Different But the Same

Aug 4, 2020

I woke up at 4am a week ago Friday – much like I have woken up for many years before many events for an opening general session however in this case, I actually got up too early!  

I didn’t have to shower and put on makeup, no production black, no badge to pick up, no final venue walk-through, no team hunkered down around a common table in the event management office, no tucking of comfortable shoes into my bag to replace my heels midday, and (thankfully) no chance of the familiar smell of a soon-to-be-removed scrambled egg breakfast in chafing trays in the crew meals room. 

I’ve done virtual events for years – but not because they were necessary.  They were always an adjunct or an add-on to expand the reach of the live event. So, as I lay my head down on a pillow for what no doubt would be a fitful sleep (and my husband acknowledges it was), it hit me – this was it – no add-on, no expansion of reach. This was the real stand-alone deal.  

Earlier in the day yesterday, as we had our final pre-con, we joked.   

“We’re officially in load-in.” 

“Have you walked the floor tonight?” 

“Team dinner, anyone?” 

Trying to inject normalcy to anything but. 

Last night was different too. As I sat having a quiet dinner with my husband, sipping a glass of chilled Chardonnay in a stemmed glass (unlike a flat Diet Coke in a flimsy plastic cup on show site well past my bedtime!) and exchanging infrequent group texts with my team members – located in Florida, New York, and Las Vegas – and my clients in  Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia, it occurred to me that this was the least stressful pre-event evening I think I have ever had. It was a bit eerie, I admit…but actually quite nice. 

As I headed up to my office at 4:30am – barefoot, tepid coffee in hand, dark sky, quiet house – a welcome and familiar feeling crept in.  That quickening of pulse, my brain on red alert, my eyes darting not from one area of a venue to another but rather from one computer screen to the next…and repeatedly checking the clock counting the minutes to opening remarks. 

I “wandered” through the venue — chatting  with exhibitors, admiring the lobby we designed and built, listening to our curated background music, and exchanging last minute notes with my incredible producer… And exactly at 8am, not one second later, the event started. Flawlessly, miraculously, wonderfully on time. 

And I found myself staring at the screen with tears streaming down my face. I was so emotionally overwhelmed at what we had accomplished in such a short period of time. 

When the company I was with ceased operations on March 20, I found myself out of work with no prospects in a decimated industry and wondered what was next for me.  I wasn’t ready to give up on an industry I had the privilege of being a part of my entire career but Covid was not in my control.  And it made me sad for myself and so many people I knew for years. What would I do next? Where would I put my expertise and passion to work?  

When my two partners and I launched TBX: Total Brand Experience just two short weeks later, the path was perfectly clear. People will always convene and companies will always engage. It isn’t about the milieu – it is about the experience people have when they come together – whether in person or digitally. And that’s what I and my team are spectacularly brilliant at.  Three months after launching a brand new company with colleagues simultaneously shaking their heads in disbelief and cheering us on, we are working on 12 digital events, the first one now so very successfully behind us. 

And our approach is as it would be if this were a live event.  It’s just the venue that is different.  

How we bring people together in common interest is the same. How we engage them is the same. The need to provide critical networking on top of education and information is the same. The impetus for companies to introduce products and services to buyers is the same. Our responsibility to provide the best possible experience is the same. 

We’re not daunted by the stronghold this pandemic has on our industry. We are creating and embracing opportunity out of the challenges it presents. 

And I say with both pride and humility, we’re killin’ it. 

— Margaret Launzel-Pennes