08 Mar 2021 | 09.22 am
Executive Content Replaces In-Person Networking
The Executive Institute lines up top speakers
08 Mar 2021 | 09.22 am
Business networking has gone by the board due to Covid. That’s a blow for The Executive Institute, but ramped-up webinars have kept members engaged
Most annual accounts filings for 2019 reference the Covid-19 pandemic the directors’ report. With 66,600 companies claiming the initial wage subsidies last spring, the business impacts of the cursed disease were obviously profound.
One venture you’d expect to be proffering Covid excuses is The Executive Institute, whose business model centred on in-person executive gatherings. However, in the filing signed off in December 2020, the directors declared that “there have been no significant events affecting the company since the financial year-end”.
The statement reflects the chutzpah of Conor Morris (pictured), who took over what was the Sales Institute in 2014, charted a new direction and revived its fortunes. Morris is ebullient by nature and a natural-born salesman. He can’t wait for Covid restrictions to be eased so he can return to in-person meetings. In the meantime he’s delivering premium online content that corporates are prepared to pay for.
Pre-pandemic, a typical Executive Institute event was a couple of hours in a hotel function room, with an expert speaker or two and an opportunity for attendees to network. Lunch events were alcohol-free and it was pot luck who you ended up sitting beside, which meant that attendees always met new people.
That all stopped in mid-March 2020. The Institute had 50 events planned for 2020 and had staged 11 when lockdown pulled down the shutters. Annual subscription for corporate members ranges from €5,995 to €11,995 per annum, so Morris immediately had a problem. If members couldn’t network, what was the point of membership?
“We felt we could be affected in the same way as a wet pub,” he recalls. “The threat was that members would leave and we wouldn’t acquire any new members. We were fearful about that.”
The entrepreneur established his first business, Evolve Organisation Learning Consultants, in 1998, at the age of 31. Evolve, a profitable venture, is involved in training, management development, and sales and personal development, themes that underpin the Executive Institute.
Morris started his business career with Smurfit Group as a management trainee. “That was a great experience,” he says. “Smurfits had very good commercial practices and are very focused on their customers. They’re focused on innovating and making sure that customers are getting what they want now and what they might want in the future. And they always believed in professional development. They spent tons of money on me and said yes to any course I wanted to do.”
According to Morris, the Executive Institute had done well through 2019, growing membership by 22%. “Some of that growth happens when people join a new employer and that company becomes a member. Though networking is important, so is the content. When you have relevant content it’s easier to sell the product. Social media also helped us, with attendees mentioning their event experience on the networks.”
With business gathering prohibited after lockdown, the obvious pivot for the Executive Institute was online. The organisation had been live streaming some events for years and backing them up as an online resource. However, the online omens were not encouraging, as Morris knew that pre-pandemic hardly anyone tuned into the live webcasts.
Morris and his team ripped up their planned events and came up with new subject matter to reflect the new reality. In came ‘surviving lockdown’ webcasts, with themes such as leading a remote team of senior managers, how to maintain your own resilience, and how to manage the mental health of remote team members.
As the year progressed, the agenda returned to more mainstream leadership, sales and management topics, and Morris says the Institute delivered 81 virtual events through 2020.
As people became rapidly accustomed to virtual meet-ups within their own business and with clients, Executive Institute members were more willing to engage with the online seminars. Twice as many members would tune in online than was the norm for the hotel events, either in real-time or to check out the recording.
“The show-up rate of members who signed up for an event was consistently about 50%,” says Morris. “It dropped off a bit towards the end of the year, though quality speakers still drew a crowd. If you have the right speaker, people will show up.”
The acid test for Morris has been membership renewals. The Executive Institute has c.300 corporate member companies and Morris says the vast majority are renewing their commitment.
“A few companies pulled out because of the lack of networking, and that’s fine,” he says. “Other members in beleaguered sectors like food service and hospitality simply don’t have the cash, and we offered them a free pass until they recover. We have a community that we want to maintain. We’re hoping towards the end of the year, or at the beginning of next year, that they might be able to recommence paying.”
Lockdown benefited the Executive Institute too, insofar as it no longer had to pay for the hire of meeting rooms in hotels, PA costs, teas and coffees etc. Morris insists that his saving has been diverted into paying for chunky speaker fees. Irish executives will usually share their insights with an audience for a couple of bottles of wine, but it’s a different story with retired sports stars and UK and US executives on the speaker circuit.
“We’re budgeting for speaker outlays of c. €140,000 over the next 12 months,” says Morris. “A virtual speaker can cost €9,000 or €10,000, while you’re talking about £16,000 sterling for a quality live event speaker. We’ve taken a lot of the money we’re saving on venues and putting it into speakers.”
Morris has also invested in transforming one of the Georgian rooms at the Institute’s Fitzwilliam Street base into a DIY studio. This has involved installing a very large white screen on one of the walls, sound-proofing the room with acoustic cancelling pads, and buying in cameras, overhead boom, microphones, studio software “and then paying for someone to teach you how to use it as well”. The end result, says Morris, “looks like we’re the BBC”.
The Executive Institute operates several tiers of membership that cater for different categories of executive, and access to online or real world events is reserved for specific groups. Events are themed along the lines of, Business Intelligence, Training, FMCG Director, Executive Director, Empowering Women In Leadership, Platinum Members Club and the CEO Forum.
Morris explains: “For a CEO event, only CEOs can attend and that way the event is truly peer to peer. The same goes for executive directors, FMCG directors etc.”
For the CEO Forum, the Institute has lined up four speaker so far for 2021: Lars-Johan Jarnheimer, chairman of Ikea; Martin McCourt, former Dyson boss and chairman of Glen Dimplex; Jeremy Schwartz, who ran The Body Shop from 2013 to 2018; and former Bank of Ireland boss and current CRH chairman Richie Boucher, who kicks off the series on March 25.
Morris anticipates that Executive Institute activities will be online only until after the summer. “As soon as the restrictions are removed we’ll have an event every week in the Shelbourne or the Merrion Hotel. We’ll invest very quickly to have people networking again, because certainly the economy will need it.
“People need to see each other, press the flesh, meet new people and see what people are doing in the market. If I were to put a prediction on this, I’m hoping September, though it might be October. I don’t think it will be later, but time will tell.”
When live business events return, Morris won’t be turning his back on the virtual world. “In future I’d say our calendar will be 30 physical events and 20 virtual events. There are some topics where people are just engaging for the content, and they suit online delivery. When you’ve lined up people like AP McCoy, Susan Whelan, Rory Best and Paul McGinley, our members want to be in the room with them.”