In an exclusive interview with Martin Fullard, Neil Thompson, CEO and founder of the Delegate Wranglers, shares how the group has taken the events industry by storm.
If you are an event professional with a Facebook account, then there is a high probability that you are a member of the Delegate Wranglers. If you’re not on Facebook – for which there is no shame – then I’d still wager you will have heard of it.
The group was set up by Neil Thompson a few years ago and has become the UK’s biggest online community for event professionals. In a relatively short space of time the group has grown to circa 17,000 members, which is a good number on its own, yet grows on average by 500 each month. However, the engagement figures are what really raises the eyebrows. Over a typical 28-day period, between 13,000 and 14,000 people are actively using the group in some way; that’s over 80%.
There are, on average, 40-60 posts per day, and regular studies conducted by Thompson every six months reveal the total the cost of the enquiries posted to be worth in the region of £1m every week.
So, who is Neil Thompson, and what is his history in the events industry?
“I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years, at first working for a corporate organisation and then an agency, managing predominantly pharmaceutical events,” he tells me.
“I set up my own business in 2005 as a freelancer, again in the pharmaceutical sector, but worked on some public sector events as well.”
Where did the idea for Delegate Wranglers come from, I ask Thompson: “Basically to help me do my job better! I invited 20 people I knew and trusted in the industry to help solve each other’s problems. We used it for ideas like when you have had a tough brief, or a difficult client, an unknown location to find a hotel or restaurant etc, to encourage people to have a ‘pay it forward mentality’: you answer my questions, I’ll answer yours. We’ll help each other, a spirit of collaboration, just to help us do our jobs better. At the time, the industry didn’t have anything like that.”
As mentioned, and at the time of writing, the group has 17,000 members, surely Thompson didn’t anticipate that level of growth. “No, originally I thought it was just going to help me do my job better,” he says. “After a couple of years, we
grew to about 80 people and at that point I realised this could become something due to the number of enquires and how useful it was becoming.
“We asked everybody to invite 10 people and suddenly there were 500 event organisers. It wasn’t until 2016 that we opened up the group to suppliers. Three years later, we are now coming up to 17,000 people. We are still really strict about how we let suppliers in, but we have gone from strength to strength.”
We know Delegate Wranglers as an online community, but there’s more to it. We are a people industry after all, and as such Thompson is keen to arrange meet-ups. The group will even have a presence at International Confex in 2020 at ExCeL London. So, what happens at these meet ups, what’s the point of them? “It’s to put buyers and suppliers together because we are predominantly online,” says Thompson.
“I think an important part is when people meet face-to-face and share experiences, which is why we do a lot of things like ‘Delegate Wrangler socials’ which is people getting together and having a few drinks, maybe doing something fun like cocktail making. We also have dinner parties and every so often we’ll have a big gathering. We had a party when we reached 10,000 members, so we’re going to have one next summer when we hit 20,000 hopefully. I think it is a really important aspect of the event industry. The good thing is the members have started new relationships online and then they can meet those people again face-to-face, for example at our stand at International Confex.”
The database, we might describe, is ‘clean’ in the Delegates Wranglers group, which is a big appeal to suppliers. How does Thompson police it to ensure members are not abused?
“We are really stringent at the entry point,” Thompson says. “We ask everybody three questions before granting entry and if we need to do a bit more digging, we’ll look on Linkedin and we will actually write to them ourselves and ask them questions. We reject a lot of people, for every 100 people that join we reject 50.
“The whole ethos of the group is about positivity and collaboration. So, if somebody doesn’t fit into that, or doesn’t understand, we will reiterate it to them.”
Knowing Facebook groups as I do, a lot of users take them quite seriously. But I want to know what constitutes a violation: “We have a supplier window every Wednesday between 1pm and 2pm, when suppliers can promote themselves,” Thompson tells me. “If they promote themselves outside of that, we will delete the post politely.”
There’s more. As a member of the group myself I’ve seen the occasional, shall we say, ‘rude’ message. Thompson makes absolutely clear that Delegate Wranglers doesn’t tolerate any abusive behaviour. He says: “Positivity is a big thing for us. If people are being negative, if they post a negative opinion about a venue, we delete it immediately. A lot of members report these to us, so it’s become a self-policing place. It’s not just us looking for it, people will actually report posts as well. We don’t get that many to be honest, people understand the culture of it. I think it’s quite easy to see the vibe the moment you join, it’s quite unique in terms of groups like that. A lot of other groups can spiral out of control if they’re not policed properly, but we set out our store from the start like this.”
I ask Thompson what the future of the group looks like. “2020 is a big year for us, we are arranging more live events,” he says. “The company is growing, it’s allowing us to expand and to make the group better for the members. We are now entering into partnerships with some suppliers to be involved and be part of the group, allowing them to get some great branding and some content-led opportunities.
“We are moving to a VIP-type of membership for suppliers as well, it will become available next year. It’s going to be an excellent opportunity for suppliers.
“The other big aim is to grow in America. We are growing our North American group, which is separate, and is currently at 1,500 members.”
Not everyone uses social media, and normally those who don’t even wear such a fact as a badge of honour. But what would Thompson’s message be to those event professionals who aren’t part of the group; why should they join? “There’s something in it for everybody, if you’re an event planner or an event buyer you can basically get your problem solved,” Thompson says enthusiastically. “We’ve got all these people coming up with creative ideas and it’s a great way to meet new suppliers and find out about new venues, and to get advice.
“On the other side, if you’re a supplier, the opportunities are absolutely massive. There’s more than £1m worth of leads on there every week. We do regular studies where we add up the costs of what everybody is posting. It’s also a great place to pick up information, find out about what your competitors are doing, trends in the industry and what buyers are looking for.”
But it’s the positivity that remains the group’s biggest plus point. In an age of toxic social media abuse, Delegate Wranglers bucks that trend. “The most important thing is that it’s great to be part of a really positive community,” says Thompson. “It’s a really safe place for people to ask questions. There are no stupid questions on the Delegate Wranglers, just opportunities to learn, to get business, to grow knowledge in the events industry. It’s a particularly good place for students and people new to the industry. You see people at the coalface of the industry doing their job and these are the challenges they face. I think it’s really good to be part of that.”
And so, it is. You only have to shake Thompson’s hand to know he’s loving every minute of managing the group, and you can feel it for yourself at International Confex, 25-26 February, ExCeL London.