Universal Events principals Karen Corban and Ken Wood are bucking the downturn trend and maintaining a momentum that should carry their business through to next year and beyond. They talk to AMANDA GOME.
By Amanda Gome
Universal Events principals Karen Corban and Ken Wood are bucking the downturn trend and maintaining a momentum that should carry their business through to next year and beyond.
Karen Corban and her partner Ken Wood have been running event company Universal Events since 1994. The company, which bases its programs on neuro linguistic programming, found it a hard sell in the mid 1990s, but now claims to have revenue of $15 million for 2007-08.
Will revenue stay that high, as event companies can be hit hard when the economy turns south? Corban and Wood tell Amanda Gome what they have learnt from the past, how they are getting their message across now, and how they are well equipped for the times ahead.
Amanda Gome: Who is the target market of Universal Events?
Karen Corban: The target market is really anybody that wants to live a successful and fulfilled life. So it could be a business owner, it could be a mum, anyone at all.
On your website you have case studies like “I tripled my income in 30 days”. There is a lot of competition out there for wealth seminars. How have you differentiated your business and given it more of a quality brand than some of these get-rich-quick schemes?
It is not about getting rich quick, it is about technologies for life that can be applied to any area of your life. So I think that is a differentiating factor. Also we represent a very high calibre of speakers; people who have a very clear message, have a lot of charisma, are masters in their field – and I think that is also a point of difference.
Do you charge people to attend these business events?
We don’t charge people for our leading event, and since we implemented that model we actually noticed a huge growth in the revenue as well as the numbers attending.
So where does the revenue come from?
People actually attend the training that we offer for free, and then from there if they choose to go on our eight programs within the “Fast Track”, they then pay to attend those, so that is where the revenue comes from.
OK. Tell us about neuro linguistic programming.
It was developed by Christopher Howard, a leading speaker in the US.
He studied neuro linguistic programming, a set of neurological sciences, to help people achieve what they want. He also studied psychology as well.
So we run courses – there is one on presentation skills, that is called Presentation and Platform Skills that helps someone be a charismatic powerful presenter. Another is called Results and the Master Results Certification Training, and at the end of that, people are certified to be practitioners of NLP. Then there’s another course called Performance Revolution, which is more about understanding yourself.
So what have you changed about your strategy as you have grown?
Ken Wood: Once I joined the company we had absolute chaos; we had enrolments coming in over the phone, we had banks of temporary staff answering phones and doing data entry, and I just thought this is chaotic and it’s just not scaleable.
So we made the decision fairly quickly to move our enrolment process online and got to work on doing that. It caused a few little difficulties. At that stage not all of our clients were online and we had some clients that were a bit unhappy at being directed across to the website, but it was the only was to go forward. We had to scale the process up, and the only way to do that was via the web.
And since then, what have you introduced from that initial moving people on to the web?
We have basically gone through the business and automated all the processes that we could. So now people can enrol for our introductory events online. When they arrive at the event, we have name tags with barcodes on them, so we can use that to track who shows up and who doesn’t, and carry our relationship forwards with them differently, whether they have come to the event or not.
We have a network of laptops running a point-of-sale system, so if people buy products or enrol in courses, that’s all done through the laptops and goes straight in to our back end enrolment system, accounting system. We quite often have people who will enrol in courses that are some months out and they want to go on a payment plan and pay the course off in a number of months before they attend. So that process now is all automated.
The payment plan is calculated at the time they enrol based on the courses they have enrolled in and the different dates and things. We sign all the paperwork there, but all the electronic records are uploaded so the whole process is automated. They get their monthly debits run, they get emailed payment advices and then everything is set by the time they come to their event.
At all our events now we have a network of laptops used by our own team as well as our sales laptops that are all internet connected, so our team at the events are linked in with the team at the office and are able to work a lot more efficiently as a result.
Karen, you hold very large events at a time where people are craving more intimate relationships. How have you maintained that kind of relationship and how have your events changed over time?
Karen Corban: NLP is all about building rapport with people, no matter what size the audience is. With the large events, we maintain the rapport with people, we make the events a lot of fun, particularly the larger ones with music etcetera, so it is more of a show. It is a great way to learn.
It might be just a short term to break up the energy and keep things alive and vital within the three days. Because our courses can be quite long hours.
When did you start the UK company, and is there competition over there?
In June 2006, and yes, there is competition. It is much the same as Australia really. It is just that there is a larger population and people over there are very open to what we teach, even more so than Australia. So they’re familiar with it, a lot of people go to courses of this nature.
Is there any resistance to what you are doing in Australia?
I guess so. When I first started it definitely was, you know back then it was difficult. It was something that I really had to overcome and I was on the phone, I used to do the sales in the early days, and it was very challenging.
What is the suspicion about?
Just the unknown more than anything, and some people are afraid of change and transformation. I think that is all it was at the time. But now there is a different awareness about and I think there’s been a couple of very well-known speakers as well, that came to Australia and made a big impact here.
Who were they?
That was Anthony Robbins, he was one, and I think he made a big impact on educating people about what we teach.
What other markets have you got in mind?
At this stage we are not planning to expand to other markets because we are going through a period of consolidating. This is just a choice, because we also have a couple of other businesses as well. So we are just wanting to consolidate to have, I guess, the work-life balance.
Which begs the question of what is it like working with your partner?
Wonderful. It is just amazing. We achieve so much more together than we did even when we were on our own. So, I love that part and it makes it easy because we are together so much; you know it’s not like one feels the other isn’t around for the personal side, for the personal relationship.
What happens when you don’t agree?
We haven’t had that happen very often. I think because our values are so aligned. Because we use the strategies that we have learnt through the courses, it makes it really easy.
What are some strategies you use on each other?
It’s not like on each other, often if there is a disagreement, we might say that we agree to agree on something that is a big issue. We’ll chunk up to a higher outcome. We’ll say well what is our purpose, what is our outcome, what are we really going for here. And if we are going for the same outcome, then there just might be a different way to get there.
You’ve got this business, $15 million revenue and overseas, what other businesses are you running and when do you have time to run them?
We have partners in the other two businesses, so that helps as well. One is a magazine called Think Big magazine, and the other one is I.T. on Tap.
What are the mistakes you’ve made growing the business? What did you learn?
Well, our cashflow, that is very important, and having great accounting systems. There have been times in the life of the business where we were low on cashflow, and I had to think what am I going to do now, and it was about thinking of a marketing strategy or an offering to our clients that was a compelling offer, those sort of things to overcome cashflow. So that has been one of the biggest learning throughout my career.
And now how do you get your information? What can you tell at any one time about the state of your business?
It is all online. It is interesting you ask that because we are actually upgrading right now as we speak to new systems which are even more automated and will provide the information faster. But we just get the reports as we need them. It is usually monthly, and keeping an eye on what is going on the metrics that you need to know the health of the business.
You’re in your early 50s, so you saw our last recession… well there was one in 2000 in the IT sector, but you were around for the 1980s, early 1990s. What are you seeing that is similar to that period, and what lessons have you learnt from that early recession?
Well, I learnt something amazing from the 90s, because I had a leather clothing business at the time, I used to sell leather clothing all around Australia. In a recession, if you offer people something and you are confident it is something they want, then you can prosper. And fortunately, I’ve got that belief, and so I know that we’ll prosper and our clients will prosper as a result of what we offer.
Have you seen any fall in numbers coming to events or sign-ups?
Just in the last few weeks there has been a slight change in the number of people who chose to defer their enrolments to next year. So that has only happened in the last few weeks.
Well that is pretty good because the seminar and event market can be hit hard by times like this. Are you anticipating anything or putting anything in place to counteract any small fall?
Probably just increasing our levels of service to our clients; assisting them if they need any help with making it to a seminar; helping them through coaching, whatever it is, whatever we can do to help our clients – but at the moment that’s what we’re planning.
What are you doing looking forward, what are your projections on revenue for next year? You said you were consolidating…
I think there will be growth but I am thinking it will be more modest growth just because of the fact that we are consolidating. So a 20% increase, something along those lines.
What for you is the hardest part about running business as an entrepreneur?
How can I free up personal time.
And how do you?
It is challenging. What I have to do is schedule time. I have to say “right, now I am taking an hour out to go and exercise”, “now I am taking time out to see friends”, whatever. So there are times it doesn’t happen, and then there’re times when I get the warning signs, I might be fatigued and know I have got to do it.
You mentioned overcoming people’s resistance in the early days. There are a lot of companies out there that start off with a new product that people, especially on the web, might not understand. What did you learn about communicating with potential customers to get them to open their minds to something different?
It just reframing them, it is helping them see the benefit of that it is you are offering and how it will benefit them in their lives. And as much educating as you can; you know via the web, via blogs, via all the technological aids that we have, so it is just listening to the client and hearing what they want, then being able to deliver your message of what it is you are offering.
Are you finding at the moment that any particular technology is working better at delivering your messages?
A lot of our marketing is done via email. And I think it’s not that any is better than the other, I think it is important to have several strategies – it is like the Parthenon concept – it has eight columns. I think it is important to do a bit of everything; a bit of PR, direct marketing, phone calling, telemarketing, across the board. Because if something doesn’t work, at least you can fall back on another strategy. And it is also important to test different strategies before you invest a lot of money in any one thing.
When is too much, when you really feel that you can’t get that person over the line?
It is just about recognising that and letting it go as soon as you recognise it.