Opinion

Lessons learned from 15 years of event organizing


20 Feb. 2019 by Tom van der Linden, Solarplaza

What to do with smoky conference halls, lip-syncing panelists, hostage-taking hotels, empty tour boats, and non-too-cooperative customs officers?


In 2019, Solarplaza is celebrating its 15-year anniversary. In honor of this momentous occasion, we’re publishing a series of small posts and blogs that highlight key milestones, achievements and other stuff that we’re especially proud of. However, being an international event organizer isn’t just a glorious, ever-smooth and glamorous existence. Things go wrong, oh yes. Actually, we feel that what has characterized us most as an event organizer has been our ability to react, improvise and sometimes even embrace and “weaponize” these occurrences. So in this post, we’d like to highlight some of those unique moments. In common Solarplaza-fashion, we’ve compiled a little “Top 15” list (in no particular order). So, here goes:



1. Ensure Liquidity: One lesson we’ve had to learn the hard way: perform as many venue/logistics/accommodation payments up front as possible and outfit your travel team with a decent amount of credit cards (which are commonly accepted in the relevant country). More than once have we ended up in semi-hostage situations when team members weren’t allowed to leave venues in Mexico City (2015), Johannesburg (2016) and Bangkok (2017) until proof-of-payment could be supplied from HQ. Then again… being taken a hostage in a hotel in Thailand doesn’t sound that bad, right? 

2. Take traffic into account: Underestimating traffic is tricky. When you’re trying to coordinate business meetings on three separate locations in Jakarta on a single day, you know you’re in for a treat. At some point, you just need to cut your losses, walk out of the taxi vans and take a nice long walk with your group of business executives. They’ll enjoy the exercise and fresh air, honestly. However, don’t try to do the same thing in high summer in Panama. There, always go for those fancy airconditioned vans, even for a 500m trip. You don’t want your participants to melt on the pavement.

3. Embrace performance artists: A nice recent one occurred in Singapore, where - for the first time in event history, as known to us - a panelist actually lip-synced to a pre-recorded set of statements because he lost his voice the night before. How do you respond? Well, we just rolled with it. It did generate a lot of interest, buzz and personal photography from the crowd.



4. Secure those VIPs: It’s always nice to have highly placed officials sharing their views on stage. But it can be quite a surprise to learn what needs to be put in place to facilitate that! In India, the attendance of a governor was coupled with the installation of security gates and the presence of armed bodyguards. In Nigeria, we had to hire a security crew worthy of an Expendables movie. But don’t let their looks deceive you, they were sweet as can be.

5. Know where to go: Location, location, location. When you’ve finally guided your group of business people into that bus, make sure the driver knows exactly where they need to go. That will prevent you from circling Saudi Aramco’s compound until you find the right gate and can also save you the scare of driving through one of Mexico City’s worst neighborhoods on a “short cut” towards a factory visit.



6. Providing Conference Materials (1): Event attendees like to get their hand-outs with a nicely printed program, practical details, floorplan and the most up-to-date list of attendees. Most of that can be printed and packed at our Dutch headquarters. But for the latest updates, we almost always find good local print shops to help us out. In Nairobi (2016), that involved one team member risking his neck on a local motorbike taxi, which brought him to a “print shop” that turned out to be a pharmacy outfitted with one publicly accessible printer in a mini-mall.

7. Providing Conference Materials (2): Another important point is arranging the lanyards and badges that we outfit our participants with at the events. However, customs don’t always cooperate as we would like. So when our nicely printed lanyards were withheld from us in Dakar (2014), we had to frantically call around to still get something remotely resembling lanyards (and in orange of course).



8. Know your basic math: When you have X amount of participants that need to fit on an X amount of canal boats in Amsterdam for transport to a secret dinner location, you need to make good head counts. Then, if some of the guests ditch us for other plans, you might end up with one completely empty boat, serviced by a staff of four and filled with a few barrels of beer and a LOT of snacks. The three Solarplaza team members that “had” to take that boat have almost never felt as fancy, as they were gliding through the romantically-lit canals of Amsterdam at night, with a piano player serenading them.

9. Bring that extra tire: Often we fly to our event location, but if it’s within a reasonable distance from our Rotterdam offices, we have also been known to stuff our team and their belongings into a little bus. If that bus then breaks down on the way back from Munich, and you don’t have a spare tire stowed away in the back, you might find your team on the side of the autobahn. In the dark. In the cold. In the rain. 

10. Dress to impress: If you still insist on taking that little bus to Germany, then make sure your team doesn’t look too casual during that trip. Apparently, German customs officials may find a group of 5 Dutch guys in shorts, playing football on a parking lot, a bit too suspicious, warranting a full bag search for anything… incriminating… that might be considered typically “Dutch”. 



11. Have an exit plan: What to do when your conference room in Lagos starts filling up with smoke? Get everyone out of course and wait for the fire brigade to clear things up. Bright side? Excellent extra networking time. 

12. Be flexible with your program: You know that in certain countries your carefully constructed program can end up being an exercise of wishful thinking when a few (or a lot) of speakers pull out at the very last minute. Of course, you’ve got some back-ups, but in some cases - Colombia comes to mind - it also resulted in devising an almost entirely new program over the days before the event. Still putting on a solid show and getting full recognition from the crowd on how much the program was on point, makes the effort more than worthwhile!

13. Know your audience: One of the most stressful things about event organization is dealing with late registrations. Despite years of experiences, it’s still not quite easy to prepare for events in countries where 80-90% of registrations come in during the final week (looking at you LATAM and SEA!). 



14. Arrange those visas: Everyone knows visas can be quite a hassle. We must have arranged hundreds of invitation letters and have tried to mediate in visa applications on behalf of participants from around the world. But with international flights and large distances, this is something you prepare for. When you take a 1.5-hour boat trip from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, however, you normally wouldn’t have expected to get stuck in the bureaucratic mess! But, of course, we got there. 

15. Work with your participants: Sometimes, coordinating a trade mission can seem a lot like leading a school trip. There’s a decent amount of shepherding, making headcounts, getting people into busses on time, making sure everyone gets their juice box and lunch bag. Sometimes it goes beyond that. Like when your participants fail to wake up and you're making calls to hotel rooms and banging on doors. Or when they forget their passports at random places. Or when their bags never arrive and you have to help them shop for clothing. 



These are just some of the lessons we’ve learned over the course of organizing more than 125 events in 53 cities, in 36 countries, on 5 continents. Although we’ve definitely learned how to anticipate these types of things, we’re more than certain that more curious and special challenges will make their appearance in the future. Let them come! It wouldn’t be as much fun without them.