Engaging and informative events happen when the needs of the organization and the needs of the attendee are both fulfilled.

Amaia Stecker

Managing Partner, Events and Fundraising

Location: Washington, DC

Pilar & Co. is an event planning agency specializing in innovative association and government relations events that achieve a defined purpose. With more than 13 years of experience working on Capitol Hill and nine years producing events for groups of 10 to 800, we have the connections, knowledge, and expertise to create effective advocacy and special events that further the priorities of our clients.

We challenge our clients to stretch the limits of their current approach to events to better enable them to reach meaningful, measurable goals. From streamlining Government Relations programs and scheduling meetings with congressional offices to enhancing the entire event experience from arrival to departure, the Pilar & Co. team is your answer for a Modern Event With Purpose.

Amaia Stecker, Managing Partner, has more than a decade of experience planning a wide variety of events for corporate, nonprofit and social organizations. She approaches each event holistically with an eye for detail and a passion for making the experience purposeful. Amaia earned her Masters of Arts in Government and her Masters of Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University while working full time in the US Senate.

Her experiences in the halls of Congress and the corporate boardroom have refined her approach to event planning in a detail-oriented, modern, and innovative way. When she’s not focused on checklists and planning for the future, Amaia can be found living the present on her yoga mat.

How long has your company been producing events? What is your main focus?

I had been working in the event industry for 10 years when I decided to go out on my own with AP Stecker Events, which later became Pilar & Co in 2015. We focus on helping organizations plan and execute effective government affairs and advocacy events in Washington DC.

What do you enjoy most about your role in corporate event planning?

Seeing organizations adopt change by implementing new and successful ways of doing events.

How do you keep up with the constant change in the industry?

I always keep the attendee front and center in my mind. I am heavily influenced by design thinking and hope to find ways that delight the attendee, meet their needs and alleviate pain points in their experiences. I am very wary of being trendy. Many peers in the industry have the hard conversations of what is working and what is not and those need to be had far more publicly than what I think is happening right now.

Last year a major conference invited the planner from Fyre Festival for a session I thought would have been better suited as a keynote or symposium discussion about some of the bad actions that continue to happen under the guise of “getting it done.” I look to unconventional sources of inspiration like Rodan & Fields, Lululemon and other disruptors across industries, even if they aren’t in ones I focus on.

How do you mix the current trends with the traditional to create a meeting that is
engaging and informative?

Again, it’s always about the attendees. What do they like, what do they dislike, and WHY do they feel that way? Then we take a step further and focus on answering a series of actionable questions that guide the Pilar & Co strategy:

– How can we challenge them to appreciate new changes?
– How can we empower them to take actions our clients want for their organization?
– How can we still accomplish the needs of the event with all the other demands of organizational and attendee resources?

I refuse to do things the way they have always been done, yet at the same time, just because something is trendy doesn’t mean it should be done. Engaging and informative events happen when the needs of the organization and the needs of the attendee are both fulfilled.

Do you have any advice for a company having a hard time choosing a theme? Is a theme
necessary?

The way I see it, themes are crutches for an event. If you’re relying on a theme to make your event a success each year, then you’re not really getting deep enough into the purpose of the event.

Organizations have brands and identities that should be reflected in everything it does, including events. Obviously, you need a “show look” and brand standards (maybe a tagline to help your comms/marketing team with promotion) but this should come naturally from the parent brand. Events should promote the connection between attendee and organization, not attendee and event.

What are some ways to personalize a corporate event?

As many things as possible should be personalized with every event. This is par for the course when the attendee is the focus of all planning. It demonstrates that you understand them, their needs/pain points, and can address them. That understanding is going to incentivize them to not only show up but also pay attention to your content, which is where the hosts get their ROI.

From beginning to end, each attendee should have an experience that strengthens their relationship to the organization. Sometimes this comes in ways attendees don’t even realize like:

– wellness moments
– truly healthy food and beverage
– time in the schedule to check in with family/onsite child care (if that’s a need)
– quality connections with other attendees like sponsors, advertisers, exhibitors, speakers, and content providers
– political engagement
– real professional development (tracks that meet differing levels of need)
– quality education (tracks that meet differing levels of need)

What do you see as the corporate event industry’s greatest challenge, currently?

The struggle to maintain this 1980’s idea of conferences and events as “attendees gone wild.” We’re adopting policies about harassment prevention, promotion of diversity and inclusion, encouraging mental health awareness, all of which are great. However, we’re not really putting this into action. At the industry level, we are still providing the opportunity for people to drink too much, eat bad food, and have more fun than work, which creates the culture that breeds the exact behaviors our policies are trying to prevent. This has to change.

How do you leverage event technology and what would you consider the biggest game-
changer?

I see a strong future for off-site participation in onsite experiences virtually through technology advancements. Not only broadcasting the experience out to the field but also have methods of live, interactive field participation that creates bonds through those satellite experiences.

Have you used Gamification in your events? If yes, how was it received?

We did a photo scavenger hunt for actions in the expo hall (select sponsor activations), workshops, and membership combined with lighthearted actions (lots of selfies, physical actions, “where’s waldo”) for points. At levels of points, entries for prizes were offered. It was WILDLY popular and not only increased app adoption by 20% but also allowed for the client to AB test on messaging → action/result.

What is your favorite city for events and why?

I always try to look for less traditional locations. It’s also important that the location be able to serve the needs of the event and not distract, otherwise, you’re basically providing people a vacation. There I said it.

I appreciate why certain cities known for their attractions draw attendance. If I planned there, I may meet the room block requirements and avoid attrition, but I’d rather have my attendees in the audience engaging and focusing on the event rather than being drawn away by family members, theme parks, or being drawn in by other local vices.

What are some practices to follow that will help you to create the Wow factor that attendees seek with a limited budget?

Review the purpose of the event and eliminate everything that doesn’t serve that purpose. You’d be amazed at what you can reduce. Many attendees also don’t really want that WOW factor, especially when it’s done poorly. No one needs a live band/DJ with strobe light setup for the welcoming session at 8 AM. Challenge your speakers/presenters/sponsors to do things differently (very differently!) and with the attendee in mind.

Sustainability is a current movement that can be challenging for large events. What is
your approach?

Somewhere along the way, we got it in our heads that events need to be these ridiculous, over the top, bacchanals. Start by just having a philosophy of not being wasteful. Quality over quantity ALWAYS.

Engagement and connection happen when organizations (host, sponsors, vendors, advertisers, etc.), just like people, are authentic and able to share their passion in an honest way. This is much harder to do than say.

Then look to technology to support the elimination of waste. A lot of paper documents (i.e. eliminate the printed program!) can be given digitally through a file download, app, or email. Try holding aspects of business meetings prior to the event through virtual conferences and give attendees back time and money. Accurate headcounts and dietary restrictions/preferences can help reduce food waste. Provide experiences over things (appreciation dinners over swag).

How do you measure the success of an event?

In planning the event, it should have a defined purpose. The success of the event is measured by whether or not that purpose was achieved.

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