TO RECOGNISE THE IMPORTANT roles women in the business events industry have, micenet brings you part two of this special feature. We celebrate a small selection of the many women who have influenced and constructed the industry through their dedication and achievements.
COMPILED BY EDWINA STORIE
Changing your life to change others’
Nearly eight years ago, Ronni Kahn closed her events management company to start OzHarvest. The charity has changed Australian law making it possible to distribute unwanted food to those in need, and making her one of the most influential women in business events. Edwina Storie asks where she found the confidence to start such a project.
It’s not often that you come across people who are truly happy and content with their lives; who have no regrets or who don’t resonate on ‘what ifs’. However, Ronni Kahn truly is one of those people. The reason being, she stopped wondering and started doing.
Her organisation OzHarvest is now enjoying the exposure it deserves. I’ve recently noticed it everywhere – from Masterchef with George and Gary waxing lyrically over its contribution, to spotting the logo proudly printed in the menu of Sydney’s prestigious Toko restaurant. As one of Australia’s most ground-breaking charities, impacting thousands of people’s lives each day, I’m intrigued to hear what prompted the life-changing move of the event manager-turned-philanthropist.
When she enters the office, her infectious energy invigorates the room and I am instantly raptured with the admiration that George and Gary share. Her thick-rimmed, black glasses, wild short auburn hair and huge smile combine to make her instantly live up to the intrigue I’ve developed from the week of emails and phone calls with two personal assistants to arrange this interview – coordinating hundreds of volunteers, vans and venues around the country leaves her little spare time.
“Ronni is just such as inspiration,” one of her PR girls had glowed, keeping me company while the woman herself was stuck in traffic between appointments.
“And to think that she was once a florist – I just love that about her,” she smiles.
But it was her career in the events industry that planted the seed for the creation of OzHarvest.
In an almost Eat, Pray, Love-move, she made a complete career change from event planner to charity director when she started OzHarvest back in 2004. Since then, the organisation has grown right across Australia to collect and deliver more than 300,000 meals to women’s shelters, rehabilitation centres, and homeless people every month.
So where did the energy and success that makes Ronni one of our most influential women in business events come from?
While running the event company RKEDevents, Ronni felt like there was something more to be done. “I loved what I did,” she tells me. “However, the dissatisfaction was I’d achieved a certain level of success in the events industry, but it started feeling not so meaningful. It started feeling like there had to be more to life.”
Having seen the waste of food ordered to ensure an impressive event, the idea of OzHarvest grew. Her experience in logistics and special events gave her extensive knowledge and confidence that most events over-cater, and making use of her contacts with venues, she began making phone calls to collect unused food from convention centres, bakeries, restaurants and cafés.
Having a business mind, she set out to run OzHarvest with the same aim despite being fully philanthropic. “When you treat your organisation like a business, people treat you like a business,” she explains.
“[I call this sector] the for-impact sector as opposed to the not-for-profit. Why would anyone be defined by what they’re not? I want to change the way we perceive the work that we do. We have huge measurable profit but it’s not in dollars. So why would we call it not-for-profit? It’s breaking down those norms – it’s looking at what we do.”
What adds to Ronni’s intrigue and energy is the confidence she had to leave her successful position and take a risk in what was essentially unchartered territory – something few people would do.
“I realised that the time felt right to make the transition. I was certainly conscious that I was limiting my income potential and that was a challenge, but I was emotionally ready … Once I realised that this is what I was going to do, nothing was going to stop me.”
Nearly eight years on, OzHarvest has 13 vans which collect 13,300 meals per day from more than 900 donors, delivering them to more than 240 recipient agencies for less than one dollar per meal.
It is not only the homeless who receive these meals, but rehabilitation centres, women’s shelters, and family care centres which have been able to spend the money saved from food bills on welcoming and supporting even more people. Dramatic ripple-on effects like these are the reason OzHarvest and Ronni Kahn is so influential.
While having the dream, the connections, and the determination, running the organisation was not without its hurdles. Despite having led the fight that changed Australian laws on the distribution of unused food, Ronni explains that some of the greatest challenges aren’t the hurdles but the reactions of people around you.
“People’s perception of what one’s agenda is when you do this; and the purity of the intent around why you do this; and how people perceive that [were the greatest challenges.]”
And yet she brims with the positive energy that comes from loving her nine-to-five, making her the woman she is. It’s as though she can see no negatives and believes that there are no hard days.
“I just have to stop and think about my purpose and what I’m doing and how there are zillions and trillions of people who are really doing it tough. And how can I complain when I’m blessed to be doing something that is significant; that people respect; that people think is special? But most importantly, that I’m in alignment with what I believe in doing.”
Ultimately, the confidence to make such a dramatic career change comes down to motivation. She believes that her achievements and success are the results of pure goals and leadership.
“I think [your job] must have a purpose that’s bigger than just fulfilling your own personal need. The minute you start adding that component of giving to whatever element it is you’re building, your karma changes. Things happen. It really is about being the best you can be and being what you intend to be – taking that step to go from what you think is your best to actually living that.”
How did you feel after becoming the first female general manager of a five-star hotel in Australia?
This was a particularly rewarding achievement as the international five-star luxury market has very few female general managers. The challenge escalated when choosing to reside and work in Australia as there are far fewer luxury hotels to manage and the competition is tough. Being recognised for this role will hopefully inspire and open more doors for more strong and capable women to achieve similar positions. I am also the only female GM for Sofitel in the entire Asia Pacific region.
Did you have a planned path set out at the beginning of your career?
I had two main goals when I first entered management within hotels; to be the general manager of an international luxury hotel, and to be able to live and work abroad in another culture. I began the journey to general manager 17 years ago with a luxury brand that relentlessly championed the importance of quality people development. As that was my education in the industry, I have shared the same development vision with those who have worked for me.
What tips would you give young women in business who are looking to work their way up in the industry?
My advice to young women wanting to climb their way to the top of their industry is to be involved and become a person of positive influence. Young women should not confuse influence, focus and assertiveness with an aggressive approach. At the end of the day it’s all about having the right attitude. Nothing beats being sincerely passionate and delivering good results. Having a mentor to assist or a role model to aspire to within your industry is also helpful.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learnt in the course of your career so far?
Do not take no for an answer. There is always a creative solution or positive compromise that gives both or all parties a sense of satisfaction from their perspective. Being able to drive for that resolution is the key. It takes having confidence in yourself and your abilities, having resources and relationships that support your ideas, and sincerely wanting to influence a positive outcome.
Trust your intuition and listen to your heart – two of a woman’s best assets.
What do you believe makes a good leader?
People are our biggest asset, so as the hotel’s ‘leader’ I am sincerely passionate about our business, and set the tone and culture of the hotel. I lead by example in all behaviours and interactions to inspire and teach the secrets of delivering excellence in service and products. Building trust and giving opportunities for growth and development to team members is also very important, and why mentoring and encouraging talent is something I invest a lot of time in.
Do you believe women in business still face setbacks or hurdles to overcome?
We’re often only as limited as we think. By having a clear goal, knowing your business, and being truly talented at what you do, the world becomes your oyster. Relationship building with partners and suppliers, community involvement and stakeholder relations are all important elements of any successful business person’s arsenal. Women are definitely more inclined to be better at those things than men, giving us a natural advantage despite challenges on other fronts.
What is the most influential responsibility of your position?
That’s a hard question. I am equally responsible for the operation of all our product practices throughout Australia such as PCO, corporate, DMC events and so on; and talent development such as training. In terms of influencing the industry I believe that helping our talent to develop their skills and understanding, not only of their role but the business events sector as a whole, is my responsibility and one that I revel in. I’m very proud that MCI Australia won national recognition in the MEA awards this year for our education programs.
What strengths have you gained from other roles that have assisted you in your current position?
In Japan I learnt the value of first marketing the destination, and individual products second to benefit the local economy as a whole. As a conference manager I developed my people skills and ability to work with clients from all backgrounds (and temperaments!). One of my great strengths is being able to see not only the big picture, but the detail behind it; invaluable in an industry where we need to interpret our clients’ goals and objectives, and ensure we deliver on these using strategy along with meticulous attention to detail.
What has been the greatest challenge of your career and how did you overcome it?
Christchurch. Being in that city when the earthquake struck and trying to look cool, calm, and collected for my team, our delegates and client, when inwardly it was the single most terrifying experience of my life. I guess I just went into ‘mother mode’ to ensure everyone felt as safe as they could under the circumstances, and I honestly didn’t consciously do anything differently than I would for any other crisis; but now I think I can face anything!
What do you think is the most important issue the events industry currently faces?
Confidence. Mainstream media is full of doom and gloom about the worldwide economy; I believe this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to be confident about our product and our destination and use quieter times to market like hell. I don’t like to see governments at any level encouraging spending-cutbacks. This sends the wrong message to the industry and can result in flow on effects. Hopefully we can educate those in positions of influence that the business events industry is as much of a goldmine as those in WA!
Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
I’m going to cheat and name two! The first is my part (over my 20 years of service) in building up our company to the point where it was a desirable acquisition for the world’s largest events company, MCI. The second is the awards both I and the company have received over the years for our achievements in the industry; ranging from Meeting Manager of the Year to Best Event of the Year to the recent Education Award. I would like to think that one day when I retire I will have left a legacy in the industry; if only from the talent I have helped develop over the years.
Where do you think Australia’s MICE industry is heading in the future?
Australia’s MICE industry is in extremely good shape. There is tremendous opportunity to continue to grow our industry, which is a high yielding sector in the visitor economy. In 2010, expenditure by business event visitors was worth AU$8.5 billion to the Australian economy. Our sector is working towards a goal for the year 2020, striving to contribute up to AU$16 billion annually.
As we move towards 2020, Tourism Australia, along with the MICE industry, will continue to improve our understanding of our clients’ cultures and needs to deliver an experience that matches their requirements, and that helps achieve their business goals. We believe in true partnership with business event visitors, rather than simple service delivery.
What is the biggest challenge in your role?
Our main goal is to build on the existing awareness of Australia with a greater, more in-depth understanding of what the country has to offer business event visitors specifically. We aim to empower event planners and delegates with the information they need around Australia’s venue and accommodation options, destinations outside the major cities, and team activities.
The international MICE market is extremely competitive. We are constantly working to get clients’ attention, to have them consider Australia for their events, and to include us in their pitches. We know event planners are busy, demanding, and need to be impressed. Our ongoing challenge is to engage them with new and fresh ideas in the way that is most meaningful to them.
What are your tactics in juggling several parties and overseeing a large team?
The Business Events Australia team comprises a team in Sydney, as well as representatives in Tourism Australia’s international offices. Clear and regular communication is critical for any team and we work hard to ensure that we manage effective communications across the different countries and cultures that make up our team, as well as with our many stakeholders – who are also based across the world.
We also need to translate Australia’s appeal in a meaningful way to a range of clients with different needs. We use targeted activities in each country we work with to make sure we’re delivering meaningful marketing campaigns.
Which of your achievements are you most proud of and why?
I am very proud of what we as an industry are achieving on an ongoing basis. The industry is growing in leaps and bounds, and we are well on the way to reaching our 2020 goals of AU$16 billion in overnight expenditure by visitor delegates.
Australia’s creativity and quality of service are very strong, and we can pride ourselves in our ability to connect with our customers and to deliver an outstanding experience in Australia. The feedback we receive from international clients shows that our country and our people continue to impress at the highest levels. It’s one of my favourite things – seeing the moment an international client has their first “wow” experience in Australia – it’s always so exciting.
What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt over the course of your career?
Very simply – know your customer. This has been really helpful for my current position at Tourism Australia where customer insights are at the heart of our marketing campaigns. Our team spend a lot of time understanding developments in the market, building relationships and staying on top of what clients want. It’s critical to delivering activities that make a difference for Australia.
One example is the research we undertook to understand exactly what event planners require from a country’s business events website. Based on their feedback and the knowledge of our international team, we designed our new website, www.businessevents.australia.com, as a planning tool specifically for the needs of event specialists.
Did you study or complete any higher education to get to where you are today?
After completing tertiary studies in Western Australia (Double Major in Business and Tourism), I completed an Honours Degree and thesis at the University of Technology Sydney. My thesis examined supply chain relationships across various sectors, including the business events sector, in an aim to better understand quality outcomes. I’m a passionate believer in the value of education and its connection to innovation and improvement. I’m convinced that without this level of learning I would not be in the position I enjoy today.
What strengths have you gained from other roles that have assisted you in this position?
After completing my tertiary studies I gained a tenured position at the University of Technology Sydney lecturing to 1500 students a week in organisational behaviour over a five year period. The key learning I took from this experience was that Gen Y seek out constant solutions, are very empathetic, and so long as you share knowledge, you receive it! I loved every minute of my teaching and am a much better communicator because of the need to speak to a multi-national audience week-in and week-out.
What are your tactics in juggling several parties and overseeing a large team?
Patience, passion and persistence! With competing priorities it’s important to focus on outcomes rather than processes. As a scratched horse has never won a race, it’s my personal philosophy to just give things a go, which is the key message I convey to our team. I’m also extremely lucky to work with colleagues I consider my friends, and so good team management to me is really about treating others the way in which you also like to be treated. Our events vary from complex scientific and government meetings, to international medical meetings attracting participants from over 70 countries, so the successful management of these relies on marrying appropriate strategies and specialist skill sets to each event.
What are some of the challenges in your role?
Time to fit everything in! So many exciting ideas and innovations across many events is part of the excitement, but also a key challenge. Also, being in more than one place at the one time given our national spread of offices (however, the benefit of being an identical twin to Amie is that she can appear on my behalf at times – and has!).
What goals have you achieved in your current position?
Since my appointment in 2006, we have opened offices in Brisbane, Melbourne and Perth, developed a destination marketing company, and launched a global independent PCO referral service across 10 countries through founding the World’s Leading Conference Organisers (WLCO). The success of WLCO has been my major achievement and one in which I look forward to working on in the future. Nationally, our business has grown exponentially in the last six years to the point that over half of our business is now delivered outside Sydney, which was our only base of operations for more than 40 years until 2006. So, exciting times ahead for ICMS Australasia!
How has the industry changed during the course of your career?
Since I entered the industry in early 80s the big changes have been an explosion of convention and exhibition facilities in Australia and globally; the impact of online registrations and instant information over the web; the growth in popularity of “events” as a career and the concomitant growth in tertiary courses; the rise of Asia powering its own meetings industry; and the steady rise in delegate expectations combined with the leaps in technology leading to more complex and exciting conferences, which has spawned new suppliers to our industry servicing these more sophisticated events.
Do you think women in the industry still face challenges due to their gender?
Perhaps it is easier for women to combine a family and a career with the introduction of generous workplace maternity provisions in Australia, but it is still an industry requiring long hours and travel especially when the events are up and running so it is not your usual nine-to-five job. We are seeing a slow demise of the old boys club mentality, although I still see it lurking on occasions. It’s great nowadays to see females in more executive roles, including GMs of convention centres and hotels. And of course females are still prized for their multi-skilling talents when it comes to actually running the events. However, I heard a colleague of mine say recently, you need to be carefully playing the gender bias card – it can become a self-fulfilling crutch.
Which of your achievements are you most proud of?
Introducing the term “business events” into the Australian industry in an effort to eradicate that silly “MICE” acronym. Helping lift the profile of business events within the tourism sector and to the federal government through my work with BECA. Further back, I was pleased to be in a key role working with some committed industry colleagues when we moved MIAA (now MEA) into a truly national association and introduced the first accreditation system. It was great to leave MIAA with a strong bank balance and a solid membership base. I’ve also enjoyed my work training young professionals over the years, and hope that I’ve managed to inspire some to forge a career in our industry.
What do you think needs to change about the industry?
We need a stronger sense of industry in the broader sense, and less fragmentation. This is arguably linked to the need for a more widely recognised business events industry brand in the community. The industry is packed with creativity, hard work, and A type communicators, but we probably need more focus on strategy rather than logistics, and be able to clearly demonstrate the ROI from live events.
What are your tips to young women to get ahead in the industry?
Take yourself seriously. Don’t be the last in the bar at the endless industry functions. Read as much as you can about what’s going on in the industry, and the world for that matter. Develop your own industry networks, but be careful what you say on social media. Reputation is everything: don’t risk it for short term gains. Be prepared to pay for your own professional development. Volunteer – put your hand up. Be flexible, be passionate, and be patient. If you’re good, you’ll get noticed.
Editor’s note: We read with amusement what Elizabeth believes to be her greatest achievement. Working in a global community, and particularly in Asia where the acronym MICE is understood and recognised (and because of the fact that Asia is now Australia’s largest inbound market), we remain happy with our choice of magazine name and have no intention of changing it to one of the many other attempts at categorising this sector.
How did you get to where you are?
I’ve been at the centre for seven years, but I came from a completely different industry and embarked on a transition process – from marketing and selling in an industrial environment, to promoting a venue and destination in a multi-dimensional and multi-faceted business events industry. Naturally, many marketing and selling skills are transferable across several different industries, so the basic principles are always relevant. Prior to joining the centre, I lived and worked in Paris for four years where I was responsible for marketing within Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This provided an invaluable international perspective that has been very useful in my current position, which is as much about selling Australia and Sydney as it is about selling the venue. My educational background was a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Business (Marketing) which, at first glance, may seem an odd combination but have proven to be quite complementary disciplines.
What is the most important responsibility or task of your role?
There are several equally important aspects to my job – managing a team of more than 20; contributing to strategic recommendations and decisions for the whole organisation, protecting and enhancing the centre’s brand and reputation; and in conjunction with Business Events Sydney, bidding for and winning events for the centre across all market segments, with particular emphasis on events that provide greater economic benefit to Sydney and NSW.
What revenue do you and your team generate for the centre?
Because the centre is owned by the NSW Government, our main charter is to bring economic benefit to Sydney and NSW. We are currently responsible for hosting events that contribute about $450 million per year of economic benefit.
How have things changed during your time in the industry? And for better or worse?
Like most other industries, the impact of technology has been significant – it has brought suppliers closer to their end-users and, of course, dramatically reduced lead-times at the same time as increasing expectations of immediate responses. Social media makes the dialogue between seller and buyer much more equal – marketing is now more of a two-way conversation, with buyers having much more power via social media to influence brand perceptions. Clients’ expectations overall have increased, which is good because we are therefore continually raising the bar to stay ahead of them. Another positive change is that the term ‘business events’ is gradually becoming more widely used and understood, and the industry’s ability to communicate the real value of business events is slowly improving.
What are some of your major goals in your role?
To enure both Sydney and the centre provide truly compelling arguments for associations, government departments and other enterprises to host their events here; to protect and reinforce the leading brand position of the centre; to continually raise the standards of all that we do here at the centre; and to ensure that Sydney and Australia are positioned appropriately, with aligned messaging, in our target markets.
What skill do you think has been most beneficial in your career?
My earlier study disciplines required analytical skills, as well as the ability to think strategically. It’s such a cliché to speak of the importance of communication skills, but the ability to explain and provide persuasive arguments in simple language, be it written or spoken, is vastly underestimated. A large part of my role involves writing and speaking – to be able to sell, persuade, inform, explain and guide – and that aligns very well with my own personal interest in the use of language.
What do you love about your job?
I would have to say the diversity of what each day brings.
Working in a region such as Cairns with a small team, we are fairly hands on in what we do. One day I could be sitting in a board meeting explaining the strategic direction of business events for the coming year, and the next day we could be escorting international guests to the Great Barrier Reef.
What were your goals when you first began your career and how did they change as it developed?
I went to hotel school and joined the Southern Pacific Hotel chain where I worked for 10 years. My goals were to become a hotel manager. I was lucky enough to be transferred to Cairns in the early 90’s and fell in love with the region. As a result, I chose to stay rather than move around further, and as opportunities arose, I worked in various positions within tourism industry.
What is the most influential responsibility of your position?
Balancing the needs of our members and stakeholders, with the needs of our clients. Sometimes our clients come to us with an idea that we know is not going to work, so we have to diplomatically encourage them to look at alternatives.
Similarly, we have to ensure we provide ROI to our members and stakeholders, because without them we don’t have a destination to sell.
What tips would you give young women in business who wish to work their way up in the industry?
The world that we work in now is a very different one to that which I first started in.
We communicated on telex’s or picked up the phone (not mobile). We had computer hardware that took up the size of the car park and 48 hours was an accepted time to respond to an enquiry. However I believe the one constant throughout my whole career has been customer and client service. Whatever your role, if you service your clients and customers, you will succeed. Today, technology offers so many ways to deliver customer service – there should be no excuse for poor service. However I am still a traditionalist –pick up the phone, or meet with your client (or your team) face to face!
What do you think is the most important issue the industry currently faces?
Global competition! Australia is a very desirable business events destination, however we often lose events due to higher subvention funding that is offered by our Asian neighbours. In Cairns, where Bali, Thailand and Fiji are our direction competition, we regularly lose business because of incentives that we can’t compete with.
This is not a criticism of federal or state government funding, but is the reality of the global competition we face.
Which of your skills has assisted you most in leading a team?
Knowing and understanding the framework in which your work environment operates, and the strategic direction of the organisation, and then communicating this to your team.
I believe in empowering staff to make decisions and will always support them even if it may not have been the correct one.
I also encourage a sense of humour – laughing on a daily basis is good for your soul!