A few words from Andréanne…

I will forever remember what happened on March 12, 2020. How I felt. On that day, the government banned all gatherings of 250 people or more in Quebec. It was a direct hit to my business. I was on the road with Valérie when we heard the news. We were about to meet a client to deliver a concept proposal… what a weird moment. I remember every detail.

The announcement caused massive event postponements or cancellations. Most of the 2020 calendar of activities and events had just been upended. Within a few hours, we lost more than 90% of our business.

The hardships and the aftershock

I struggled immensely during the next six weeks. As an entrepreneur and as a person. I felt I had lost my bearings. Nothing could have prepared me for such a crisis. The core of what we do was now illegal. For very legitimate reasons, and everyone understood the reasoning, but still. When you live and breathe your passion, invest your time and energy in it, day after day, no amount of reason can help you stomach that blow. An icky feeling of helplessness took over. I’ve never felt more vulnerable.

I was heartbroken to have to tell my team that we were laying off everyone. I am deeply committed to my employees, and suddenly I felt like I was letting them down. I felt like I was losing everything I had built over the past eight years.

I would have love to bring everyone together in a “let’s roll up our sleeves” moment, which is my go-to attitude when something goes awry. That was my role as a leader, to bring them together and come up with solutions. But I didn’t have the drive. I was in shock. I could not understand what was happening! From that day on, I spent my days postponing events, following up with clients, and trying to manage our finances… with my two littles ones at home. I was the captain of a sinking ship and for the first time ever, I didn’t have life rafts for everyone.

Reality check: I was going to lose my team

Early May, the phone rang. An employee informed me that she had found another job. I knew I had to expect those calls. I couldn’t reasonably expect the girls to stay at home and do nothing… I knew that when I let them go, I was running the risk of losing some of them. When I hung up, I cried a little. A lot. I realized at that moment that if I didn’t do anything, I was going to lose what I treasured the most: my team. That’s all it took to get my drive back. I had to find a solution. I started crunching numbers, to figure out how we were going to make it happen. Two weeks later, the company was eligible for the wage subsidy as we had lost a substantial portion of our revenues. I want to give a shoutout to our governments, without whose help the second part of this article wouldn’t have been possible. I called the girls back, and the following Monday, the team was assembled once again.

Getting our groove back

“Ok, what do we do now?” The girls looked at me with wide eyes, not yet knowing how they were going to spend their days. I had a plan: we were going to focus on research, development, strategy, and several admin tasks that require time and that we constantly put on the back burner. I was drawing my energy from our collaboration! I couldn’t predict what would become of us, but one thing was certain: we would adapt to meet the needs of this new market. We started from the beginning, we looked at what was happening elsewhere in virtual events and we started to analyze tons of platforms and immerse ourselves in that new universe. At the same time, I was in charge of calling back clients to see with them how we would transform their concepts, how we could help them reach their employees and their customers, how we could use virtual events to meet their communications objectives.

It started with simple webinars. A first client trusted us, then a second, and we quickly found ourselves organizing several digital events. As time went on, customers were also acquiring skills and started thinking in terms of virtual events. We revisited their gala and virtual convention concepts for the digital space, and they chose to embark on an adventure with us.

Here is what I told clients: the plain truth. No one could call themselves experts in virtual event design that spring. On the other hand, our rigor, our agility, our strategic support, our desire to succeed as a team and to guide the client… that remained as strong as ever. The customers understood this, and they chose to keep going with us. We were back on track!

Transparency was a major asset with clients. Our desire to reinvent ourselves was great! And I honestly think this post reassured customers. We were going to get there together!

We were not sure yet what came after the rain

Beyond enthusiasm, we needed a methodology. It’s not an easy feat, to figure out a brand new direction. How does virtual work? What will work to engage the participants? How are we going to convey the messages clearly? How can we roll out a smooth online participant’s journey? What can we do to capture the participants’ attention and interest? We realized rather quickly that the key was quality content. What is said on screen is what truly matters. We had been sharing this mindset with our customers for some time now, but it did not always work out in live events. Now, quality content was at the very heart of events. Digital event spaces do not allow for grandiose decor, hospitality service or cocktails; participants are attending from their home, sitting in front of their screens. What will they retain? The message. It’s like the story in a movie. The special effects can be spectacular, but the film will not stand out if the story is not compelling.

To achieve those goals, everyone had to adapt their working methods, to learn a “new job”. I must confide that I was immensely impressed by my team’s drive. I tip my hat to all of them. Every single one of my team members wanted to get involved. The situation shone light on the wide skillset of several employees: their desire to innovate, their strategic mindset, their copywriting skills, and the ease with which they embraced the digital world. They all put in the efforts to make it work.

New challenges quickly arose. How do you manage an off-site team? We not only had to build a whole new range of services, but we also had to do it remotely. How can I keep the team motivated? How do we make sure everyone is okay? It is not easy to hold a creative brainstorm session when we are all apart! We had gone through – and were still reeling from the changes – a complete reshuffling of our team structure. The landscape in which we had been evolving had drastically changed: we needed to acquire knowledge and skills in other areas. Clearly, I wasn’t equipped to do it all on my own. I needed us to bring in expertise to help us! One of my strengths is to continually drive to exceed my own limitations, to learn, to challenge myself… and to know how to surround myself well! A friend once told me: “It’s unbelievable; you have a coach for every facet of your life!” Yes! I’m far from being an expert in everything, and since I am on an ongoing quest to surpass myself and learn, I need guidance.

We brought in a team of digital experts, an event strategy consultant, a broadcast director, a stage set creator, and production teams. We also needed coaching and workshops in team management to understand and manage what was happening to us. If it was, and still is, a difficult transformation, it has led to positive changes, changes that allow us to thrive now and in the future. The event industry is forever changed. Yes, we will host in person events in the future because they’re a part of human nature. But these events will be different. And in their midst will be a fearsome player: Niché.

A new beginning: we are Niché

This is the name we chose to mark the first step of this new reality. After so many changes, an identity overhaul was called for! We took the opportunity to rebrand and sat down with Cossette to work out our strategic alignment. The goal was to make people understand who we are and what services we offer. In addition to our name, we revisited our logo, our brand image, and unveiled our new identity last October. To support our online presence and make a lasting impression, we implemented a content strategy with Républik.

One of my HEC professors said in class: “Companies who invest heavily in marketing during a crisis are the ones that will fare the best.” I can assure you that this advice was far easier to understand in theory than to implement. I went to get some funding and decided that it was going to work. Today, I am ecstatic to see that all of it is paying off. Our launch video was viewed almost 35,000 times! This is huge for a boutique agency like ours, knowing we embraced a complete digital transformation in just a few months.

The summary: ongoing learning and growth

After an unsettling spring and a summer spent restructuring, fall has been synonymous with project management and delivery. We now need to grow the business to deliver what lies ahead for 2021. Was it luck? No. Hard work. Hard work, efforts, thinking and teamwork. A shared vision too. At Niché, we are driven by the same passion: the success of our clients. And this success is not just about achieving goals; for us, it’s about going beyond expectations, surpassing ourselves.

The past year has been ripe in challenges and learning opportunities. This is what I chose to call this post: “What 2020 taught me”. Because if there is something that history has showed, it is that adversity and hardships are rich soils for growth. This year, more than ever before, I experienced the great upheavals that leads to small revolutions. I feel much stronger from this ordeal and retain three words from this experience: transparency, teamwork, perseverance. My wishes for 2021? May we keep learning in this virtual reality, that we continue to outdo ourselves, together, and that we take our team collaboration to another level.

We hope you will be with us throughout this great adventure!

Andréanne Mathieu

2021: Our team’s wishes for the next year

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