During our first boutique agency leaders meeting earlier this month, AOK Events CEO Alex Hewitt shared an incredibly honest account of the challenges he has faced over the past year, including reducing headcount from 45 to 13 and completely overhauling the business.
In this week’s guest blog, he shares some of the lessons learned from COVID-19…
“Creativity doesn’t wait for that perfect moment. It fashions its own perfect moments out of ordinary ones.” Bruce Garrabrandt
COVID-19 has been the absolute opposite of “the perfect moment”. It has been a cruel, unsettling and disrespectful chapter in history, one that none of us will ever want to be part of again. But AOK Events has found a way to first survive and then thrive through a combination of innovation, hunger, determination and lateral thinking that will serve us well into the unknown and unpredictable future for the events industry.
It was in August 2020 that we stopped thinking of ourselves as an event management company. How extraordinary just to write that sentence! For 20 years we have been organising the best conferences, incentives, parties and hospitality events but when the Prime Minister announced the Rule of 6, everything changed. Clients who we had been speaking to over the summer, who had been waiting to see how 2020 was going to roll out, suddenly started calling us up, asking for our help.
Every brief seemed to be different from the last one and in a ridiculously short period of time AOK completed its pivot and we became a training company; a merchandise provider; a website design agency; a wellbeing specialist, thought leaders and obviously virtual hospitality and team building experts. We evolved our product offering as quickly as possible and got the message out in record time too. The last four months of 2020 went by in a blur. We had a better sales month in December 2020 than in 2019.
Our Eureka moment was when we realised that most of the biggest companies in the world did not have any set plans for how they were going to stay connected with their clients or how they could ensure that their staff were going to stay connected with them, in some cases, both. COVID-19 “ground zeroed” the events industry to such an extent, that everyone had to start from scratch in terms of their thinking, their processes and their execution; a minefield suddenly became an entrepreneur’s Aladdin’s Cave.
We got rid of our previously hierarchical structure in a heartbeat – everyone was given a new role and we were all as important as each other. Venue finders became proposal writers. Party planners became website designers. Event managers became account managers. After a large redundancy programme, most of our retained staff were understandably still fearful about their jobs, despite the sales that were coming in, so we looked at our own wellbeing with renewed rigour. We always felt that AOK was a fun, rewarding place to work but with us going back into lockdown towards the end of the year, we needed to ensure that our staff were properly ok. A positive from COVID is that this is a “forever change”.
We have learned so much from the last 11 months; nearly all of it positive. We have become a better agency and we will win more new business because of it. Our amazing products and our brilliant staff will always steal the headlines, but the way that we brainstorm, invoice and reconcile, market ourselves, seek referrals and interact with each other have all improved and are equally important, even if less glamorous.
Nobody knows what the future is going to bring, and I am not going to predict it here. We are going to have to roll with the punches for a few more months yet. All I can say is that the future is truly exciting, not daunting. Our employees are no longer filled with trepidation, they are confident. Our clients are revered as always, but a number of key relationships have flourished as they become more thankful for our expertise on a daily basis. The next few years could be the best we ever have.