Reto Leder is CEO of Trafo Baden, a Swiss Convention Centre which lies just outside of Zurich.
In this interview with Lucy Brazier, he talks about his career, the trends he is seeing in the events industry post-COVID and why putting customer service at the heart of your event will never go out of fashion.
Lucy Brazier (LB): Your career is fascinating. How did you get into working in events in the first place?
Reto Leder (RL): I have spent my entire professional life in the hospitality industry since I got out of school 35+ years ago, starting in the restaurant business, all the way up to where I am now, managing the Trafo Baden Convention Centre.
In between, so much has happened. I’ve worked at an airline catering company in Argentina. I’ve worked for a Swiss Hospitality Management School, opening up new markets. And I’ve worked at a senior level on a couple of cruise ships, which were probably the best jobs I’ve ever had.
LB: One of the places you worked was the QE2, and your stories from that time are certainly entertaining. What do you feel you learned from your time working on that cruise ship?
RL: First and foremost, I learned how to manage my own resources. Back then, as a Hotel Director, it was essentially a 16- to 20-hour-a-day job, 7 days a week. To stay focused, you had to prioritize both your work and your private time in a way that allowed you to keep the right balance.
Secondly, cruise ships are the most extreme version of a hotel when it comes to service because you have your guests 24/7. They can’t go anywhere because they’re surrounded by water. And so, you have to do a lot more to keep them happy. Going the extra mile and being a step ahead of your customer is particularly important on cruise ships, more than for hotels that are land-based, because it’s about constantly wowing people.
After that, I went to the Seabourn Cruise Line, where we took that concept of constantly wowing people to the next level. We would have weekly staff meetings, where the sole purpose was to brainstorm how we could wow people on the next cruise. Many fantastic ideas came out of those meetings that helped us repeatedly achieve the highest ratings on each cruise because of the amazing group of people working with us.
Everybody did their best to give our guests the ultimate experience, and once I left the cruise industry, it helped me to keep a clear focus on that guest experience. What is true on a cruise ship is just as true for an event. While in the planning stage, we only talk to the one person who is organising the event; however, it’s not just about pleasing the organiser: it’s about pleasing all their attendees. And that makes it ever so much more challenging, interesting and gratifying when the feedback after the event is positive.
LB: Tell us why you feel that customer service piece is so important and why you’re so fascinated with it.
RL: The simple answer is that I can’t get it out of my system. We all want to sell something to someone; however, it’s how you get the sale done. I truly believe that the best way to ensure people return is to wow them. The more you look after the details, the more you do things that people don’t necessarily expect, the better overall impression you leave. You’ve heard the phrase “It’s the first impression that makes the difference”. While I agree with that, I think second, and third, impressions are just as important. And based on that, the customer will decide, will I ever go back to that place or not?
We cannot just rely on making a first impression. We have to think the whole process through from the very first customer contact to the day the last guest leaves and make sure that each one is a single experience of its own. You need a great team for that, and the more that you can develop the expectation of excellence, the more likely it is that the customer will decide to return.
LB: Tell us about your experience with administrative professionals. I know they are one of your biggest customer groups at Trafo. What are the challenges they face with events?
RL: I’ve spoken to many Assistants over the years, and one of their biggest challenges is that every time they go to a new location or venue, they have to start all over again.
Each event location is so different from the next that you cannot just copy and paste. Even if you are doing a regular event or meeting, if you change venue, the physical layout of the property will be completely different, the distribution of rooms may be different, catering is different, etc.
Helping them to adapt easily to a new environment and delivering the same fantastic event experience is only possible if you have a team you can count on that knows the venue better than you do.
LB: COVID obviously had a significant impact on the events industry for almost two years. Tell us what you’ve seen and what it’s looking like now that you’re emerging on the other side.
RL: I’ve been in this business for the last 10+ years, and the event industry has always changed and reinvented itself.
It’s wrong to say that everything that has changed is because of COVID, because it’s simply not true. A lot of people say that virtual and hybrid events have only existed since COVID. We’ve done them for the last 10+ years, though it’s never been called a hybrid event – it’s been called a livestream. Same for virtual events with everybody talking about Zoom and Teams now. We’ve had Skype for a quarter of a century.
But let’s put it into perspective. Events are a mirror to the needs of society in terms of how they want to communicate the things they want to talk about. For example, I remember in Switzerland, 25 years ago, when Nokia brought out a new cell phone, they would do a mega event that cost them loads of money. All of Switzerland was like, “A new Nokia, how cool is that?” Nowadays, you have a new cell phone coming out every 10 minutes, hence the wow effect is gone.
We see a trend towards people wanting to do events in venues with a lot of daylight because they’re tired of sitting in a dark room. We see a trend of people wanting to do more collaborative event formats, rather than sitting in an audience watching PowerPoint. People would rather participate, visiting different workstations, exchange ideas, and then bring them back to the group.
Event formats have always changed, and that, I think, is our biggest challenge: to foresee what the next change will be and what society wants to do. Because events are essentially a playground to try out new things. Events are experimental. As new ideas occur, and new innovations come into the market, companies will produce new event formats. It’s our job to make sure that they can execute those ideas in the most successful way possible.
During COVID, companies were forced to try new things because COVID impacted the economy at large. So many small companies went out of business. Now organisations are trying to reconnect with their customer bases. Over the last two months, we’ve had an incredible number of inquiries from larger companies in Switzerland who want to do big staff events again. Why? Because they haven’t seen each other face to face. Some of them don’t even know each other, they’ve only coexisted online. And so, there’s this absolute human need to interact with other people, not just over Zoom or Teams, but in person.
LB: I’m really interested in your opinion on hybrid meetings. I love the idea of hybrid meetings when they’re done right, but they’re so expensive.
RL: That’s true. We analysed that when the first lockdown hit. With our in-house AV partner, we created scenarios where we said “You take event X and transform it into a hybrid event. How much more or less will it cost to get the livestreaming done right?” And that was a factor of 1.5 to 2 times the cost of doing it physically. Even though the catering costs were down, AV costs are so high that they are ultimately more expensive than the catering you don’t pay for.
Doing hybrid properly can be expensive. The advantage is that you can entertain more people online without the constraints of the size of the venue. But you must do things completely differently to keep people online and engaged. One format that I think has a future is decentralised events, which is a form of hybrid. You do an event in multiple places, such as Barcelona, Berlin and Zurich, all at the same time, connected via a specific software that allows you to connect everybody. Everybody is physically in the event location, but via the internet as well. So, you can talk to each other. And that is a very interesting form of doing hybrid events.
LB: Are there any other things that you’re seeing coming out of COVID that have impacted events, particularly in terms of formats?
RL: There’s the eternal discussion of virtual – not just hybrid, but actually getting an event completely online. And everybody talks about the metaverse. I think it’s too early to say what the potential of these types of formats will be in the future. I think the generations that are not comfortable with VR and AR are still in the majority, rather than the younger generations, who grow up with these new technologies.
LB: You run a hugely successful convention centre in Switzerland, near to Zurich, called Trafo. You’re our headline sponsor this year, and I know that’s because you are wanting to increase awareness of Trafo. But you’re doing that in a way that really helps the Assistants. Can you explain?
RL: When I saw how much Executive Support is about training and the transfer of knowledge, it was a no-brainer to arrive at the conclusion that talking about how to plan an event will get us much further than simply doing the “sales pitch”. We have about 500 events every year – everything from a meeting for 2 people, all the way up to an event for 2,500 people. That means we have a huge knowledge among our team of how you best prepare for a meeting or an event. What we hope we can contribute to your learning platform is how to go about planning a fantastic event. It starts with coming up with an idea. Why do I want to do the event? What is the goal of the event? Who do I want to talk to at that event? From that you develop the whole process of planning, to make sure that you have the best guest experience possible.
LB: Can you give us more of an idea about exactly what they can expect from that training programme?
RL: We’ve taken the entire event planning process and split it up into four or five different phases that make up the entire process. And we will dissect it and highlight the specific areas where event planners should focus. These are the things that, if you have never organised an event before, it’s impossible to know. It is this communication between the two parties that makes the difference.
LB: And you’re doing these as a complimentary gift to our audience.
RL: Absolutely. When our customers have a successful event, we’re successful. So it’s in our best interest to make sure that our customers have the best and most accurate information and tools at hand. In that sense, we consider ourselves part of our customer’s event team.
LB: We have booked the venue to run a Modern-Day Assistant course with you in October, which will be a good opportunity for Assistants to come and see the venue. Booking with you was utterly transparent in terms of cost, which is rare. Why did you go that route?
RL: To answer that, I will go back to the cruise ship. It is something Seabourn prided itself on. This is how things should be. People want transparency when it comes to cruise prices, especially when we talk about trips that cost many thousands of euros or dollars.
We took a clue from that cruise ship experience and from what in the UK is known as a daily delegate rate. Sadly, in many other countries and other venues in Switzerland, you pay a sum of money just to get the venue secured. On top of it comes every piece of furniture, every coffee, etc., and at the end of it, you get a 15-20 page price quote. All you’re really interested in is the total amount and how much it costs per delegate.
We came up with a system that’s not unlike when you go online and shop for new software. You have options A, B, C with a description of what each component is, a checkmark if it’s included in A, B or C, and the price tag at the bottom. You go online, have a look at our packages, choose the one that you think fits your event experience most, take that price, multiply it by the number of people you want to attend, and that is your price quote.
I do need to point out, however, that AV is separate from this because that is so different for every event. But as the person who organises the event, you need to understand that you have power over the venue. You can demand more transparency in the pricing. And the more people that do that, the more our industry will realise it’s not about charging for every little thing extra on top.
I’ve experienced the receiving side and I’ve organised events, and I’ve always had trouble, thinking, why didn’t anyone tell me before that these extras are going to cost so much more? At the end of the day, you have 20-30% more costs than you had budgeted for. Who’s going to explain that to your executive?
LB: I do wish more event venues would think the way that you do because it would make everybody’s life easier. The other thing I think would make the event organiser’s life easier is if other venues were working like you to make sure that the event is exactly what the organiser wants. I know that you’re great at listening to what the final result is meant to be, and then taking that and making that a reality. For an Assistant, having a venue that works with you to deliver what your organisation needs is huge.
RL: I think COVID has had a major impact on that specific issue. When I look back at 2019 and the customer database we had back then, about 80% of the people working at those companies organising events with us have gone. Same at Trafo Baden. We’ve had an amazing turnover of staff, during and after COVID. Imagine all the knowledge and talent that gets lost in such a situation. And of course, that happened on the customer side as well.
So, listening has never been more important than now. We have a brand-new group of people talking to us, and a lot of them don’t know the events that have happened before. We don’t know them personally, we don’t have a relationship with them yet, because they just started.
As a result, we spend more time with each customer to figure out what they want. What do you want to achieve? And how can we assist you? Because we all have the same goal: we want the perfect event experience for our guests.
LB: I want you to leave us with the top three things you think we need as advice about working with a venue.
RL: Firstly, demand transparency. Don’t let anybody fool you. Venues know what they have and don’t have, and they know their partners. They know what they offer and what they don’t offer.
Secondly, use checklists. The only way to make sure you don’t forget something is a checklist. Every pilot who flies a plane has a checklist to go through, even though they have thousands of hours of flying experience.
And finally, try not to get stressed out. Things are so much easier when you take a step back, and if you see an obstacle, you realise, “There’s something about this event that I haven’t got my head around”. Talk to somebody else, talk to the people at the venue, and expect them to help you out because that is their job. Use the venue people as sparring partners for your ideas. You’ll spot the competent ones very quickly: if they don’t just try to sell you something but actually take a real interest in helping you create the best experience, you know you’re in the right place.