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Conference News recently spoke to Dan Walker (Head Of Content) to better understand his role and remit at Ashfield Meetings & Events (and sister brand SPARK THINKING) and his eventful career to date.

What was your first career ‘wish’ when you left school?
After football (and I was never going to be good enough) my first love was music and I wanted to be a radio DJ. I also toyed with the idea of journalism and did some work which combined the two, writing for online music magazines as well as some hospital and student radio.

Tell me about your first job and your subsequent path into the meetings, events and hospitality sphere?
My first job was a promoter for my own club night. However I didn’t make much money so not sure if this can be classed as a job. The need to be compensated for my work took over and I landed a proper job with Blackburn Council working in the festivals and events team. I loved my time there, working on a range of indoor and outdoor public events. However, after a few years the routine annual programme stopped being so exciting and I made my way into the corporate event world.

Turning point/first big project and funniest early moment at work?
My first big project was Arts In The Park, an outdoor public event which attracted over 40,000 people over the course of a weekend. I also managed to reverse a 7.5-tonne truck into the security team’s minibus crushing the back doors – which although not funny was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

How has Ashfield changed since the WorldEvents days?
A lot of the senior team now at Ashfield were Project Managers and Account Managers when I started back in 2008. We have developed as people and a business together. Although we have doubled in size and changed locations from Yorkshire to the Midlands it still remains a tight-knit group with a great culture. One of the biggest developments I have witnessed in the business has been the growth of our engagement services. We now have a large and talented internal team of creatives, producers and content staff that have really cemented our full service offering.

What is your remit and main goal now at both Ashfield and SPARK THINKING?
As Head Of Content I have oversight of the quality, consistency and execution of the content and communication components of our full service projects. This includes establishing a core team of specialists to support the growing client demand for these services. I enjoy interpreting clients’ objectives and posing challenging questions to them to help drive meaningful conversations that uncover fantastic content and communication strategies.

Which projects are you now driving and what is exciting you about the future strategy?
I have a handful of clients that I am still heavily involved with. As our input into their communication objectives, content, creative and production requirements has increased over the years my remit has become more consultancy-based to ensure that year-on-year their live event advances and evolves. In these instances we have become a trusted supplier and join their senior leadership team to develop content and message delivery. Outside of that I am working strategically and supporting the business to ensure we have the correct people in the correct positions to add value and develop revenue streams. I am also heavily involved in our business development and pitch activity where our content and communication ideas mean the difference to winning or losing business. As my role also encompasses SPARK THINKING it has been very exciting to see the different types of opportunities presenting themselves and hugely rewarding to win some high profile business by utilising a more disruptive and challenging mind-set with the clients.

What are the meetings industry’s main strengths and weaknesses today in the UK and what can we learn from abroad?
In many ways I think the UK is far more advanced than other countries and markets when it comes to the meetings sector. I feel we have an abundance of creative and talented individuals and businesses and this is an undoubted strength. This is great as it pushes us to be the best we can be and to not rest on our laurels. The US market led the way with strategic meetings management programmes which are now more and more commonplace in the UK and beyond.

Which piece of large business have you worked on for the agency has given you the most pleasure as a key, well-run and impactful event?
It’s not so much one piece of business, but a series of events I have been working on since 2012 with a pharmaceutical client. We were brought on-board to help with the relaunch of a cardiovascular drug. It was a particularly challenging marketplace they were entering, but they had a very good sales team, a great product and a collaborative philosophy that meant they could collectively improve patient’s lives.  Over the past four years our partnership has strengthened and we have delivered a variety of events which have focused on sales training, sales confidence and challenger mind-sets. It has addressed the needs of the customers and most importantly the needs of the patient. There’s a great deal of trust in the relationship and as a result we have pushed the boundaries with the creative concepts and content and developed highly memorable activations.

What are some of the common mistakes clients continue to make with their events and what single piece of advice do you and your teams find you are giving most often?
The single biggest mistake clients make is not clarifying objectives soon enough in the process. Often we will receive an RFI after all the strategic thinking has been done but it still lacks clarity in objectives. If we don’t set clear and measurable objectives how can we know what impact the event has created and what types of value it has delivered?

Advice to any young professionals starting out in conferencing, events and hospitality?
Be flexible, remain open to opportunities and push yourself into new areas. The industry offers so many different roles inside and outside of agency life. I’ve had roles in live events, sponsorship, marketing and operations and am now focused on the creative and communication side of our business. I’ve enjoyed them all but it’s taken me 15 years to find my niche and the experience of the other roles remains invaluable.

How do you and your colleagues harness the full capabilities of event technology and what is your favourite piece of tech kit?
Recently we have been investing our time in canvassing client opinion and exploring the changing profiles of attendee and audiences and their associated learning behaviours and preferences. Our aim is to predict change and identify opportunities for our clients that can be accelerated and enhanced using new technologies. We have also held a future technologies advisory board, including client stakeholders, to ensure we are changing our business to meet client demand. As a result we have been exploring how we can strengthen our technological offering with strategic partnerships over the next six to twelve months. This includes SpotMe, who we have recently collaborated with to identify client challenges, spot concealed opportunities and then jointly develop tangible solutions. The partnerships we are exploring are not limited to one area and include app companies, event registration, reporting software, virtual platforms and positioning technologies.

How do you relax outside of the industry? Any hobbies?
No extreme sports for me. I take long walks and longer pub lunches with the wife and our dog that we brought back home following a holiday in Greece. Long story.

Dan Walker

This interview was originally published by Conference News.

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