Remember when the business conference and other manner of corporate gathering were going to be supplanted by virtual experiences such as the webinar? It was post-Sept. 11, when the public was skittish about travel and the economy had gone into a slide, forcing companies to scale back on events spending.
Norman Aamodt remembers it vividly, the way one never forgets a kidney stone.
It was about a year after the Flourtown resident left a secure job as director of events at software systems powerhouse SAP in Newtown Square - where retreats, incentive trips, and user conferences were an important element of the culture - to start Event Strategy Group in Plymouth Meeting.
"We didn't do a job for seven months" after the terrorist attacks, Aamodt said.
Fortunately, Corporate America got back its nerve - and its events budgets. And it came to realize what Aamodt gleaned from growing up the son of a tool-company owner, spending time at trade shows:
"Virtual events don't work. People have to be together. They have to touch each other and comingle. Face-to-face works."
A 2014 report on the post-recession meetings industry by the Convention Industry Council and PricewaterhouseCoopers found participant volume increased 10 percent from 2009 to 2012, to nearly 225 million attending more than 1.8 million events.
Ensuring that clients leave lasting impressions at such affairs is what the event-planning industry strives to achieve. At Event Strategy Group, that has involved hanging a classroom upside down and enlisting a famous Chinese pianist to play a projected image.
It has also required a great deal of clients' trust and creative tolerance.
"We're a little odd - in a good way," said a travel-weary Aamodt, just back from China. At 56, he is home about two weeks a month, logging 100,000 miles a year to oversee events orchestrated by ESG and secure new business. The company primarily serves the technology and financial industries, but Aamodt said he would love to expand to pharmaceuticals, which has proved elusive.
"It's very hard for companies to make the switch from the devil you know to the devil you don't know," he said.
Despite that challenge, Aamodt expects ESG's revenues of more than $25 million to double within two years, largely because events have become critical to brand building and customer engagement. That's due, in large part, to social media's reach.
"A transition we're seeing in marketing is moving away from traditional media to more and more digital and social communication," said David Roman, chief marketing officer for technology innovator Lenovo, whose Tech World extravaganza in Beijing on May 28 was the work of ESG, showcasing the $50 billion Fortune 500 company's new products and ambitions.
"Events continue to be crucial in this new world," Roman said. "The interaction of our users becomes more important."
To introduce a sophisticated laser projector not yet on the market - it's so small it can fit in a smartphone - ESG designed the exhibit that pianist Lang Lang wowed the crowd with. It included playing a grand piano wheeled on stage, with Lenovo chairman and CEO Yang Yuanqing "turning" pages of sheet music projected onto it.
"Anybody can put their products out and ask people to buy them," Aamodt said. "When you engage . . . it becomes an experience you remember."
For that reason, Lenovo's Roman said, event-planning firms have become more important to companies than advertising agencies, because they are "much more instrumental in helping drive the brand."
It shows in ESG's numbers, to even its founders' surprise.
"Our crazy goal was one event a month, and now we have several a week," said Renee Scullin, who left SAP with Aamodt to form ESG, where she is vice president, responsible for managing the event team. ESG attempts to distinguish itself from other boutique event-planning companies by being more soup-to-nuts, handling needs beyond actual staging of a conference or exhibition - including building sets, writing speeches, planning menus, and arranging transportation.
That's why hiring is one of ESG's biggest challenges, Scullin said. "We don't focus on degree. They have to have the right kind of attitude, the ability to learn, entrepreneurial spirit. Say 'yes' to everything."
The workforce now totals 29, ranging in age from 20s to 60s, and is supplemented by a corps of well-vetted contractors, Aamodt said.
He credited strong cash management with helping them survive the recession without layoffs, though they "lost 52 percent of our business in a month."
Next up? "I want to do the opening ceremony of the Olympics," he said.
ESG’s Top Projects
Upside Down Classroom, Las Vegas. With working laptops on all desks, ESG placed a portion of a classroom upside down and hung it over a booth for an education trade show. The message: that its client saw the classroom from a different point of view.
Experiential Tech Playground, Beijing. As part of a larger conference, ESG designed product/tech areas as engaging experiences. Projection technology had its own interactive theater; smart shoe technology had its own track to run/walk around; gaming areas were designed to experience showcased products in full.
Chinatown Block Party, San Francisco. ESG closed an entire street for a block party including gourmet Chinese cuisine, ribbon and fan dancers, and acrobats.
Think Tank, Las Vegas. ESG replicated a live Shark Tank show, designing a contest for all business partners to submit creative sales ideas/platforms. The winner received funding to grow the idea with the host company.
FC Barcelona Experience, Barcelona, Spain. ESG rented practice fields at FC Barcelona for a European football team-building event. Guests participated in such skills as taking penalty kicks; teams created cheers, with costumes and props.