The countdown is on to what is likely to be the biggest business-centric virtual event ever. On September 14, Cisco Systems will convene its Global Sales Meeting completely virtual, with more than 20,000 attendees from 89 countries spanning the world across all 24 time zones.
To bring our readers an inside look at this unprecedented virtual event, Virtual Edge had an exclusive conversation with Angie Smith Manager, Global Sales Operations and the Cisco lead in charge of taking such a critical live sales event to virtual.
The virtual event edition of Cisco Global Sales Meeting is such an important project is has its own name at Cisco, and is now redubbed GSX.
GSX’s mission is to bring together Cisco’s worldwide sales, technical sales and top executives for the company’s most important prep meeting of the year. GSX is slated to present some 200 sessions, offer communities around segmentation, team Alternate Reality Game (ARG) for sales teams and technical sales staff, offer executive presentations and even make awards presentations. GSX will also host some 60 exhibitors. In short, GSX is no proof-of-concept virtual event, it is the real deal.
“This is Cisco’s one annual global sales meeting, and we’ll host Cisco’s entire sales force and our executives,” Smith told Virtual Edge. Not just the attendees, but the agenda is high-value for Cisco. “This is the one annual meeting where we outline critical business initiatives and sales goals for the upcoming year. It’s also the event to motivate the troops and get them excited about the company, products and new business opportunities and finally to recognize them for their previous year accomplishments.”
GSX bares witness to Cisco’s commitment to employ virtual events across the company, wherever possible. Earlier this year, Cisco CEO John Chambers publically extolled the benefits of Cisco’s range of virtual events, stating that the company’s ability to meet profit estimates (not an easy task in the current economy) was helped by Cisco’s use of virtual events. “The cost for the Strategic Leadership Summit at Cisco went from $2,800 down to $600 per person,” noted Chambers at a recent event. “The cost per head for our Global Sales Meeting which is now all virtual went from $4,300 to $437 per attendee.” As for the results and return on the objectives of the events Chambers noted a product launch that cost a 10th of the amount of similar previous launch with 10 times the results. For Cisco events he noted “We are seeing the same result ratings at a 10th of the cost.”
So, with so much on the plate, we wanted to ask Smith about her preparation, process and some of the secrets she’s using to take such a huge event into the virtual space.
Her first secret, be prepared for constant change. “The only thing that has stayed the same since we talked about the plans back in May (at the Virtual Edge Summit) has been ‘change’ –everything is constantly evolving,” Smith told us in an interview August 10th.
Another secret, keep asking virtual event providers questions, and bring in outside help to support your main virtual event provider. “We’re using the InXpo virtual event platform but, for the first time, InXpo will be giving a third-party full creative control over the environment. So our agency, jUXT Interactive, (a part of George P. Johnson) has designed a very cool environment and integrated it into the InXpo platform. Even the exhibitors’ booths don’t look like booths. Our goal was to truly make this an aesthetically appealing environment that was completely un-expected.
Smith’s efforts to build a virtual event ecosystem goes beyond look-and-feel for the show. “The interface will be on the InXpo platform but we will be using CiscoTV, Webex and Telepresence to stream content and provide secure meeting environments. Not that InXpo isn’t secure, but we need certain elements behind our own firewall,”
Another of Smith’s secret, don’t be a ‘Time-Zone”snob, especially if you are a planning an event for a worldwide audience. Because Cisco intends for GSX to be viewed around the clock as a “live” event, Smith and her team want to make important sessions, including keynotes scheduled each day at different times convenient for time zones around the world. Smith settled on keynotes at 6am and 5pm daily PDT.
Smith also has secrets for how to work with presenters. “One of the challenges is changing the perceptions of the presenters and getting them to understand that not all sessions are best delivered ‘live’ in the virtual environment . A two hour session was not uncommon at the physical event but that just isn’t going to work in a virtual environment.” Smith’s team is using ‘green screen’ for certain sessions which will help simulate a true “virtual world” that is possible with graphics out of this world.
Smith also has a secret about audience retention. It’s an approach that keeps attendees engaged – not just with the eye, but also with the mind. “To be successful we know this has to be visually appealing, easy to use, fun and exciting,” said Smith. “We’ve designed a great environment and things like a ‘virtual concierge’ to greet and help attendees. We’ve developed and produced a ‘alternate reality game element that is very fun, interactive and rewards people with 100’s of great prizes.”
Cisco has developed a balanced portfolio of events for the attendees. No more than 2-4 hours each day are required of their time. They may start out on Day 1 with Global General Session with the EVP of Sales and then will move to their Theater General Session. Day 2 starts with the CEO and then moves to sessions around our 6 sales priorities and global overlay messages.
Attendees will be able to participate in the event from their desk as well as go to any of the over 600 conference rooms that will be connected to the keynotes and special sessions so that people can get the opportunity to network and socialize face to face as well as virtually. All content for the program will be housed on the Global Platform for Sales. This is a new initiative at Cisco and is a community based program that changes how the sales employee functions with their day to day work flows. This platform allows them to have one central source of truth to manage that workflow, and find any content around any of the sales initiatives.
Cisco’s GSX event is significant for everyone involved in virtual events and meetings because it will be the start of a move toward companies taking their important partner and employee meetings and not just their customer facing events virtual. To date, most of the virtual events have been geared toward webinars, webcasts and virtual trade shows, the GSX meeting provides the proof point for large-scale, critical meetings going virtual.
It is also significant because it is the beginning of the industry embracing a concept of ‘design follows objective’ whereby platforms become open to extensive customization and integration of external apps and widgets. ON24, 6Connex and Unisfair are already experimenting with opening their platforms to give agencies and clients more creative control but this will be the first instance where the platform has been totally opened to the event producers.
Although you can expect that there will be some hiccups throughout the virtual GSX event as Smith and her team forge new ground, it will signify the next big step in what will turn into a major shift in the way companies do business.