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[SMA Insider] Top Planners, a small yet strong PCO that successfully broke through the fog of the COVID-19 pandemic… "We focused on today rather than tomorrow.”



Interview with Ryeul-Hee Kim, CEO of Top Planners Struggled to set up the business only to face the coronavirus outbreak

‘Promptly’ and ‘Spot on’ what customers want Combined events with news, home shopping and indie film festivals

New PCO, ‘emerged’ as an established small PCO in two years / ‘Small Team. Collaboration’. The key to success is ‘talents’

Ryeul-Hee Kim, CEO of Top Planners (Picture), has prepared her own brand throughout her career that had seen many years of ups and downs in the MICE industry. With the opening of her business came the COVID-19 outbreak. She initially thought the epidemic would fade out in a couple of months like MERS. However, COVID-19 has quickly spread around the world to usher in the 'With COVID' era now. Start-ups need to offer differentiated services at the early stage to make themselves known. But the number of events was cut by almost half compared to the previous year, and the online and offline hybrid event became the new name of the game. Kim lost no time in analyzing online meeting platforms and made a bet on collaboration and unconventionality. Straight-laced events were combined with news or home shopping. A limited event budget was all poured into an indie movie. They literally showcased that 'events can also be done like this.' Those attempts were first not only for the sponsors but also for Top Planners. Their results were rated 'Satisfaction' and 'Success'. In its second year, the 'small yet strong PCO' Top Planners has shone through the thick fog of the COVID-19 pandemic. What is its next step? Late last month, we asked CEO Kim for a written interview. Kim has summed up Top Planner's change, innovation, and crisis management principle. "We focused on how we could achieve the best result in the immediate and present environment, rather than preparing for the changing future."


- What kind of company is Top Planners?

“We are a PCO comprised of professional international conference planners with its goal to achieve customer satisfaction. We have more than 10 years of experience in brand launching and online/offline promotions as well as PCO. We add a unique concept to the traditional international conference to transform it into a memorable event, which we plan, manage, and execute. We are the creator-cum-organizer.


- As the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase of non-face-to-face events, demand for events with the first-time-ever and 'completely new' concept has gone up. Against this backdrop, Top Planners, a newcomer, appears to have presented clear answers to customers.

“Looking back on the last year, it appears COVID-19 swept over the MICE industry that was about to grow. It seemed the wave of crisis continued without a break. But we were quick to respond starting from last March, the early stage of the corona outbreak. We monitored the seriousness of the situation through the overseas network. We received a recommendation of the most stable online meeting platform available at that time and used it immediately. That helped us to win a myriad of big and small online or hybrid events, hence more opportunities to gain experience. Data collected from those opportunities have placed us in a position to host more stable events today. Early adoption of new meeting technology made it possible to accumulate technical know-how, which we use to develop programs to heighten participants' concentration in online events. Eventually, the COVID-19 outbreak brought forward the anticipated 'time of future' significantly. However, we focused on how we could achieve the best performance by swiftly adapting to the present rather than trying to prepare for the changing future."


- What are your representative events?

“The incentive event for Authentic Financial Group left me an impression. It was the first off-line event without an online component under the 'ban on a gathering of 100 or more people.' To contain the coronavirus infection, we had to minimize the number and duration of contacts. We deliberated many different ideas with the executives of Authentic Financial Group. The chosen idea was the program of trying out a professional circuit as a part of the Hocance (Hotel Vacances) experience. In collaboration with BMW and Paradise City Hotel, we added a dynamic drifting experience that is not usually offered in Hocance experience programs. These experience programs were tailored to the sophisticated and young image of the company. Another memorable event is the '2021 Annual Seminar of Oticon Korea' held in January this year. We did not know where to start at first. The Seminar had been held offline every year, and we had to come up with a plan for an interactive event online that would last over four hours. With the intention to 'show everything that can be done online,' we tried a wide variety of productions. We combined the format of news and home shopping to bring in more than simple presentations to the event. It was meant to deliver the content in a more exciting manner, which was very well received."


- Last November, for the Diaspora Literature Week events, your company produced a short film and planned a mime performance instead of a symposium.

“It was an online project for Literature Translation Institute of Korea(LTI). I still remember vividly the first planning meeting, where the LTI person in charge of the project said 'feel free to do whatever you want to try.' Diaspora Literature is the works bearing the life and identity of people living outside their ancestral homelands. While trying to find a way to bring diaspora literature closer to people's hearts, we came up with the idea of involving the film and performance industry. We thought it would be more meaningful given the industry was suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. LTI was fully supportive of short film and performance content making. By planning the completely unconventional event, we successfully produced high-quality content with a limited budget. With the help of Naver, this content was posted on the portal site's main page (performance section) and recorded tens of thousands of views via V LIVE. This project taught us how to overcome the limitation of the online conference and take a step forward.


- How are you dealing with the talent shortage?

"Hiring the right talents is the biggest challenge for us as well. Top Planners is a 'performance-driven organization' that runs in a small team. Each member works to the best of his or her ability to achieve great performance. Our team members wear multiple hats. For the areas that require professional expertise such as design or IT, we work with seasoned freelancers or professional firms. We hire female talents who wish to return to work after taking a break to raise their children or other talents who were on leave of absence if they fit the bill. We see it as a win-win strategy. We plan to utilize the 'talent bank' operated by Seoul Tourism Organization when we hire new employees in the future."


- What do you expect from SMA and Seoul Tourism Organization this year?

“Through MICE Support Center, Seoul Tourism Organization is providing support not only for the MICE industry but also for overall company management. What about diverse networking events, designed suitably for this non-face-to-face era, to help PCOs to plan and host new events? There used to be a training course customized for different levels and PCO leaders, offered in cooperation with a university. That was very useful. It would be very helpful if there was an educational course for MICE since we should continuously learn about this ever-revolving MICE industry. We will actively participate in various projects organized by Seoul Tourism Organization to instill high spirit into the stagnant MICE industry."


- Closing comments?

“Top Planners is neither big nor with long history. However, our principle lies in sustainable management and supporting talent development. In that context, we have actively participated in CSR activities in response to many social changes including the environment and 50+ aging society. To survive any external environmental changes, we take up the role of a co-host and organizer who selects the theme, invites speakers, and manages the event itself. By collaborating in a way that has never been tried, we will create events that are enjoyable and satisfactory for sponsors, participants, and planners."