Event horizon

For years, Stacy Ripley had a weighty problem on her hands. As a marketing and investor relations executive at private equity firm Oaktree Capital Management, Ripley and her colleagues spent a significant portion of each year planning and executing their annual client conference. With a skilled and experienced in-house event team, the overall success of the event was never in question. The problem was much simpler: paper.

“Prior to 2014, we were printing binders for every attendee,” says Ripley. “Heavy, hardcover, fully branded binders with about 400 pages of slides for each of our 500-plus attendees. We thought it was time for a change.”

She’s not the only one. In the age of the hand-held digital device, the paper binder – once the lifeblood of any private equity firm conference – is rapidly disappearing from the industry. It’s easy to see why: add up the printing costs, environmental impact and data security issues with paper, and the switch to iPads and other mobile devices seems inevitable.

James Shepheard-Walwyn is certain of that. As managing director at Concise, a global digital agency, Shepheard-Walwyn works with companies to create bespoke event apps and hire out a fleet of iPads to turn death-by-binder conferences into engaging digital events. One of the leading and longest-established companies working in this relatively new field, Concise builds apps that put presentation slides into the audience’s hands, along with a slew of other interactive features that enhance the conference experience.

“Clients come to us and say, ‘we need to get with the times, and we want to go paperless, what can we do with iPads?’,” says Shepheard-Walwyn. “Then they find out how much flexibility they have with this method – we can update materials right up to the presentation – and they can personalize the experience, and incorporate more interactivity. So they arrive wanting to go paperless, but they stay for much more.”

Kathryn Kantarian is one of those clients. As director of investor relations at Siguler Guff & Company, a private equity firm, Kantarian wanted to stop printing hundreds of pages for each of Siguler Guff’s hundreds of annual investor meeting attendees. But once she met with Concise about switching to digital, she discovered more to her liking than just a cut in time at the printers.

“From the investor relations side, everything was streamlined – from checking people in on the app, to displaying the agenda and speaker bios, to Q&A, to attendees viewing and taking notes on the presentations,” says Kantarian.

There are numerous advantages to using an event app. It’s paperless, and it automates and simplifies activities from check-in to feedback forms – which often get a higher return rate than paper-and-pencil feedback. And it’s flexible. Reputable vendors will stay on site during your event to update the app, maintain the iPads and troubleshoot, so if that one vital number changes the day before your event, there are no more all-nighters with replacement pages or white-out.

Comfort matters

Increased interactivity is the other major advantage of going digital. Many people are more confident pressing “send” on an iPad-typed question than raising their hand in front of 500 peers. “These events tend to go over schedule, and the buyback time often comes from Q&A,” says Ripley. “With the app, people are sending their questions while the presentation’s going on – that makes a huge difference, and lets the presenter see the questions in real-time and plan for that as they go.”

Shepheard-Walwyn points out there are other advantages that have little to do with the presentation experience, which keep clients coming back.

“We loan clients the fleet of iPads, which operate from a secure server we set up in the venue,” says Concise’s Shepheard-Walwyn. “The result is that none of this content is going anywhere near the Internet. The iPads only have the apps audiences need – no Safari, no screen-shot, no email. And while attendees can get materials sent to them immediately afterwards, we can redact anything confidential.

“It’s actually more secure than handing out pieces of paper! And in the private equity industry, that level of data security and confidentiality is key.”

Switching from the way things have always been to a radically new system – especially for something as integral to a business as the annual investor conference – isn’t a decision many take lightly. And rightfully so: the switch to digital is not a panacea. But most private equity firms wind up glad they did.

“The first year we did it, we spent a lot of time doing thorough due diligence,” says Ripley. “We researched the vendors and, in the end, had to convince a few of our people to come around. It was a long process –we started early, and needed time to sell it internally. But the result was we developed an app that was for our audience; our clients. Since then, we’ve used that same app at events in New York, LA and London.”

“It was a big transition, having conducted our meetings the same way with printed presentations for many years,” says Siguler Guff’s Kantarian. “We expected that some investors would be more comfortable with paper, so we printed a few binders, just in case. And in the end, only one person asked for the paper version.”

As far as Shepheard-Walwyn is concerned, the writing is on the wall. “Digital is increasingly what people expect, and in the next year or two, I think digital will be the norm.

“This isn’t just the way of the future, it’s the way of the present.”