Every event is an occasion

Thuli Mahonga

For the Nedbank events team, dedicated focus on the tiniest of details is critical to success. Debbie Badham speaks to senior events manager, Thuli Mahonga, to find out more

FOR senior events manager for Nedbank Retail and Business Banking, Thuli Mahonga, bringing the imaginings of others to life is all in a day’s work. Having been part of the events industry for more than ten years, Mahonga is well versed in the complex logistics and hard work involved in pulling off successful events for a range of different stakeholders.

Born and raised in Soweto, she began her career with a diploma in hospitality, going on to complete an internship at the Cape Sun in 1995. Thereafter, Mahonga went to work for the Don Group where she worked her way up from a receptionist position, becoming a general manager at a young age.

Although she worked in hospitality, Mahonga had little to do with banqueting until she joined an events and communication company where she became very involved in eventing. At the time, the company handled events for the department of education which meant that one of Mahonga’s very first events was the massive launch of the FET programme.

She describes working with the Department as an eye-opening experience as she was exposed to reams of strict event protocol and large conferences that needed to cater for the needs of varying groups of people, each with their own agenda. “The last project we did was a Commonwealth conference for over 3 000 people,” Mahonga says.

Years later she made the decision to join Nedbank. “The challenges around running an up-and-coming business were significant and I needed to make sure I was taking care of myself,” she says, adding that she has now been with Nedbank for seven years.

At Nedbank Retail and Business banking, Mahonga heads up a team of four event managers and also liaises with the co-ordinators who work across the bank’s various regions.

Keeping delegates engaged

While Nedbank’s travel desk handles agreements with the bank’s various venue suppliers for accommodation, conferencing is handled by the events team. Mahonga points out that there is a very specific reason for this. “I don’t like to use the same venues all the time because it’s important to keep delegates engaged. As such, I always look for places that have a bit of an edge.”

To sustain this, she conducts a significant number of site inspections to find venues with unusual offerings. “For example, I recently needed to organise an incentive event and ended up deciding on the African Pride Crystal Towers Hotel & Spa because of its quirky features. A tubular shower that sits in the middle of the bathroom changes colour and the television electronically ascends and descends from the foot of the bed,” Mahonga elaborates. She adds that another hotel she recently visited was the Protea Hotel Fire & Ice in Pretoria where she appreciated the venue’s amazing trademark of milkshakes and memorable hotel scents.

Each event is negotiated with the supplier on its own merit. “Most venues are fairly flexible – they generally want your business and are willing to negotiate accordingly. They also seem to understand that we always want more value for money,” says Mahonga.

As there is a limited database of standard venues to choose from, Mahonga is vigilant about acquiring the details she needs about each property from her team. “It’s about asking the right questions to ensure that you get the results you want. Also, if you understand the objective of the event, it makes it much easier to execute in a precise fashion.” She explains that part of her process when organising an event is to walk through the entire process from beginning to end, going through the finer details step by step. “For example, as delegates walk in and register, is the registration digital or manual? If it’s digital, what kind of machine will be used and is there an electrical outlet at the place of registration to accommodate this?”

Streamlining venues

Mahonga explains that the assistance of a PCO often proves invaluable when the company is organising larger events. “When I’m particularly busy, it helps to be able to ask one of the PCOs we work with to look at venues. In this way they are able to streamline venues for us – they understand what kind of venues we like – and I then end up only having to see four different options as opposed to twenty.”     

She says that the conference organisers that the bank has relationships with are also really helpful in keeping the Nedbank team abreast of all the latest industry information and trends.

Brand integrity is critical

Each and every event that Nedbank organises has its own brief and character. There is a wide variety of people throughout the organisation and for this reason, each event, must be considered on its own merit. Mahonga notes, however, that the one thing which remains consistent throughout the bank’s events is its brand positioning. “We have to ensure that the brand is always positioned in the right manner and that our values are reflected throughout,” she explains. “In everything we do, the common thread of respect remains.”

Managing people and perception

As in most lines of work, managing people is one of the greatest challenges in event planning, according to Mahonga. “People are dynamic and up and down. They also perceive things completely differently to the way in which you perceive them, and it can be a challenge to try and align those perspectives and expectations,” she maintains.

What’s more, corporate event planners have a number of different stakeholders who are directly affected by the events they organise. This includes staff whose delivery needs to be managed, as well as vendors from whom Mahonga must ensure she gets what she requires and, finally, the internal stakeholders whose expectations need to be met.

“As you can imagine, all of this involves a significant amount of back and forth,” she comments, “As such, I firmly believe that great people skills are the best way to forge the way forward in the business of events.” She adds that over the years, Nedbank has developed good relationships with its vendors.  

Innovations around budget

Budgets are an ongoing challenge, says Mahonga who adds that, to deal with this, she will always push for more for less. “We’re really feeling the cost pressure now and, as such, have to take into account the cost of absolutely everything we do. Where certain functions are outsourced, we have to ask ourselves whether we can rather handle those internally. For example, when large volumes of delegates’ bags need to be packed, we’ll opt to handle this in-house.”

She says, to get the job done, the team will draw staff members in to come and assist with the task at hand by making it fun.

Understanding what events mean to people

Mahonga says there have been a number of events during the course of her career that have been challenging, including the Commonwealth event because of its sheer magnitude and logistics, and the Nedbank Golf Challenge, which she says was a real eye-opener the first time she became involved. However, she adds that because of the nature of the incentive events that Nedbank often organises, it’s important to treat each and every one as a stand-out occasion.

“The key is to be extremely sensitive as to how people are treated and remember that this is their moment. Each and every person at that event must leave being made to feel truly special – and this must carry through to all the finer details of the event, even including the way in which you speak to them,” Mahonga maintains.

Adapting to constant change

The events industry is constantly changing, and as such Mahonga believes one of the most vital skills an events manager can possess is the ability to remain abreast of the latest trends. In line with this, she believes that the next trend to take the industry by storm will be the rise in bespoke event apps. “Each event will have its own special app,” she comments.

Mahonga explains that the advantages of apps are endless. “Delegates will be able to start networking before the event has even begun. Speakers will be able to load their papers on to the app so that delegates can see what they’ll be discussing beforehand and raise more engaging questions during the course of the session. Registration will also be able to take place through the app,” she elaborates.

In the business of dreams

While the events industry is often perceived as glamorous, Mahonga is quick to point out that the opposite is true, and that hours of hard work go into successful events. However, the upside is a satisfied client at the end of the day. “I have the rare opportunity to capture people’s dreams and bring them to life – and the more complex they are, the more I enjoy it,” she says. “At the end of the day, events are really all about serving people.”   

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