are here to stay. Now that we’ve all seen the benefits, I expect most physical events will include a virtual component in the future.

At the moment, we’re finding virtual offers much more than we originally thought. It’s now not just a way for us to stay relevant, but for us to branch out of our comfort zone. Our world drastically changed this year, and we’re stepping up the content to deliver these changes and inform the industry.

Events are a way to strengthen and solidify relationships, and I think virtual is on track to reinforce this.

I see virtual events being integral to helping businesses stay up to date with industry trends, finding new suppliers and making valuable connections. And certainly, after the worst of the pandemic is over, they will still play a huge part as we adjust to the new normal.

XU: How do you feel this flexibility to switch from in-person to virtual will serve future events and businesses?

CM: Virtual gives us the opportunity to reach a bigger market, more lead generation, more branding and better reporting.

You can plan and bookmark everything you want to see and who you want to meet, and to me that’s so exciting because our Exhibitors, Speakers and Attendees are truly in the driver’s seat.

XU: It’s times like these when the ability to maintain communication becomes critical despite the lack of in-person interactions, how important is Accounting Business Expo now and what are the added benefits?

CM: It’s more important than ever! And plus, with zero travel costs and on demand streaming you can be included from anywhere in the world. It’s awe-inspiring. You can get so much more out of the show. You still get all the amazing information and insights from speakers, you reduce the time and financial commitments required to attend these events, and you can attend the entire conference whilst in your pyjamas.

XU: What lessons have you learnt?

CM: So many it’s hard to count! I have 25+ years in this industry and I’ve never experienced anything like this. With everything moving online, we’re working hard to not lose the “meeting” aspect of our show. We pride ABE on being un-biased, and it’s palpable that this industry thoroughly enjoys coming together to network, learn and find new solutions. We’re experts at running events, but at the end of the day it’s the industry and sense of community who make the show what it is. We’ve seen this happen already in our Webinar series and we know that just because ‘face-to-face’ isn’t an option, that feel of community will still be there.

It sounds cliché, but the biggest lessons have been to plan, but not plan too much, and, most importantly to be open to new ventures.

Our industry looks completely different now, but we still need to deliver the same service. We want ABE to be not only a celebration of all the insights, opportunities and hard work the finance industry has achieved over the last year, but as a hub for people to spend time engaging with the experts to see what’s new and next for the industry.  

XU: What bit of advice would you give anyone who attends a virtual event to get the most out of it?

CM: I would say planning is most important! Treat the virtual event the same as you would a live event and block out time for who you want to meet, what sessions you’re attending and exhibitors you want to meet.

You’ll get what you put into it. Make sure you update and edit your profile so the AI match-making works effectively.

Watch the tutorials on ABE website so you know how the virtual platform works and what to expect on the day.

Log on to the event the week before and make connections and send meeting requests.

Watch demos in advance so you know which exhibitors you want to meet; and plan what questions you want to ask.

An excellent way to find out new tips and tricks to put into practice right away is to jump into the Q&As and reach out to participating partners.

Most importantly though, minimize distractions. When you’re watching alone, it’s easy to “multi-task” and get distracted. Instead, try to reduce notifications, grab a notepad, and get ready to start learning!  

There’s a tonne of opportunity for networking – right from the comfort of your own couch! Make sure to take advantage of conference hashtags, live chats, messages or video calls through the platform or any other way to connect with attendees.

It’s crucial to engage in the opportunity as deeply as you can to get as much meaning as possible. Remote events offer chances for distraction or complete focus and comfort, depending on the attendee. And the attendee needs to take responsibility for that. Oh, and usually remote events offer much better coffee. At least in my house.

XU: A major part of in-person events is getting out of the office and meeting other likeminded people.  Why should I bother with a virtual event and how can I manage my time best over the event?

CM: It will be an adjustment. Going virtual was not our original plan, but it’s our chance to make the best of a bad situation. My advice is to prioritize the time to be truly present in the experience, engage with the sessions and presenters, and use the chat and other networking tools regularly to connect with other attendees.

2 key things I would say are; check your email and put your sessions and meetings into your calendar so you don’t forget.

The community of our show is key, and we’re working hard to build this in as much as we can so our partners and attendees have the same or similar sense that they’re a part of something bigger than just them over the 2 days.

Speaking from my experience, I know early on in March and April of this year my team and I got together for zoom catch-ups once a week, and that helped build morale because we went from seeing each other every day to working remotely – and it was an adjustment, but we made it work.

We realise virtual shows aren’t natural social situations but joining chats and Q&As through the platform, on social media, and with your colleagues in slack or teams is the best way to build that community.

XU: What does the future of Accounting Business Expo look like?

CM: We’re focused on providing the best quality possible, whether that’s virtual or in-person. We’re always listening and motivated to improve the user experience for all our attendees whether that’s our Exhibitors, Speakers or Attendees. We’re going to continue to push the envelope and inspire people to be better professionally.

We’ll miss the in-person atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean it’s disappeared.

XU: When will Accounting Business Expo be held?

CM: 16-17 November 2020.

Why leave it there?

Get your FREE ticket to attend the live event on Monday 16th - Tuesday 17th November 2020

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