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Q&A with Salvatore J. Chiarelli of SIFMA

Salvatore J. Chiarelli, executive vice president and head of conferences, events, and societies for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), had a circuitous career route that led him to the meetings industry. This diehard New Yorker talked to us about the importance of creating an experience for customers, what associations can learn from corporate brands, and how doing what you love makes all the difference.

Q: Tell us about SIFMA and the work you do.

SC: SIFMA is the voice of the nation’s securities industry. We advocate for effective and efficient capital markets.

We represent the broker-dealers, banks, and asset managers whose nearly one million employees provide access to the capital markets, raising over $2.5 trillion for businesses and municipalities in the U.S. These organizations serve clients with over $18.5 trillion in assets and manage more than $67 trillion in assets for individual and institutional clients including mutual funds and retirement plans. SIFMA, with offices in New York and Washington, D.C., is the U.S. regional member of the Global Financial Markets Association (GFMA).

Our members see us as the go-to resource for industry content, training, and education. I head up the conferences and events group to ensure the right information is delivered to our members and industry professionals. We produce over 100 events and programs a year, ranging from 25-30 to over 2000 people.

Q: You took an interesting road that led to your career in events. What happened?

SC: I had an interest in events early on — it stemmed from watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. As a child, you're fascinated by everything a parade offers. It’s the whole experience: balloons, floats, entertainment, and characters. I wondered, how does something like that come together? How do they orchestrate all those moving pieces? And what about the logistics? Street closures, security, creative, media, etc.

But I come from a family of accountants, so it was natural and expected of me to go into finance. But I knew I did not want to be an accountant, so I focused on banking. I enjoyed success for ten years, but there was something missing — I kept looking for something creative. So, I did some soul-searching. I thought back to when I was a kid and what interested me then. I realized I never lost sight of that passion for big, citywide events. So I decided life was short — if you want to do something, do it now. And I did!

I was fortunate to take a sabbatical and learn more about the event business and see if it was just curiosity or truly something I wanted to do. During that time, I researched the large trade shows coming to New York and reached out — I told them I was at a crossroads in my career and wanted to learn more about event management and production (plus, I was free labor!). And through that I found a great opportunity with Microsoft, which started my career in this business. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

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Q: When did you know you’d made the right decision?

SC: Well, Microsoft being the large corporation that it is and where it was at the time, I was thrown into the fire. Within six months I was working on large, high-profile events and product launches. And I thought, This is it. My first big event was the launch of Windows XP (yes, I am dating myself). We shut down Times Square. We did a concert with Sting in Bryant Park. We hired Madonna to do our commercial. Microsoft gave me the opportunity to work on those events and answer all those questions I had as a kid. I realized this is exactly what I always wanted to do.

Q: That’s incredible. So how did you go from Microsoft to your role now?

SC: It was a great experience and something I treasure to this day. But my job was transferred to Redmond, Washington, which is a good thing. When you’re transferred within Microsoft that means you're doing something right. But I'm a native New Yorker — I was born and raised here, so I've spent my entire life in this city. Moving just wasn’t an option. Luckily, I always wanted to get back into the financial services industry and that put me on a path that ultimately brought me to SIFMA.

Q: You’ve led huge corporate product launches and managed countless association meetings and events. What do these different executions have in common?

SC: To me, it's about the total attendee and sponsor experience. It goes beyond just what happens on-site when attendees arrive. Building the total experience starts months, sometimes even years, before that. It's always been my goal to focus on that total meeting experience, which continues to evolve.

Creating a true brand experience means you're evolving, you're pushing out the right information, working with the best subject matter experts to deliver the right content, and creating the right engagements. Then, of course, it's about everything you roll out from the start of your program until afterwards — that's the total brand experience.

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Q: What value do you get out of brand experience that you can't get elsewhere?

SC: Great experiences build your reputation. That recognition of quality and anticipation is part of the brand building. Whether it’s pushing out something new or an event we’ve done before, audiences see the SIFMA brand and right away think, “I can’t miss this event because it's coming from SIFMA.”

Q: Having worked on both sides, what can associations learn from corporate brands?

SC: If they’re not a recognizable “name,” some associations feel like they’re not a powerful brand. But most often they have members who represent powerful brands. Having these individuals as invested members of your association says a lot. They are your voice. Embracing your association as a brand means doing more than just focusing on membership — you must think and market like a brand. Push that brand out there, engage more with future leaders, and understand how they operate and what they want to see within your industry.

You must also keep it fresh. Many associations have been around for years. They originally formed because it was a way to get industry colleagues to meet, network, and share information — often only once a year. But with technology, everything has changed. Beyond just engaging and embracing technologies, you need to understand new generations and how they want information. To stay relevant, you must evolve. You need to know your audience and your partners’ preferences and use that as inspiration. At the same time, you need to be malleable with the newer audiences while not alienating long-term members.

Q: Where do you find inspiration when building experiences for your members and attendees?

SC: Our industry is conservative, so there are certain things that must be done “within a box.” But I like to branch outside that box! I like to look at big events: movie premieres, award shows, large programming events like the Apple product launch, and the political conferences this past year. I look at the AV and technology they’re using. How did they design the stage? How does their program flow? Realizing, of course, there are things we wouldn't and couldn’t do. But I can take those cool, cutting-edge, inspirational ideas and say, “How can we work them into our programming?” I research, I talk to my team, our SMEs, and we brainstorm. All budgets fluctuate, but companies spending the most are often the innovators. It’s good to leverage those big ideas and apply what works to your own events.

Q: Definitely — we are big believers in gaining inspiration anywhere you can find it! Okay, last question. What’s a fun fact that people would find surprising about you?

SC: Some people may not expect that I used to own a candy store. I was the Willy Wonka of the Jersey Shore!

Q: Whoa! We said that was the last question, but now we have candy questions. Tell us everything.

SC: In the shore town where we have a home, they were redeveloping the beachfront boardwalk. I observed what they were building because there are certain staples people expect (again, think about your audience!) — on the boardwalk you need pizza, burgers, fries, and candy. But a candy store wasn’t initially planned, so my husband and I put together a proposal quickly. It took off and exploded.

We loved giving back to the community, but this little side business turned into a full-time career over four years. As much as we loved it, we decided it was time to pass on the store to someone who could take it to the next level. Then, Hurricane Sandy hit. In the end, our store was about bringing nostalgia back to the boardwalk with a modern twist and creating a special experience for families and kids. No matter what, I always want to leave people with an experience. It’s a memory we can all go back to. 

To learn more about what brand experience brings to marketers all over the world, download the stat pack: The Value of Brand Experience.

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