BookMachine Events and Client Director Suzanne Kavanagh on how events have changed, planning tips and the key to engaging your audience

By   Hannah Bickerton 5 min read

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Suzanne Kavanagh is Events and Client Director at BookMachine. She is IDM-qualified with over 25 years of industry experience. Suzanne focuses on what works best for BookMachine clients and works behind the scenes to make sure projects are running effectively. The guiding force behind the BookMachine Unplugged event series, Suzanne can also advise on effective event strategy and delivery, whether in-person or online.

Can you tell us a bit more about your experience in the event space and the services you offer?

The BookMachine Community started in 2010. We initially brought together publishing people to connect in a friendly, sociable way. Over the years BookMachine has developed and we have now provided a wide range of events. From meet-ups at the pub and social mixers through to talks, seminars, training and conferences – we have hosted hundreds of gatherings in a variety of formats!

Our events service for clients has developed from that experience. We offer anything from event strategy, curation and programming through to the overall management and on-the-day delivery.

How do you think attitudes towards events have changed since the pandemic?

After months of lockdowns I think people value their time differently. They tend to be more discerning in deciding which events to attend.

We have worked on a variety of event formats since the pandemic, and have found that combining elements of in-person and virtual experiences has helped us to embrace a wider audience. 

We’re in a period of flux in terms of which formats work and which external factors will have an impact. Our sense is that this may take years to settle into generally accepted patterns.

We’ve certainly noticed that events are back in full swing and getting really positive responses. What do you think it is about physical events that means that, despite technological advances and the fact that so much can be achieved online nowadays, they are still going strong?

Physical events used to be THE way to meet, network, listen and learn. Now, it is one of several ways. The scale and number of talks, seminars, parties and conferences has dropped – but a smaller range of carefully planned, interactive, creatively conceived and safely delivered events are gaining real traction. 

We see audiences segmented by tolerance levels. Whether it is around risks to health, the rise of home working or lockdown habits of staying home that are hard to break, the priorities for attending an event have changed. There appears to be three clear groups emerging:

  1. Those who really, really want to see people in real life and are comfortable with any associated risks. There is an evangelical zeal and joyfulness and they are delighted to be back in a room (or marquee). They will never take live events for granted again.
  2. Those who are now more considered in what they will leave home for. These floating event goers want great content and factors such as infection rates to be reflected in health and safety policies. Responsibility and relevance are key.
  3. Those who feel they can get all their events needs met online (and wouldn’t want the risk anyway). You won’t convert them to real life, so make sure you have an online option for them if you want their business.

What are some of the creative things organisers can do to make their events stand out? Or is it as simple as a good venue, lots of planning ahead and the host’s personality?

Beyond the essentials of great speakers, hosts, venue and planning, we think that audience involvement is crucial. If you’re organising an event, you should hardwire this into your planning from beginning to end. You can run pre-event polls or competitions to engage guests beforehand. 

Can you devise opportunities for guests to develop their own user-generated content? Event guests can submit questions in advance via video or sound message; most content creation is available to everyone via their mobiles. You can encourage, curate and use it before, during and after the event. This helps attendees connect with each other, the speakers and the organisers and build a bond.

What are some of your favourite or most enjoyable book events that you have worked on?

Jessica Kingsley Publishers commissioned us to provide support for the last two Connected by Autism online conferences. Working with an inspiring range of authors from their autism list was a privilege and a pleasure. Providing the right guidance and support to help the authors and the JKP team prepare so everything ran smoothly was very satisfying – and being involved in such a positive and important initiative was incredibly rewarding.

I have to name check our first BookMachine Unplugged event of the year, which we hosted back in person for the first time since February 2020! The pure joy of the people in the room was wonderful to see. Our speakers were on point and despite one having to step back due to COVID (yes, we had contingency plans!), the talks were insightful and inspiring. We recorded the talks to be edited and shared afterwards. It was great to see a 50/50 split of in-person and digital tickets sold. We plan to keep offering digital versions of all our events so that our wider geographic audience don’t miss out.

What key advice would you give to those in the publishing industry thinking about or in the process of organising an event?

The following seven considerations are important and should form a solid foundation for your event:

  1. Be clear about what you want to achieve and understand what your audience will want.
  2. Think about the timeline for your event: work backwards from the day. 
  3. Draw up a list of everything that needs to happen, then break it down into all the steps that will get you there.
  4. Use a project management tool (we use Basecamp), spreadsheet or your calendar to set up tasks, schedule reminders and let tech do the heavy lifting so you don’t forget anything.
  5. Create a run sheet – the holy grail for event managers – a minute-by-minute guide to what needs to happen when and where and by whom during the event. Venues have their own version as well that you can adapt if you’re unsure.
  6. Don’t forget about risk assessment and scenario planning. What is the worst thing that can happen? Imagine it, then come up with a plan for what you can do. Nine times out of ten it won’t happen, but things run best when you’ve thought every possible scenario through.
  7. Finally, don’t forget to focus on your finances and ROI. Venue costs are rocketing and cost of living pressures impact on household and business budgets. Delivering a great event that works for both budgets is key to success.

If you’re looking for ways to create virtual events, we have produced a CAMPUS training course: Successful planning and preparation for virtual events. You can join BookMachine from £18/month to access our full suite of publishing courses for professionals, or contact us if you’d like us to deliver an event for you.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.