For the September/October issue of Convene, we focus on how the pandemic has spurred the development and growth of different business models in the events industry. Patrizia Semprebene Buongiorno, vice president of AIM Group, told us that once COVID-19’s impact began to be felt last year, the organization had a visceral reaction: “We didn’t want to give up to this virus.” But that required more than grit. Buongiorno shared with Convene how the company became far less siloed and as a result, what kinds of innovative solutions it offered its clients.
With several hundred employees from more than 25 countries working out of 16 offices around the world, of course Milan, Italy–based AIM Group has a structure and processes in place in order to organize several thousand events per year among 400 clients. But when the pandemic struck, said Patrizia Buongiorno, vice president at AIM Group, the organization understood that the traditional “and well-defined pathways” in the organization needed to be rethought. “Our business was at risk,” Buongiorno told Convene, and “our clients were looking for answers from us” with in-person events no longer possible.
So AIM changed its processes to enable team members — especially the people who are younger and have less experience — to feel freer to invent, without following the typical processes. “At that moment when there was such complete disruption,” Buongiorno said, “we said, ‘Go ahead. Think. Find the solutions.’ It was a free, big, think tank within the company” and people became “freer to experiment.”
One outcome of this kind of approach was iCare: AIM Group had experience organizing the Italian Society of Anaesthesia, Analgesia, Intensive Care, and Resuscitation (SIAARTI) conference and in 2020, instead of members going to the conference, brought the conference to them — health-care professionals who were on the frontlines fighting surges of COVID — with pop-up events. A traveling iCare truck, outfitted with a broadcast studio, traveled to hospitals in eight Italian cities, setting up tents and outdoor screens at parking lots in hospitals. “It was a big success and it was a mix also of digital. It was a hybrid meeting, in a way, because we had an audience at the hospital, but at the same time we livestreamed all the sessions,” Buongiorno said. “It was an incredible experience.”
That success made AIM team members more willing to take risks and “to lead the client into different directions,” she said. AIM led one client, the Federation of Family Paediatricians (FIMP), into a 3D world with the 3D FIMP House — the first fully digital annual conference for the association, held in October 2020 in an immersive, 3D environment that gave participants the experience of learning in a family home.
These award-winning events wouldn’t have been possible without the company’s focus on collaboration, a business model that grew out of the pandemic. “We organize association meetings, corporate meetings, incentives, incentive travel, business travel, education and training, communication, marketing,” Buongiorno said. “We offer different services, each with a dedicated team, all siloed in a way. So, different departments. But with the pandemic there was the need to rethink our offer. We had all our teams work together, and there was a big interconnection between the different divisions.”
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This means cross-pollination. “My client, or my division, can be also interested in what you did for your other client,” she said. “I think that this is something that we will reflect in our future organization, because we do not want to come back to the old organization.”
COVID also accelerated a project that AIM had started before the world became aware of the coronavirus: the creation of a new digital company. “We were at the very beginning of a new division, more specialized in digital communication, to augment, to increase the reach of our events,” Buongiorno said. ”We gave birth to this new company, which is a hub that is putting together different expertise into more technology, in digital marketing, in data and digital managing of data,” as well as augmented reality, she said.
For Buongiorno, the biggest challenge now is maintaining momentum. “When everything is going well, in a way, there is no need to change things, right? And then there is a moment that when you understand,” she said, that everything must change. “Now, the real challenge is, okay, we had a very strong reaction” to the crisis and “we started to change, but now we have to continue this process. We cannot stop. So, what is the risk now? The risk now is that we are slowly coming back to live events — all our teams got very excited, we recently had events of 500 people, 1,000 people, not our usual numbers, but in any case [evidence that] we are restarting. But at the same time, we do not want them to think that in six months every- thing will come back as usual.”
Instead, Buongiorno said, “We want to use the best of what we learned, what we tried. And this will be really the way not only to recover, but to grow. So, we are not thinking anymore [about] the recovery now. We are thinking on how to grow in the next three years. Our teams must believe that.”
The growth requires reskilling, in terms of understanding changing platforms, delivering hybrid events, and learning how to scale. “We understand that this is another big challenge because we have to develop new competencies and also to embrace new professional roles in these areas,” she said.
Her colleague, AIM Group’s press and media relations officer, Gianluca Trezzi, added that it also involves a greater understanding of the audience.
“We must evolve,” he said, “not only considering technologies and the rules that are evolving — with in-person events now possible again — we must also consider the expectations from participants, and clients, that have changed. So, we must integrate their point of view now more than ever.”
For Buongiorno, the trait most needed now is persistence. “We have this obsession now, and honestly it is becoming an obsession, that we want really to keep all the positive that came from this virus. That COVID would leave at least a good legacy — the capacity to change, to become flexible, to be more lean, to be more efficient, to be more innovative. But you have to work at that every day.”
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.
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