Maximizing Opportunities in Virtual Event Planning with Susan DeLeva, Dentons
In this episode of On Record PR, Jennifer Simpson Carr goes on record with Susan DeLeva, the senior events manager at Dentons, the largest law firm in the world. Susan is a mother and a corporate event planner with almost 15 years of experience in legal marketing.
She has held roles that have touched upon business development and public relations, but most notably in event planning and strategy. As a mother, she enjoys time at the beach with her son during all seasons and also enjoys exercising, reading, and cooking.
This episode was recorded during the coronavirus pandemic, and many of us are working from home.
Susan DeLeva: Thank you so much Jennifer. I am so honored that you asked me to be a part of this with you. I am really looking forward to our interview.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I’m excited that you’ve joined me. We’ve known each other for almost 10 years now and it feels like that time has flown. It’s been great catching up with you on how well you were doing at Dentons and the great strategy you’ve brought to that team. I know we have so many things in common, including being mothers, dog moms, our love of the beach all year round, exercising and cooking.
Have you had time in quarantine to try any new recipes?
I can’t say I’ve been developing my own recipes while in quarantine, but I’ve been trying to find ways to improve my healthy food intake and veggies, and I really love curry. I came across a green curry kit at the supermarket recently and have been using that to make tofu and veggie dishes with the kit and being a huge fan of curry and living in the suburbs, it’s not readily available here. Having this new addition to my repertoire of dishes has made me feel a bit accomplish as, as a cook in that regard.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That sounds delicious. I really like curry so I’ll have to get that that kit from you and try it out.
I always say that one of my favorite parts of being in legal marketing is the friendships that we make and the opportunity to learn from so many bright and knowledgeable colleagues. I consider you one of those colleagues. I’m so happy that our paths cross in our careers and that I’ve had the opportunity to learn from you about the strategy behind creating successful events that not only position the firm and reinforce its brand in the market, but really drive engagement and business development.
How do you define a successful event?
To start, when the stakeholders are happy, I feel immediately happy. And I feel immediately that we have had a successful event. At the end of the day, their happiness is key, but beyond that, seeing our clients and our contacts engaged and participating excitedly in a program or staying until the very end of a cocktail event, and in some cases, me having to shoo them out, is another sign of success. It means that they want to hang out with us, they want to be with us. The ultimate goal, of course, is winning work and retaining work as a result of an event, whether it’s a cocktail event, a half-day program or a booth at an industry conference. I recall this past winter, one of our lawyers’ shook on a deal at our booth at a conference right in front of me. I actually got to see return on investment in front of my face. That was by far one of the most rewarding feelings. Truly, it’s all about the experience that we’re providing, maintaining the business, and getting the wins.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That is such a great story. I can’t imagine how accomplished you must have felt and how exciting it must have been for you to witness the culmination of all that hard work and planning by watching a deal take place in front of you. Congratulations on that.
Susan DeLeva: Thank you.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: As we think about event planning for, a law firm that is largely focused on corporate and transactional work, we are looking at a target audience of very senior level executives: in-house counsel, GCs, C-level executives, etc. These are people who we are asking to take time away from their busy work days to participate in the events that we’re planning on behalf of our firms.
Would you tell me some of the ways that you and your events team strategize to make sure that the content is timely and compelling for these individuals?
Absolutely. So oftentimes we’re asking our lawyers,
- “What is the word on the street?”
- “What are your clients saying?”
- “What are the challenges they are facing?”
We are also asking our lawyers about what issues they anticipate their clients running into three months down the line and six months down the line, so that we can proactively present on those topics now and be ahead of the curve. Additionally, we run a very successful CLE seminar series across 10 of our U. S. offices. We are receiving feedback immediately after each of those events. For the panels that tend to receive the most positive feedback we will repeat them again in other programs, since they take place in person, in other cities. Now, we’ve moved that to virtual.
What we tend to do is market research. In some cases, our lawyers will actually send out a survey that includes the question, “What do you want to hear about?” That is really the best way that we can map out and plan the topics we are going to cover.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I love the idea of doing a survey. It’s great to ask attorneys about the word on the street, but to receive feedback, in real time, from the people you are hoping to attract is such a valuable way to make sure that the content your firm is offering is exactly what clients and prospects are looking for.
Having been in house for a little over 10 years before I moved to the agency side, I know that the attorneys’ comfort level of speaking can range from the folks who need very little support and can go out there and shine, to the attorneys who are taking a first step at presenting a topic in front of a group in person or virtually, now that we are on zoom.
Can you tell me about the steps you take to support the lawyers so that they are best prepared to deliver a great presentation that not only positions them as the expert in their field, but also positions the firm in its best light?
You’re only as good as your co-panelists. A big thing that we stress when we first begin discussions on building out a panel is diversity. Not only by race and gender, but also by age, as it also provides a different perspective. Last but not least, having a client or a someone who is not a lawyer on the panel for added perspective. Based on client feedback, this is exactly what they want to see. We coordinate a number of planning calls leading into the event, whether it’s an in-person event or virtual, so that prior to the event each person is aware of the issues. We have prepared slide decks for the lawyers to reference regarding their appearance, what they should be wearing, voice pitch, voice speed, camera position, and lighting. We want to make sure that we are doing anything and everything we possibly can so they are looking their best, presenting and showing the firm in the best light possible.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s great. I love the opportunity to present something to the lawyers that visually shows examples of what they can look like, how they should appear, and the tone in which they’re speaking.
Now, you have identified a timely and compelling topic. You have prepared a panel of experts who are positioned to help each other shine and bring educational programming to this target audience.
How do you ensure that the invitation lists that you develop comprise the right target audience?
When we’re planning an annual event that has happened in the past, we generally leverage the list from the previous year as our base. First scrubbing it to remove any bad contacts, our competitors and the media. People also change jobs quite frequently. From there, we will ask the lawyers to add more of their contacts to their list and to consider all of the new matters that they’ve opened in the year since the previous list was created. It just takes a little bit of time for them to go through and add in those new contacts.
When we are hosting a brand-new event, the onus is really on the event team to develop that base list. For example, if we are hosting an event that is a crossroads of corporate and bankruptcy, we will run a report in our CRM system to see what contacts we have that are in-house level, general counsel, and C-suite that are tagged in those industries and pull them into a working list. From there, we will send that list along to the lawyers in those respective practice groups, ask them to review it, make sure that it’s looking well, and add in any folks that we may have missed from that practice. We have found that taking the initiative to set that base list for the lawyers is a really great jumping-off point because it not only inspires thoughts about other contacts for them to include, but it takes a lot of the leg work off of them too. Aw you know, time is money so we want to do everything we can to help them be successful in that approach.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I think that is such a smart and strategic approach. I completely agree that anything that we can do to minimize the amount of time and effort that they are asked to spend is always viewed so positively in their eyes. It also helps with efficiency and just getting it done. The more that they have to do, the less likely it is that it will be done quickly or at all, given that billable work comes first.
Can you tell me a little bit more about how you engage lawyers and how do you communicate with lawyers so that they understand how valuable the strategic approach is to creating a solid guest list of individuals that are prospective clients and referral sources?
We talk a lot about the goal of the event. What is our end game? Is it to win new business? Is it to retain new business, both? If we aren’t strategic and thoughtful who we are inviting and paying attention to who we are inviting, we can have a number of missed opportunities to connect with our clients and potential clients.
Oftentimes work is done over email or phone. Connecting with clients in person, maybe not at this moment, but virtually too, adds a whole human element and warmth that our clients crave. We stress that to our lawyers: making sure that the correct people that should be in the room, that are the decision makers, are on the list. We want to make sure that they’re seeing us. Even if they can’t attend the event, it’s brand reinforcement. They are seeing that we thought about them because they’re getting an invite and they are getting the follow-up directly from the lawyer that says, “Hey, I hope you can attend.” Those little touch points, go a long way.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: You have mentioned a few times now virtual, video, and the world that we currently live in. Certainly, just about six months ago, the world itself, but also all of our in-person engagement, was really flipped on its head in a very unexpected and unprecedented way.
Tell me what it was like for you as a leader, among an events team, when the world started to change so dramatically as a result of the pandemic.
I’ll be totally honest, I did not take this serious in the beginning. I was just returning from a huge industry conference in Las Vegas, where we hosted a 300-person event when rumblings of the Coronavirus virus began. Once we went into lockdown and started working from home, I thought, “Hey, we’ll be back by May, just in time to host some of my favorite late spring and summer events.” Once it became starkly apparent that we were not going to be hosting anything in person for the rest of 2020, we started thinking about how we could successfully turn some of our signature in-person events, into successful virtual events.
The team started attending any and all webinars we possibly could about virtual events, how to keep contacts engaged during virtual events, and what virtual event platforms are the best. While we may not have been totally versed in virtual events prior to COVID, the team did an amazing job stepping up to the plate and embracing virtual event production and learning the ropes on the different virtual event platforms that we use. As a result, we have developed best practices and new procedures. Even when we do go back to in person in the future, we already have now a playbook for virtual too.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: The question that sounds like you and your team asked yourselves and people are continuing to ask themselves as they not only plan events for their firms but consider attending virtual events:
What are the strategic ways to approach these virtual events and conferences and what are some of the best practices that they should be considering? Can you tell us what you learned through that process and the strategic approaches and best practices that you have developed?
A really big thing for the firm is branding. For our signature events and CLE events, which traditionally have happened in person, we took a lot of pride in branding and the branding that surrounded the event as a whole, from start to finish. Optics are key. With that, we wanted to use platforms that went beyond just video and slide deck sharing, as that can get a little stale. We opted to look for platforms that were easy to brand, provided video content, modules, surveys, live polling as well as modules to include thought leadership pieces, articles, and other content that could intrigue the audience to keep them engaged. Given the attention span can wait and wax, we thought having additional engagement tools and the opportunity to pull in branding that our contacts have come to expect would be really helpful in that regard. Additionally, a number of these platforms provide really in-depth analysis of context post event, including what did they click on? How did they look at it? How long did they look at it? What content piece was visited the most? That intel can actually help shape future events.
While Zoom is great, and depending on the event that you are producing, it will work wonders, you have to consider what you’ve done in the past and what your audience has come to expect from your events that have happened in person in the past and find the best ways to replicate that virtually.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s great.
Have you identified other creative virtual ways that you are connecting with your contacts and prospective clients in the absence of the in-person networking opportunities?
A number of our business development colleagues are doing client-specific events in smaller groups such as wine tasting or mixology instructions, where they’re sending the drink kits ahead of time. Others are hosting mindful meditation (I love this idea by the way) with their clients that they have more intimate relationships with and feel comfortable. I think ways to promote positivity virtually with your clients on a smaller basis is absolutely the way to go.
In addition to that, a big push we are doing right now, in the absence of in-person networking, is to curate pre-assigned breakout rooms via Zoom, or other platforms. We are doing our due diligence on the attendees ahead of time and finding areas in which we can proactively pair people together. If contacts have complementary businesses, we want to be the ones to introduce them and hope that they can forge a working relationship and thank us for it. Since they cannot actually meet each other in person, we are bringing them together, albeit virtual, but nonetheless connecting them.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That is fantastic idea. I love that you mentioned it. As we think about virtual programming and what we host versus what we attend, most people view it as an opportunity, for themselves or their colleagues to connect with others. But, you and your team are supporting your attorneys with making additional connections beyond your firm, between other business leaders who can benefit from knowing each other. It is a fantastic approach.
I love the idea of the virtual cocktail and similar classes. I know that when we first went into lockdown, there were a lot of virtual happy hours offered: bring your own drink, let’s connect and see each other while we’re in these couple of weeks of lockdown. We found that those virtual cocktail events were very motivational early on, but I personally found that a couple of weeks into the lockdown, I wasn’t looking as forward to those virtual happy hours anymore because I started to feel some Zoom fatigue. So, to offer opportunities for your attorneys to connect with people for a longer period of time virtually and to learn something new, like a cocktail or cooking, is very creative. Thank you for sharing those opportunities and ideas with me and with our listeners.
What is your take on the future of virtual events? I certainly know that you do not have a crystal ball, but as someone who is in the heart of event planning at such a significant firm in our industry, what are your thoughts on what the future looks like? Is it in-person? Is it hybrid? And, what are some of the benefits we can learn from?
Based on a number of surveys I have seen, people are really missing in-person events, and if the right measure are being taken they would be willing to attend an in-person event. I was really pleased to see that. However, the reality is there will still be a huge market segment that is not prepared for that. It is certainly on the events group to map out a hybrid event strategy for the future. The beauty with hybrid events is that you have the best of both worlds. It will open up an opportunity for people to attend, who might have not been able to in the past due to travel costs, or someone who may have physical limitations. It also lowers overhead costs for travel and lodging as it is not necessary for someone to hop on a plane to speak at a conference for two hours, they can participate virtually. However, the downfall of it is that there is a human element that is lost in virtual. There is no doubt that having the opportunity to shake a hand or fist pump going forward or look someone in the eye while connecting on business or personal matters is impactful. Oftentimes our clients tend to be our friends, too. I know I can speak for a lot of my lawyers when I say we miss seeing, speaking and laughing with our clients in person. I’m really looking forward to the day we can get back to that.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I can Imagine. I am feeling the same way. I keep saying, “hopefully we’ll see you in 2021” because I do feel that the end of the year is probably not realistic at this point. However, I am trying to be optimistic and hopeful that some point in 2021, while it may not be a hug or a handshake, we will be talking from a distance again at some event that we are attending in person. Whether it is for LMA or the law firms hosting events.
On a more personal note, can you tell me what achievements you are most proud of and why?
My son, of course. I’ve always wanted to be a mother and somehow was blessed with a super funny, mischievous and too smart little boy. Him aside, the other achievements I’m most proud of are being a certified spin instructor and a licensed New Jersey real estate agent. I haven’t done much with either lately, but they are both areas in which I’m very passionate and they make me happy. I think if there’s something you want to achieve or do, you just have to go for it. There isn’t a one size fits all. If you are passionate about a number of things, do it all as long as it makes you happy.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I’m not sure that I ever told you this, but I was excited when I found out that you got your spin certification. I remember you sharing the news on a social media platform. It motivated me. You would post when you would be teaching and I would think, “Susan is out there teaching. I can get out there and take a class at my gym.” It was exciting for me to see because I love spin. I actually got a Peloton in July during the lockdown because the lockdown ended up being longer than we anticipated. I loved seeing that and it motivated me.
Susan DeLeva: I love hearing that.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Before we end our time together, do you have any questions for me?
What’s the word on the street with you? What are you hearing from the companies that you are working with? What are their thoughts on the future of events or re-entry into the offices?
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Everyone that I’m speaking with or hearing third-party feedback is that people are really missing the in-person connection. I don’t know that people are missing the commute and having to wear a full suit or business attire to the office, but they are missing that human connection that we do lack virtually. While the hope is that we will be able to get together soon, realistically I’ve seen a lot of organizations, law firms and others, determine that the remainder of the year is not realistic to get back together. I see companies exploring opportunities in 2021 where they can tentatively start planning for safe, in-person events and what that looks like. Certainly, if we’re looking that far ahead, and I say “that far” knowing that it’s only really five or six months, they are starting to take the steps to figure out what in-person events would look like, how they can do that safely, and what concerns guests may have. I think it is very similar feedback to what you shared earlier.
Susan, I’m thrilled. You could join me today. I really enjoyed this conversation. I am sure that our listeners have learned from you about strategic event planning and what that looks like both in person, but also in the virtual world we live in now. How can people get in touch with you if they have questions following the show?
I can be contacted by my email firstname.lastname@example.org
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