Michelle BB 00:00:07 Welcome to the edge, a Skillsoft podcast for learners and leaders alike. In every episode, we engage in candid thought provoking conversations on the topic of learning and growth in the workplace. You know, today's episode brings to mind an adage that I think is especially relevant today. In times of crisis, you can see a person's true character and how they show up for the people who depend on them. You can also see it in how an organization shows up how it engages its employees and customers. And when I think of organizations that show up a prime example comes from the conference events and meeting industry. Okay. So stop and think about the last live event you attended behind the scenes. That event was powered by professionals who we rely on to plan, create, and host meaningful experiences that bring us together, help us share knowledge and inspire us to apply what we've learned in our jobs and lives.
Michelle BB00:01:05 But Ben COVID-19 happens and physical events stop happening. Suddenly millions of event professionals space. The question, how can we show up when the very act of showing up is no longer an option today's podcast episode is all about a global giant in the events industry that when the pandemic hit charted a new course and a hopeful course in the face of crisis, a course based on empathy, innovation, and education. And I am so excited to introduce a major architect behind that response. Derek Blake is the divisional vice president of global learning and development for PSAV PSAV is a full service global event production company that sets the standard for event technology services in the hotel resort and conference center industry. And today we're going to hear their story Derek, welcome to the edge podcast.
Derek 00:02:04 Thanks Michelle. Thanks for having me happy to be here.
Michelle BB00:02:07 Oh, thank you so much for joining us. So, you know, Derek, the pandemic has had a major effect on professionals in the event industry, and this involves tough decisions impacting their jobs and their ability to serve customers. So starting in March, I think you realize something, number one, it was time to rethink reinvent and focus on virtual experiences, but also you knew that the key elements of learning were going to have to remain essential no matter when and how that pandemic subsided. So what were those elements? Can you take us back to that moment of realization? What were you seeing? What pressures were you feeling and what was the impetus or what did you decide to do about it?
Derek 00:02:52 Yeah, Michelle, that's a great question. And, you know, as I look at the date today and think back six months, um, man, time flies, of course, but in some sense it feels like yesterday, right? And, um, as we entered late, you know, mid to late March and we started seeing a lot of things happening across the globe and the events business, as well as locally. Um, you know, I reside in sunny Orlando. And when you flip on the news and start to see, you know, one of the largest single site employers of Disney, um, basically shutting down and universal and SeaWorld and all these major attractions that we have, um, it really hits home. And it's a lot of things that I think other folks, um, even today still don't see some of the major impacts of, of what is happening with COVID. So, you know, the sad thing for us is almost overnight.
Derek 00:03:53 Um, we didn't have a lot of business and shifts to fill. I mean, our day is very similar to those like a Disney that, you know, we're scheduling team members based on business, um, business, that's usually right around the corner, you know, a booking window of a couple of weeks, um, you know, take take for instance Skillsoft's and, you know, some totals, major conferences, those decisions were being made almost immediately. Um, and maybe the ones that were further out were not being canceled yet. The ones immediate were. So we were needing to move a lot of team members into situations of not having shifts, which effectively puts them, you know, on the sidelines. Um, so from a learning perspective, a couple things came to mind really, really quick. Um, one as a learning team, you know, the attitude of what can we do versus, you know, what we used to do.
Derek 00:04:55 So what can we do on a, on a daily basis? Um, we still do a lot of instructor led training. And obviously that was one of the first things that we had to rethink and reimagine of. How were we going to do instructor led training that you had CDC guidelines, that it could pull people together. So, you know, the answer to that, um, we basically had a pause that and move like a lot of organizations to a virtual instructor led, which is very different from a webinar. Um, the good news is a lot of our courses and content is already built around that modality. So we were ahead of the curve. We didn't have to necessarily reinvent that overnight. What we had to do is get our team members ready to do it, and it was actually a good catalyst that they had time to do it.
Derek 00:05:46 So we took that as an opportunity to really NQ to I'll call it, ramp up our learning hours. Um, the second thing that I think came into play pretty quickly was leadership, um, leadership development. And you can put everything under that bucket from, you know, change management, working from home, um, safety, you know, there's a lot of things that fall into leadership in my mind, but at the end of the day, how do we support our leaders that are leading these people to have a positive mindset in a world that's changing that we didn't have a lot of answers on. And we basically were, um, week to week call it on what we were going to be doing. So, you know, career development was important, career path things, still top of mine. And then I'd ultimately just say the culture or the vibe of the organization and how we supported with learning to lead through that.
Michelle BB00:06:44 Thank you, Derek. I appreciate you sharing what, what feels very personal in such a challenging time. And I know it affected you and others personally. So, so let's talk a little bit more about learning and development at PSAV because if your task is to, re-imagine what it means to host an event that brings people together to connect, to share knowledge. And now this virtual environment, I would imagine that the skills needed to effect that change are different as well. So I'm gonna ask you this, what, what did your team members need to learn and how did the art of learning need to evolve so that you could upskill so that you could transform and deliver for your customers?
Derek 00:07:22 Yeah, you know, what's interesting is we've been doing virtual and hybrid events for years. Um, and it's mostly with a lot of corporate customers, um, not so much with corporate customers, bigger corporate customers. Sure. They've, they've been on that bandwagon kind of leading the charge for a long time. For example, um, you take a company like apple or Facebook that we work with and they've been doing it where they have an in-person meeting, but they want to stream it to all their team members regardless. So we've been in that space for a while with the more traditional meetings of a couple hundred people at a typical hotel. Um, that was always something that we had on our outlook cart list for that company to look at. But a lot of times that company just wasn't in the mindset and that wasn't really something that they wanted to be doing, um, where we've been doing a lot of it over the last, you know, 10, 15 years is around associations.
Derek 00:08:31 Um, association business has been doing virtual and hybrid for a long time because it gives them that reach of both the in-person and their membership typically for associations across the globe. So the good news is we didn't really need to up-skill, um, a group, the problem is we needed to upskill a group that wasn't doing that every day. So what I can share is the group that we would normally schedule for an event was somewhat on the sidelines and the group that we had on staff. I E our salaried team members, um, we needed to upskill them so real quick, we came up with three training plans. Um, we curated a bunch of content in really three different areas, sales, production, and technical. Um, and we used our platform with some total to organize these training plans around the content that was already built, and really it became a deployment and education initiative versus a content rebuild, if that makes sense.
Derek 00:09:48 So we had to quickly package it and deliver it rapidly and differently than we've done before, but we didn't need to build it. Um, so, you know, packaging and deploying overnight, you know, was some heavy lifting, but it was much easier than a build time. For course, content build time. For course, contents tough. Um, we had to do a little bit of that on the fly, but I would say 80% was ready to go. Um, so from upskilling folks that maybe used to do that job, and now we do it in a virtual space, you know, it was pretty quick and getting them up to speed, um, was good, you know, and then we had some nuances of some proprietary stuff that we use internally that a lot of folks in our organization knew about, but not broadly. So we had to bring them up to speed on, on how to deploy those skills.
Michelle BB00:10:39 You know, it, it's interesting because you talk about being in the virtual event space for a while and in the hybrid space and, and we've been a beneficiary of your experience. So thank you very much, but that Skillsoft and SumTotal, but, you know, it's interesting because you are still talking about a business model transformation, especially when a lot of your business is still predicated on that live event. And so until you, you hear from somebody who's lived and breathed, this kind of change, you can't even visualize or, or understand the degree of strategy and creativity required to make this happen. So you've got all this re-skilling that's in process, but you're also making a serious pivot in your business model. So the question that I have for you is how has PSAV is an organization and a champion of learning engineered that shift, and how are you helping your customers along that journey? They must need your assistance now more than ever.
Derek 00:11:37 Yeah. You know, it's very similar to, I think a lot of us got bombarded from different partners and vendors and you know, that we all work with with how they could help us. So you started to see, at least I did in April a lot invites a lot of webinars, a lot of thought leadership, a lot of external things going on. Um, we did something very similar. We launched a series for end-user customers, meeting planners, venue partners, to start showcasing some thought leadership around virtual that we knew about, um, you know, in a, in a free platform to kind of say, Hey, we're here for you, but at the same time, this is what you're up against. This is what's different. We weren't necessarily saying, you know, contact PSAV, but here are some things to think about as you look at this journey. What was interesting is a lot of customers, I would say over the summer were equally waiting to have an in-person event.
Derek 00:12:42 And I actually say they're still waiting to have an in-person event. So they were hesitant to go virtual or go hybrid, not because they didn't want to, because they were actually holding out for the best of the three options, which is in person. And then probably the end of August, literally almost every customer decided 2020 is going to be about hybrid and virtual events and they flipped the switch. And then we were at a spot, um, maybe a good spot to be in, but not exactly how we wanted to handle it to start saying no, like, no, we can't serve all of you because now you're looking at booking windows of two weeks and we can't do a virtual event in two weeks. So pretty much impossible to execute and you never want to be selling customers. We don't want to do business with you, but we just couldn't do it. And they didn't really understand the why. They're like, what do you mean a zoom calls easy? Well, not so much, but you know, we're trying to get over that,
Michelle BB00:13:44 You know? Um, and I'm laughing and I, people can't see me laughing, but I early on, I have to say some of the virtual events that I attended. Weren't so great. I think people were trying to take what they had done in person and just literally move it into a virtual environment. Um, you know, it's interesting because we know people need events and they need the support they need, they understand the importance of connection. They understand the importance of knowledge sharing and probably it's more important now than ever before, but it sounds to me like they really need to understand how best to put on a virtual event. That's truly going to bring people together. That's going to engage and excite people. So that, again, we're not trying to just take something out of a physical world and make it virtual, but instead we're trying to craft an experience that makes sense for the environment in we're in. So, so how do you educate your customers on how best to do this?
Derek 00:14:57 You know, there's a lot of interesting, um, ways to make it happen. I, I would say the first thing that we talk a lot about is just the share time. You would expect someone to attend a virtual event, you know, in the course of a given day, right. I mean, just, just think of all the, um, webinars and zoom calls and everyone's attention just to get on something for an hour. Even an hour is tough. We'd all be kidding ourselves. If we didn't flip over to our, you know, outlook or look at our phone or do something. I mean, it's just, it's what we all do. Right. Um, and we're distracted. So we talk a lot about, you know, what does that, first of all, look like in the day with a lot of breaks and a lot of, I guess, focused time. And then, you know, customers are always wondering about interaction and how do we interact.
Derek 00:15:51 And certainly you try to make it as fun as possible, but, you know, if I were to, um, give some advice. So of one of the things that we think is really, really important is internally who's your leader, who's your host. I mean, if you think of that MC person that is gonna lead you throughout the day and a virtual event, um, I think of them as like the news anchor, you know, you may watch news because of the personalities of the people that draw you in to that event. And we find that that's even more present, um, in a virtual or hybrid scenario because that person keeps people engaged, keeps it light. Um, you know, maybe even at an in-person event, when you have a professional MC you tend to get better engagement and attendance just in the live environment. So, um, even more important than the virtual, but you need the hook I'm in Michelle, you're, you're a marketing professional. So, you know, the hook is what's important to get people into the seat and a virtual, when, you know, I sit here at the kitchen right there, so I can go grab some food if I get bored. So, you know, it's easy to get up and walk away.
Michelle BB00:17:05 Well, you know, I, I would say to everybody listening out there, if you want to know how to put on a great virtual event, I am sure that Derek will be available and ready to answer your questions. And I have no doubt Derek, that your customers are going to appreciate the guidance that you give. All right, we're coming to the end. And so for my last question, this is something that I've been asking guests across a few episodes of the, the edge podcast. And, you know, I think it's especially relevant in light of your focus on learning and transformation. So here goes for many of the people with whom I've spoken this pandemic has allowed us maybe to look at things a bit differently, right? Perhaps we give ourselves a little more grace we've shifted our perspective, you know, Hey, I've taken up a new hobby or two, maybe you have, um, so here's the questions. Number one, what have you started doing? And this can be professional or personal. What have you started doing since the onset of the pandemic? Number two, what have you stopped doing and are grateful for doing so, and then number three, as we continue to create this new normal, what is something you'll take with you that continue to do that you might not have done before? So it's start, stop, continue.
Derek 00:18:13 Uh, well, some good ones. Um, you know, we've asked this question a lot to a lot of folks as well, and it's really around, like, how has the pandemic really affected your life? I don't know if I'm just terribly a boring person or because I was starting to think that the upended medic hasn't affected me, um, that much, but I, you know, if I were to say, one thing that I've started to do is, or done more of is connect with people on the phone. I'm just going to go off on this one and say on the phone. So I'll give you an example. We'll use like a lot of people listening to this, um, Microsoft teams or zoom or WebEx or whatever it is, but our internal connection as Microsoft teams. So prior to the pandemic, um, I think a lot of us were scheduling time to talk to somebody like, Hey, Michelle, I want to talk to you.
Derek 00:19:16 Are you available tomorrow at one 15? Right. Um, I just started calling people like I just call them like the olden days where you just pick up the phone and call them and magically people pick up and then you have a three minute conversation versus scheduling a 30 minute meeting. So we've started just talking again versus email and text and keeping it, um, fun and, you know, maybe more water cooler ish, but just picking up the phone and calling. So we've started calling more, very simple, um, you know, from a, from a stop standpoint very quickly. I think the thing that really I stopped doing was using some nomenclature, which was the new normal. So the new normal nomenclature drives me nuts. And I think it was only like April 15th that I started saying, I'm not going to say the word new, normal ever again.
Derek 00:20:26 Um, so I removed it out of my vocabulary because I, I feel like is there really such thing? I mean, we just evolve every day. I mean, every day is different and if it's not, COVID, it's the next thing that we know will be here or the next twist or the next personal challenge or professional challenge, whatever it is, but something is going to happen in the future. So why say new normal? Just say the future, say the normal, um, cause I think it will, we'll keep going. Um, so then your what's your third one to continue? Yeah, stop, start and continue. Right. Um, I think to continue is, is about attitude and behavior and positivity. So at the end of the day, and I know it's hard, we've, we've all been in this rollercoaster and I certainly have been where some days aren't as great as others.
Derek 00:21:25 Um, however, you got to continue with your leadership style of what we can do. I just, I really liked saying that and what we will do and how we'll get it done and just press forward. And so I think continuing a positive mindset, um, uh, glasses, definitely half full, if not full and stop looking at it in a negative way. And it will end, like there is going to be a point in time where we, we reflect and say, oh, remember those days of COVID. Um, and then we're going to say things like, oh, it's very similar to this new thing. That's happening, whatever the new thing is. So I think that we just need to stay positive, stay upbeat, not get caught up in, um, the world of what we think we know, uh, you know, we're, we're an ADL, rocket scientists and health experts and this and that. So why guests? Well, we know let's just go forward with every day and be positive.
Michelle BB 00:22:30 I think that actually sounds like an excellent game plan to me, Derek and I will be expecting my three-minute phone call at some point soon. Um, thank you so much for taking the time with us to be on the edge. This was fantastic. And to our listeners, thank you for tuning into this. In every episode, as we unleash our edge together on behalf of the entire Skillsoft and SumTotal teams, we encourage you to keep learning, keep growing and remember the importance of showing up for those who need us. I'm Michelle BB, and this is The Edge, Be well.