Joined by Bishop-McCann’s President and Owner, Rob Adams, and Soundings’ Founder and CEO, Tracy Judge, this episode covers issues relating to independent talent in the events industry, along with trends and the future of events. Topics include:
- How the US Department of Labor defines independent contractors
- Trends relating to independent talent
- Short-term and long-term outlook for our industry
- What attracts freelancers when choosing employers
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Hi, and welcome to The Events Experience, where we take a deep dive into everything event planning. I work for Bishop-McCann, an agency devoted to creating JOY through meetings, incentives, and events for big name brands. On this podcast, myself and our company's experts will discuss all things events, so keep listening to hear all about the latest tips and trends for virtual, live, and hybrid events.
Hi, everybody! Today, I am joined by our President and Co-Owner, Rob Adams, who will be interviewing Tracy Judge, Founder and CEO at Soundings, an innovative talent platform for the events industry. And this is actually a very exciting podcast for us because this is our first in-person podcast! Rob and Tracy are actually together in Chicago, so what better time to record a podcast? They'll be discussing topics relating to independent talent in our industry, along with trends and the future of events. So thank you both for being here, and I'll let Rob get us started.
Rob: Well, first of all, I can't even believe that this is actually happening because the reality is that we have tried to do this podcast several times. We've had WiFi issues. We were thinking, "How are we going to make this happen?" And ironically, we're in Chicago at the same time, so we decided that what better time to do this than to actually do it in person? So, Tracy, it's good for you to be here with me to do Bishop-McCann's first in-person podcast.
You and I were talking before this about how long we've known each other, and we said it's been about five years. But of all the memories that I have of you, the one that I remember that was the one that we really connected was we were in Seville. When we're serving on the International Board of MPI and solving all of our industry's biggest challenges. But one of the things that I've always respected about you is just how innovative you always think and how one thing that you and I have always talked about is the importance of talent and culture. The first time you told me about you starting Soundings Connect, I remember I was so excited and proud of you. So first, let's just start with Soundings, and give us a little bit of background about what Soundings is and why you started it.
Tracy: Sure, and thanks for having me, Rob! It's amazing to be here 1) in person, and 2) on the Bishop-McCann podcast because you've always been an aspirational company to me in this business. So glad we have that opportunity to chat. I founded Soundings in 2018, and beforehand, I was always in meeting management and played all different roles. I was in grad school and also leading the meetings and incentives division for third party, and I got really interested in the gig economy, the freelance economy, and how other industries were using it. Not only to help during peak times but to help innovate faster and get the best talent possible in for specialized roles. I saw the opportunity not only to help agencies and direct customers in this business but also freelancing has never been on the forefront of our industry, and it's never been made to seem like a career path. So we had this awesome opportunity to step in and create a platform to provide professional freedom to independent talent in our industry.
I got started in 2018, started slow, tested a lot. As soon as we started going, COVID happened. It was really interesting for us because overnight freelancers were the first to lose work, and there was really nothing to offer them. But what we could do is offer community and education. So we started doing webinars in March of 2020, and the community kept growing and growing. More people kept coming, and we grew from about 350 to over 1,800 people in our community today. The really interesting part about it all was, as it turned out, community was the piece that I was always missing. And that is what really differentiates what we do from a staffing company because we're very much focused on our talent and providing them community, providing them education, and opportunities to upskill. So we make sure that we have really relevant talent in the workplace.
Rob: Yeah, first of all, I want to say to you how much gratitude that I have to you. Because when I think about the timing of when you started Soundings, what a challenging time - call it a traumatic time, right? And how much appreciation that I know that I have personally for what you did of building a community. I know that there was a time for virtual meetings. We were all trying to figure it out, and a lot of people were feeling very disconnected. I felt that one of things that you did was you were a great conduit to the community. So I just wanted to say thank you for that. So now let's go and talk about some other fun stuff like the US Department of Labor! So I wanted to talk to you about the US Department of Labor, and right now there's so much focus on trying to define independent contractors. So I'd love to get your perspective on how do you see that impacting our industry and how you are also responding to that.
Tracy: So it's an extremely fun topic that everybody loves to talk about! I live in California, so in 2020, California passed AB5, which is a freelancer law and classification law, and it was devastating to me owning a business there then. Then COVID happened, so that became the big thing. But we've been watching state by state how they were changing employee classification laws. Additionally, the Biden administration is pro-union, and they are really against freelancing. So we've been watching those laws carefully. This month, they're supposed to release what the new rule will look like for employee classification compliance. But it will likely be very similar to what California AB5 is, which is that the individual has to be free from direction and control of the hiring entity. The contractor has to perform work that's outside of the company's regular business, and the freelancer has to be customarily engaged as an independent in that specific type of work. So in the events industry, it can cause many challenges, especially with agencies as well because your service is what they're providing.
Rob: One of the things that I also love about you, Tracy, is how you're always on the cutting edge of all this. I remember I sent you a text message a few months ago, and there was a whole article about all this legislation that's getting ready to be passed. And I said, "Have you heard about any of this?" She's like, "Oh, yeah, I've been tracking this for a long time." I appreciate that about you.
Tracy: You know, we made the decision at the beginning of 2020 that we were going to start running employer classification compliance against all the roles we have. What that allows us to do is if a freelancer (or we like to call them independent talent) isn't able to be a 1099 (a contractor), then we're actually able to bring them on as a W2 "employee." But it's really just semantics in how they're paid, and this makes sure that the companies we work with are still able to get the best talent and also the talent's able to get work under the new laws.
Rob: And I like how you use the term independent talent because I think that's a term that I myself am trying to change the vernacular. Instead of saying contractors or freelancers, it really is talent, which is what we're talking about.
You've been traveling all over the globe; it's hard to keep track of you. But you have the opportunity to talk to so many people right now in the industry. So I'd love to get your perspective - what are some of the common themes that you're seeing as it relates to some of the conversations that you're part of?
Tracy: Sure. I've had the opportunity to travel internationally a lot this year, which has been an amazing experience and getting to hear what's happening all around the world. There are some really key themes and threads that pull through for everyone. First, I would say sustainability is the hottest topic that I think we'll see this year. It's really interesting to be in Europe, and their sustainability efforts have been so strong for so long. They've built such a community around sustainability. And in the States, it's been different for us. But now I think we're going to see - in the States this year - a big focus on sustainability moving forward, so I think that's exciting for all of us. Partnership is another topic that comes up a lot. We partnered a lot during the pandemic in a lot of different ways and business came back quick. I think everybody got back in their own swim lanes, and now we're seeing how much we really need each other. Especially with a recession, inflation, and the talent market being so hot and that cost of that increasing, that now there's a need for trust and transparency, really working close with our partners to make sure that everybody is staying healthy in the marketplace.
Rob: Right. You mentioned things like recession was a theme that you just mentioned. So I wanted to talk to you a little bit about where you see the industry in the short term and long term. And I'll define short term as, let's just say short term is next year for 2023. What do you see in the short term? And then let's talk about what you see in the longer-term picture.
Tracy: Yeah, you know, we've talked about this, Rob, a lot. Tech always leads, and we see what's happening with all of the tech companies now and all the layoffs that are going on. That really is an indication that that will continue into other industries as well. I think it's really hard for all of us just coming back and business being so good again after the pandemic to think about things going south at all. However, I do think that we're going to see it slow down a little bit, a little bit less face to face. The good news is we can still generate revenue now during this recession because everybody knows how to use digital, so we'll see hybrid solutions becoming big again.
Rob: And what about longer term? So you think about going out to 2024 and beyond. What do you see?
Tracy: One of the problems right now that we have is the talent in the marketplace. So even this slow down, I am a little bit optimistic about that happening because I think it's going to help build our infrastructure for the future. I think we have so much potential in the future! And if you look at the numbers that we're projecting over the next five years, it's like triple revenue for the industry. A lot of that I think comes from the fact that we're now so integrated with marketing and brand experience is so big as well, and we can generate from live event experiences, as well as virtual.
Rob: You know, you talked earlier about when you started Soundings, about the importance of building the community. So something at Bishop-McCann that we're spending a lot of time thinking about is how do we build a strong community, not only just with our full-time associates, but also with our independent talent that we have. One of the things that I wanted to get your perspective on (and I know that others that are listening to this podcast would be very interested to know), with all of the independent talent that you speak to, what are the things that are really important to them?
Tracy: So, number one, flexibility, especially today. Also, our industry is 77% women, and women left the workforce about three times the amount of men during the pandemic. There was a Harvard Business Review study that was done that said two thirds of skilled women said they wouldn't have left the workforce if they had more flexibility. So when you think about 77% of our industry being female, flexibility is really, really important for us. So that is a big one. The culture within the companies that they're working for is also a big factor - how they're valued and really being treated like they're part of the team as well. And learning opportunities. We see a lot of talent that has experience for the role that they're going into, but there's also a lot of other learning opportunities for them in that role or in that company. So oftentimes, they'll take a job that they might not usually take just because of the learning opportunities that are there.
Rob: And that's the one thing that I love about what Soundings is doing. I think that sometimes there is an assumption that you're a staffing company. I think the part that I love of what you've built is it's about creating a platform, a community of talent, where essentially what you're doing for our industry is you're investing in talent and helping the whole industry. So I mention that to you because I think that's one of the differentiators. I applaud you for differentiating the company and investing in the talent in our community. So I have to ask you, with every podcast we do, it would not be a Bishop-McCann podcast without me asking you about a word. That word is JOY. So what does JOY mean to you?
Tracy: So JOY to me is really being able to live in the moment, especially with other people. I'm a visionary, so I'm always in the future with my team and thinking forward, but I really get JOY out of those moments where I get to be like this - face to face with people really getting to know them and being able to experience each moment.
Rob: When I think about JOY, right now, it's being in person. I think the one thing about doing these podcasts, what feels so different about this is we're actually in person. And I just want to say to you, I have a lot of gratitude that we have the opportunity to do this in person, and I have a lot of gratitude just to call you my friend. So thanks so much for everything you're doing for the industry and appreciate your time today. Thanks, Tracy!
Tracy: Thank you, Rob!
Thank you both for covering these important topics! I'm glad that you guys were able to actually talk face to face, and thank you, Tracy, for taking the time to provide your insights.
Thanks for tuning in to this episode of The Events Experience. Don't forget to subscribe to our podcast, and create JOY wherever you go!