Kenes Group CEO Ori Lahav: “Feels like running a marathon… uphill!”

The current Chief Executive Officer of the leading global Professional Conference Organiser Kenes Group, and immediate past President of IAPCO, Ori Lahav shares his perspective on managing in uncertain times based on his experience in the leadership of these significant organizations within the meetings sector, especially during the COVID pandemic and now, facing the rise of economical and geopolitical volatility.

As a sports lover, my favorite way to disconnect and have a moment for myself is to watch or do some myself, when circumstances allow. Running is an activity that I particularly enjoy, even in a work context. I remember a couple of years ago at IMEX in Las Vegas when the morning run – which I usually join – took us up and down every pedestrian bridge around the Mandalay Bay. It was an exhausting one, I can tell you, and at the same time it was perfectly fitting to the current state of the meetings industry and how it feels like to lead in it. I’m glad it was just a short run, for the fun of it, and not the marathon of CEOs’ day-to-day lives!

In my case, this uphill marathon of managing a global team of 350+ employees, a business with over 100 long-term partners, and more than 85 meetings per year, has taught me how to shift from risk management to situation room decision-making, to think about new business models and prioritize our human capital, and that flawless communication is the key to success.

From Risk Management to Situation Room

The decision-making process has shifted. Before, we used a set of methods to do risk assessment, forecasting weeks, months, and even years ahead. Now, we rely a lot more on live data in shorter periods.

Six years ago, at Kenes Group, we faced a situation where climatic forecasts showed that a typhoon was likely to hit Japan at the time of the Annual Global Meeting of the International Gynecological Cancer Society – IGCS, in Kyoto. It was a high risk, with a high impact, therefore we had a Plan B in place.

But in today’s world, things are changing so rapidly that some metrics are useless. We don’t even know what to anticipate. There are extreme climatic conditions, such as the recent volcanic activity in Iceland that crack-opened some of the streets in several towns; global inflation has hit a record of 8,73%, even higher than during the 2008 financial crisis (6,34%) and there is an imminent risk of prolonged inflation; we are witnessing emerging wars and geopolitical and economic stability is at stake.

So, we moved to a Situation Room approach, in the sense that we make decisions faster, on the spot, according to the data available at that moment, and of course, technology supports that because communication is easier: we have the internet, artificial intelligence, and tools to help make decisions much faster. When COVID hit, for example, at Kenes we had a Situation Room twice a day, morning and evening, every day, because things changed so rapidly. And, I don’t think anybody could have even imagined something like this was likely to happen when we were doing risk assessment for 2020 earlier that year and the year before.

Communication is the Key

We did have a typhoon hit Kyoto during the IGCS meeting. We had open channels of communication with the local Convention Bureau, tourism offices, the association, and the speakers. Everything happened fast, and the fact that we had all the stakeholders in one table was the key to success.

During the pandemic, these twice-a-day Situation Room meetings kept us alert and focused, maintaining a constant flow of communication that allowed us to take initiative, adapt quickly, and ultimately, deliver no matter what.

It’s all about working with the team, being very transparent, sharing the most updated and accurate information with the people involved, and making fast-paced decisions. Even if eventually, we find out that it was the wrong decision, it’s better to make a quick decision than not make one at all.

Same Players, New Roles

The fact that we are living in a disruptive post-pandemic, fast-paced world requires that we challenge the status quo of the existing business models and that we can read between the lines of uncertainty and identify new ways of staying relevant… and profitable.

The rising costs are our main pain. In the UK, a meeting costs 25% more compared to pre-covid, and everywhere else in the world those figures reflect a 10% to 15% increase. The recent trend is that attendees are registering the most in the last couple of weeks before the event. Up until now, PCOs would bear all the financial risk for venues, hotels, and suppliers. But with these new scenarios, it is impossible for a single organization to take the full financial risk.

Therefore, we need to move from own risk to shared risk. For venues and hotels, this looks like implementing a lot more flexible terms such as space and rooms reduction until very close to the event date and even allowing postponement without penalties. For CVBs, taking an insurance company-like role by providing a safety net in case of restrictions or a decrease in the number of visitors, and working in alignment with the suppliers. For PCOs, remaining the captain of the ship and managing the budget, the communications, the risks, and the leads.
When I speak about this, people ask me: “If we share with you the risk, will you share with us the profit?”. And I say: “Why not?”

We Speak About Human Capital

Recently I heard a quote from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella stating that when companies are speaking about capital, they are speaking about human capital. And that is exactly the case for PCOs as well. What do we have to offer? We don’t sell mobile phones or material assets, we offer talent, therefore retaining employees and making them happy and engaged is something I am putting a lot of effort on, because it has the greatest impact on our performance.
Such as when running a marathon, you need to be very strong both physically and mentally, the same applies to managing in these uncertain times. As always, staying positive!

CEO Kenes Group, Ori Lahav

This article was originally published in The PCO Magazine – Issue # 109 December 2023/January 2024 “Effective Management in Uncertain Times”: