Having the event you imagined, brought to life with Oshadee Withanawasam.
Today on Business LoungeLK's journey to bring you voices of business professionals in Sri Lanka, we are thrilled and honored to have Oshadee Withanawasam, Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of TIIKM Group of Companies, on our Coffee with CEO segment. He has made his name a brand in the world of events with his power of passion, expertise and willingness to make unique events come into reality.
How did you embark on your journey in event management and planning and what sparked your interest in this industry?
Personally, I have always been impressed by the massive potential for scalability and impact that can be achieved when events are executed perfectly. So my initial interest in the event management space begins with my passion for understanding, planning, and delivering impactful events. This eventually led me to the event industry as my prime focus for the future of our operations. I believe that events are one of the most powerful communication tools available for organizations and individuals alike, because events can connect people across nations, religions, and cultures while bridging the differences in perspectives and ideologies among people.
It serves a wonderful purpose by enabling different people to come together and share their ideas and experiences with each other. Most of the communication avenues, such as mass media and digital media, usually facilitate one-way communication only, and can’t even compare to how effective events are at delivering real-time information to audiences while enabling two-way communication. And this stands true no matter the nature or scale of the event—be it local or international, great engagement levels will be achieved consistently in all forms of events.
Over the past decade, TIIKM has been mainly involved in organizing academic events on an international scale. These included conferences, interactive academic forums, and engaging events for knowledge-sharing, in addition to events centered around networking and collaboration. Since I stepped into this industry, I have met several thousands of people who are pursuing diverse career paths, representing many countries from around the world, with a wide variety of backgrounds. The positive impact that we are making on the lives of many people drive and empower me to do my part in advancing in the events industry.
Since I got my first experience in planning and managing events of different scales while graduating from the Department of Marketing of the University of Sri Jayawardenapura, I have noticed, great energy and high-levels of creativity are displayed by people who engage in planning and organizing events. I feel that engaging in event planning brings out some of the best qualities in people, and this field offers many exciting career choices for the youth in our country.
When thinking back 10 years to my past, I think these are the points that attracted me towards the events industry and gave me the drive to enter the field in a big way with the aim of creating a long-lasting positive impact. This was one of the most important decisions that I had to make in my life, and I believe that I made the right choice, and I’m happy with the progress and outcomes achieved over the many years. In order to achieve my aim, I chose to become an entrepreneur in this field instead of entering the field through a job. I was a fresh graduate at the time, and I did not have the business and entrepreneurial acumen that I possess at present, and there were many challenges that both my team and I had to overcome at first.
Mainly unlike today, during that time there was no free access to resources and the knowledge available and shared online was very limited. Even platforms such as YouTube were not very popular and the content available was not very helpful in guiding young entrepreneurs or managing start-ups. So we figured out what works and what does not through trial and error basis, by ourselves. The only other source of knowledge and guidance available to us was to ask someone for information or advise and to sometimes seek knowledge by reading books related to our requirements. As a result of our efforts and hard work throughout the last 10 years, we were able to build 20 established, international conference brands, while taking our dedicated event management company and brand to new heights. Academic events are an unmatched strength for TIIKM, and we focus on this area because we believe that knowledge-sharing empowers and uplifts societies, enabling a brighter future to be built for all humankind.
From the start, we focused on delivering impactful educational events, conferences and knowledge sharing forums, and currently when it comes to this segment, we have built up a lot of expertise to excel in every aspect from concept creation to delivery of the final event. Due to our specialization in in this area, over the years we have been able to venture beyond Sri Lanka and deliver spectacular events in seven other countries, including Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia ,Italy, China, and India.
We also focused on the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) sector, which was generating growth for the tourism industry in Sri Lanka. We went beyond the general MICE concepts and introduced a unique and creative take to appeal to international clients, and due to this, we were able to create and establish our own event brand under the MICE category.
Personally, I think that my postgraduate education in international business and the network I have built, and the knowledge I have received since my university days have helped me to come this far as an entrepreneur, and the creativity and competence of my team have strengthened me in my efforts to transform the event management and planning industry in Sri Lanka and abroad.
After the COVID pandemic, people moved most of the events onto the virtual platform for so many reasons. How did this affect your industry and how did you manage the changes required to adapt?
I think what we are experiencing today due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic affects not only us here in Sri Lanka, but the whole world. In Sri Lanka in particular, out of many industries, the event industry suffered the worst disruptions. The main reasons for this were the social distancing measures and travel restrictions imposed by governments, challenging the very core of conventional events by preventing people from gathering together physically.
Entire regions were locked down and I think we were the industry that was most impacted by this, along with tourism. More than 50% of event management companies shut down their operations or scaled back their activities or else moved into other businesses while abandoning the events field altogether.
But because we took timely actions and made strategic decisions to increase the flexibility of our operations during that time, the impact of COVID 19 was comparatively lesser on us. By the end of March of that year, we had around 40 employees who had been working with us for so many years, and I didn't want them to lose their jobs. Soon after the pandemic started, the very first step we took was to identify the future impacts of it on our operations. Next, we discussed it internally with our employees and with the top management to find solutions that would make our operations flexible and more adaptable. Discussing and analyzing the situation early really helped us to accurately forecast the overall situation in the future and prepare in advance. That process alerted us to the fact that the impact of this pandemic will certainly last beyond one year.
We decided to quickly move to a virtual platform and embraced the technologies that made this possible. Even by this time, we had the experience and knowledge on carrying out conferences online with our international clientele, which gave us the confidence to shift to a virtual platform soon. We quickly adapted and openly discussed with our employees the importance of moving to the virtual platform as well as how we could lose everything we had built up over the last decade if we did not adapt in time. If you remember, even large multinational organizations such as Kodak and Nokia, who were once strong market leaders at one point in the past, fell dramatically by failing to be flexible or by choosing not to adapt to changing situations, and we were determined not to make this same mistake. We showed our employees the real and true picture of what we were facing and gave them assurance that they would not lose their jobs, as well as emphasizing and showing them the path to surviving through this situation.
Next, we informed our stakeholders that we would only be able to conduct events on the virtual platform because of the circumstances. At the time, there were 10 to 15 events and conferences in the line-up for which we had already received payments from participants. We assured them that we would provide the same engaging experience and provide the same level of interactivity virtually as if the event was held on the physical platform. We introduced many features into our events, like knowledge sharing platforms, virtual tea parties, virtual dinners, and many innovative concepts to keep people engaged.
Internally, we carried out many workshops and training programs for our staff. The top management also directly communicated with employees to give them confidence as well as new learning to cope with the changes in the work environment. So, on a happy note, 2020 ended as another profitable year for TIIKM, making it possible for us to pay all the bonus payments, make increments to salaries, and continue the processes of recruiting new staff and engaging in all operations that help us to grow.
We were able to adapt to the virtual environment very quickly, to minimize the limitations of operating in a virtual environment and to overcome the technological barriers involved. We continued making further improvements to the processes, such as the introduction of new features to overcome the difficulties that participants face in maintaining continuous focus and attention throughout virtual meetings by collecting feedback from our clients to study their satisfaction levels, and taking decisions based on those insights.
How do you make sure that your team is at their best capacity to provide an unmatched service to your customers?
I'm a people person and believe in enabling individuals to grow through their job. I think my team is my biggest asset. Especially in our business or in event management in general, as we are providing a service.
So, the quality of the service delivered will always depend on the quality of our service providers, who, in our industry, are the frontline employees. They are the ones taking the responsibility to meet and talk with customers, resolve any issues they face, execute the event management part, and even create the concepts within it. At the end of the day, the success of any event depends on the quality, skills, and attitude, as well as the abilities of the people who form the team that plans and delivers the event.
We always look out for our people to ensure that they have the required skills, attitudes, behaviors, and professionalism, stepping in to provide any training and development whenever necessary. I’m proud to say that I’m surrounded by a very young, dynamic and passionate group of people who are highly professional. Most of them are millennials who are very tech-savvy in addition to being very dedicated, creative, and very energetic in carrying out their tasks.
In grooming my team to provide the best possible service to our clients and assume leadership within their roles, I rely on the set of values established within TIIKM as a support system in ensuring success. One of the most difficult challenges faced by any company is to protect its core values when dealing with clients and other stakeholders. We practice a well-defined system of core values within our company, such as professionalism, integrity, respect, and transparency, to ensure that our clients are treated fairly and ethically. We motivate our people to respect these values because they represent our company’s future. Adhering to these values will not only ensure the delivery of excellent service to clients but will also serve to improve their careers, professional lives, and personal lives as well. To make sure that we get the best return from their skills and efforts, for the betterment of the company as well as their own lives, our corporate culture is inculcated to empower and continuously develop employees while making them better equipped and prepared.
Inside the company, the culture is designed to be friendly, transparent, and very open, while always maintaining a high degree of professionalism. Staff are encouraged to be in direct contact with the top management, and we often celebrate our successes. We organize social events and attend to each other’s requirements whenever necessary. However, that professionalism is always maintained and ensured. In this culture, it is easy to transfer knowledge from one person to another while sharing experiences and learning with each other to help and develop others. These practices shape them to become strong people with positive vibes and attitudes. We've given them the freedom within the company to build up their confidence where we only monitor and they are allowed to do the work in their unique ways to come up with their own creative solutions.
We believe that developing the attitudes of our team is a highly important step in growing well-rounded individuals because, at the end of the day, attitude will determine who you are. Sometimes we come across people who are very skillful and knowledgeable, but due to their attitudes not being up to the mark, they will not be valued by society. We try to build up resilient attitudes where people are of the "can do" mindset at any time, which is essential in industries such as event management.
In some instances, working day and night is required for an event to be carried out successfully. It is common practice in this industry, sometimes the commitments need to be extended even more. For example, for mainstream international events such as the Olympics, Asian Cup, and World Cup, the event preparation takes years to complete. So whoever is engaged with organizing that event must have the dedication to work on that event for a long time to see it through, which needs to be strengthened and supported by a positive attitude of never giving up.
With regard to my team, their positive culture, strong personalities, high skill levels, professionalism, and especially their loyalty, allow them to provide an unmatched service to our clients. This, without a doubt, makes them the best and most competent team in the event management industry in our country.
Your industry is a booming industry in the current context of Sri Lanka as well as in the rest of the world. How do you think you manage to surpass the competition and to stay on top at all times?
In my experience, it's all about quality. If you want to stand out from the crowd and build a brand that will satisfy your customers, you should simply focus on quality. TIIKM events and conferences try to deliver the best quality , which is simply the reason for the massive success.
Regardless of the money or the effort, we always try to channel our team, management, resources, and everything else into improving the service quality through innovations and creativity. In our company, we always follow certain guidelines such as stringent quality assurance processes, cutting-edge quality management concepts, maintaining a high quality of equipment, and a high quality of creativity combined with exceptional quality of people. This will help us compete in any market and any industry.
The reason behind most of the event management companies' failures is a lack of quality in their processes, sometimes due to lapses in the quality of their communications and professionalism. Most entrepreneurs, when their operation starts growing, lose their focus on quality. I believe it's important to continuously improve quality no matter what stage you are at in your entrepreneurial life. I would encourage all event management companies to focus on improving quality so we can stand strong and progress as an industry.
The other thing is professionalism. To succeed in this competitive market, it is important to maintain a high level of professionalism. Even the dress code, the equipment used, and the pre-event processes must match the standard. Any shortcomings will be highlighted during events, such as people not coming up on stage at the right time, which paints a very negative picture of the capabilities and competence of these companies, and of the Sri Lankan event management industry as a whole, in the eyes of local and international audiences. Professionalism means keeping your word as a promise and taking responsibility for doing the tasks undertaken in the best possible way in all aspects—which sadly is a lost concept in event management at present.
We maintain our professionalism from the point of recruitment. I personally look for the way people ask questions, the way they dress as well as presentation. Within our company, the process of developing staff members' skills in these areas involves workshops and programs that are carried out to teach them to become professional and proficient in language, negotiating, closing deals successfully, email etiquette, and all other things that are necessary to maintain international standards.
So, to stay ahead of the competition, you have to build a reliable base of customers who are loyal to the company and trust the company. This can be achieved by giving them peace of mind about their event, which happens through the way we communicate and handle our processes to build trust through professionalism and high quality of work. We also have to build and strengthen the relationship with the clients before the event and make them feel free by lifting the pressure off their shoulders during it.
What is your advice for young business professionals who are keen to enter the world of event planning ?
Once a client hands over the event to an event planner, it is the event planner's responsibility to get whatever support from the client is needed to deliver the event on the particular day to offer a wonderful experience, not only for the audience but also for the client as well. It is our code to always try to offer everything possible to our clients, in order to give them peace of mind and let them enjoy their event.
Event management is an industry that lacks a lot of people who are educated about this industry. This is a wonderful industry, and I have no regrets about choosing it as my pathway for entrepreneurship. Experiencing the beauty in diversity is a fascinating experience. And also, this industry will open up a lot of opportunities to earn a profit. The scope of event management expands to a great extent. For example, TIIKM has built a unique brand in the MICE conference sector, and now we bring millions of dollars into the country. We sell immersive experiences rather than just the sounds, smoke, and lights of typical events.
If you are planning on entering this industry, you have to be a very vibrant person who sees beyond boundaries and can understand the multiple ways of doing things and the opportunities that are unlocked creatively. If you want to work in this industry, you should first assess your strengths. Analyze the reach of your network and work on building it up, which can help in progressing to an international level.
This industry has divided itself into many sectors, like wedding planning, sporting events, educational events, and much more. So, analyze the strengths and understand where your capabilities stand and which sub-sector in event management you plan to focus on. Thereafter, start collecting experience and knowledge, connecting with suppliers and people, and then expand into other areas.
Sometimes people come on board without the required knowledge and end up being rejected by the clients as they cannot deliver the performance to an expected level, which sometimes might cause them to get blacklisted from the industry after letting a few clients down. I have seen some companies being built up overnight and then collapse in less than a week. Sometimes they can manage just the sound part, and sometimes just the graphics side, which drives them to think that they can manage the whole event. But an overall understanding of all aspects of event management is absolutely essential, and the teams employed need to be skilled and competent, to succeed.
Event management is a science that progresses forward with an art. To get on board with that, you must first learn the theories that work and adapt to them rapidly.
So, I suggest young entrepreneurs who are interested in entering this field follow vlogs on YouTube, read about event management and build your educational background through a suitable diploma or a degree offered by a good educational institute. Then build experience, by physically attending different events as a participant to get first-hand experience which, in fact, will give you a higher chance of being successful.
Rather than just limiting yourself to the Sri Lankan context, think as a global citizen and try to understand the opportunities that are available around the globe and try to utilize them to the fullest. With this, you might even be able to contribute towards overcoming the current economic issues of the country by bringing in foreign exchange. By embracing innovations, having a global view and by making no compromises on the quality of your service, you can highlight Sri Lanka on the global stage as a source for exceptional and trusted event management specialists.
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