Events have been the core of my career — and have saved my butt more than once.
When I was running my first company, an Internet marketing firm, I spent a lot of time sitting in my office losing money. It was cute that I was sending out press releases and getting involved in the Chamber of Commerce, but I needed real, paying clients.
I decided to hold an Internet marketing conference so I could educate local businesses about what we did, and hopefully get some business. And it worked.
Since my first conference (which, happily, was followed by the second annual conference), I co-founded the Entrepreneurs Forum; helped with some indie fashion shows; and produced a male beauty pageant, a couple hundred adult spelling bees, a wedding, several working brunches, dozens of information sessions about my test-prep classes, and two Bullish Conferences.
Events have saved me more on advertising than I’ve spent advertising the events. They’ve helped me start businesses, sell things, and expand my network. You don’t need investors, or to be famous, or even to have an especially extroverted personality.
Here’s how to do it.
If You Don’t Have Any Money, Get Sponsors
When I produced my first business conference at age 22, I had no money — actual zero dollars — but I didn’t tell anyone that. I went to the swanky business club in town (like a country club, but without the golf). I got a member of the club to sponsor me; this didn’t cost her anything, but got her company listed as a sponsor.
I asked what I had to do to reserve the date for my event. The events manager said there was a $500 deposit, due 30 days before. It was four months before. I looked at her quizzically — you’ll reserve the date for me and I give you $500 in three months? Fantastic.
Now that I had a date reserved at a fancy club, I emailed all the sales reps who had been annoying me at networking events. Several of them agreed right away to pay $150 for a sponsor table at my event. Now my $500 deposit was more than paid. And once I had, say, an individual Verizon high-speed Internet salesperson as a sponsor, I slapped a Verizon logo on the conference website — surely, if my conference were sponsored by Verizon, it was a big deal, right? So collecting money from sponsors actually made it easier to collect money from ticket sales.
I then sent out press releases and ultimately got a nice piece in the paper, which is a lot easier in a small town than in New York. I used a barter exchange to trade a block of tickets for advertising spots on a talk radio station. (I just sent a script and the station recorded the ad for me.) Obviously, I emailed everyone I knew, including all the prospects who had been dilly-dallying about hiring us. I paid zero for advertising.
The club required me to use its catering to host an event there. My conference involved lunch, which cost about $35 per person. Since my goal was to promote my company, I just charged $35 to attend the conference. The event sold out at about 65 tickets. But even if it hadn’t, it would have been impossible to lose money — I had revenue from sponsors, and each person paid for their own food.
At the conference, I gave an hour-long presentation during which I brain-dumped everything I knew about Internet marketing. I used incredibly detailed, text-heavy slides, and gave out paper copies. I held back nothing. In fact, I overwhelmed everyone with information (and excitement!). The next day, my inbox was full of messages from attendees saying things like, “This information is great, but it looks like a lot of work — maybe you should just do it for us.” Win.
Since then, I have held events in fancy law-firm seminar rooms, gorgeous bars, and posh hotels, all without paying for space — or, in some cases, for anything. You can’t know what a venue wants until you ask, and sometimes all they want is to sell chicken dinners, or drinks, or to bring in new people who might become members.
If it’s possible to put on a 65-person business conference for free, imagine what you can do with a real chunk of cash...
If You Have $2,000 and Access to Craigslist, You Are Invincible
For my 30th birthday, I decided it would be fun to hold a male beauty pageant. A real one, with hot guys who actually wanted to win. By this time, I had some money. It doesn’t take as much money as you think to be omnipotent — for one night, at least.
I called a few bars that had private rooms with stages, and ended up at Madame X in Greenwich Village. They would let me charge admission, all of which I would keep — in exchange for a $1,600 bar minimum. (That is, if my attendees didn’t buy $1,600 worth of drinks, I would pay the rest in cash.) Note the commonality here: A lot of venues will let you do whatever you want as long as you buy enough food or alcohol, much of which your attendees will pay for themselves.
I put up a $200 prize and ordered some pageant sashes online, and recruited contestants on Craigslist and modeling sites. I had to answer a lot of questions from guys who wrote things like, “My talent is surfing but I can’t do that on stage, what should I do?” (My answer: That is your problem! This is a competition and you are not doing well!) The contestants ultimately included several singers and singer-songwriters, a rapper, a comedian, two poets, and a guy who did a boxing demonstration to music (it was fantastic — too bad the surfer didn’t think of something like that).
I asked a dozen lady bloggers to be judges. I hired two male models ($40 an hour) to hand out chocolates and give all the attendees compliments. I paid a massage therapist $200 to give free foot massages all night.
I decided that, in addition to the introduction/modeling round and the talent round, my pageant would have a “Mr. Cuddly” round during which contestants were required to wear tight T-shirts and boxer briefs. What can I say? That’s what I like.
In the end, the winner was a model who sang Elvis’s “Blue Christmas.” The “Mr. Cuddly” round was won by a personal trainer and poet who smuggled in a small fluffy dog to help demonstrate his cuddly qualities, which were legion.
It turned out that people didn’t really buy that many drinks. At the end of the night, the bartender said, apologetically, “Your bar tab is $1,200 short.” At that point I was pretty sure I had just had the greatest 30th birthday of all time (and I did collect a few hundred bucks from ticket sales), and one great way to celebrate being 30 is to be able to write a check for $1,200 like it’s nothing. I wrote the check, thanked the bartender, and headed home with the rest of the chocolates.
If You’re Paying a Professional, Let Them Do Their Job
Five years after the Man Pageant, I got married, in a fairly traditional venue.
I considered a lot of alternative venues — I kind of wanted to be one of the cool kids who gets married on the Brooklyn Bridge or something — but, in the end, we have a lot of elderly relatives who need accessible bathrooms. So we booked India House in downtown NYC.
Here’s my philosophy: Events might be stressful, and they might be expensive, but they shouldn’t be both. Since I was hiring experienced professionals, I deliberately stepped back; I did nothing until these professionals asked me for a decision. I figured if I was paying someone, I would let them do 100 percent of what they were willing to do. This attitude generally makes things easier for both you and the vendor. You get the full value of the money you’re spending, and your vendor doesn’t have to be micromanaged or try to meet your weird demands.
The DJ wanted a conference call to talk about all our favorite songs. “Don’t worry,” I emailed. “Just play whatever most New York-type people like at weddings!” The DJ demanded a little more information: average age of the attendees, a couple of artists we liked, and that was it. The caterer left me a strange voicemail wanting to know my “colors.” I emailed them to say I didn’t have special colors, and why would they want to know? It turned out that they were decorating the cake. I told them I was wearing a gold dress and to just make the cake look nice. I told the string trio I didn’t know much about classical music, and they should use their judgment. Where should people sit? Where should we walk? How should we enter the reception? Since India House does weddings pretty much every weekend, I asked for their professional opinion and followed it in every case. I don’t have a strong need to force my tastes on people. It was lovely.
It can be pretty stressful trying to sell enough tickets to a for-profit business conference so you don’t lose money and bankrupt your business. But if you’re literally just spending $10,000 to $200,000 on a party, you should be able to spend money instead of angst. If you pay, sit back and enjoy being the client!
It’s also worth saying that very little tends to be expected of men during the conventional hetero wedding planning process. Righting the division of labor can only set a good precedent for an egalitarian marriage. My husband made origami centerpieces. He was a bit flummoxed to discover that my plan was to arrive at our wedding 10 minutes before the ceremony was scheduled to start — but we did exactly that, and it turned out great, because I like to let professionals do their jobs.
In fact, during the entire time I was “planning” our wedding, I was also planning the first annual Bullish Conference.
Yes, You Can Plan a Conference From Scratch
I had been writing a column called Bullish for a couple of years when I went on vacation to South Beach and found myself at the beautiful Surfcomber Hotel, surrounded by… life-size sculptures of bulls. Well, cows. Close enough.
The seed of the Bullish Conference was planted, but it’s a big leap getting people to move from reading articles for free online to buying a $600 conference ticket and flying to Miami.
The steps to planning a conference from scratch are pretty much:
- Pick a venue that’s super good-looking — and take your own photos or make sure you have permission to use their photos.
- If your attendees are going to be paying for hotel rooms anyway, make sure that “counts” in your deal with the venue. I have contacted quite a few venues regarding future conferences, and in every case, fancy hotels charge less than less-fancy seminar centers and coworking spaces — because hotels are motivated to give me event space so they can sell hotel rooms to my attendees. Seminar and coworking spaces plan to get all their money from me, which isn’t so great.
- Get the speakers on board early. If you are paying speakers, work into the contract that the speakers will contribute blog posts, webinars, tweets, or whatever else will help promote the conference (and them!). Your speakers should already have excellent headshots. In fact, don’t work with anybody or hire or pay for anything who/that can’t supply you with excellent photography.
- Make the logistics easy. Your conference schedule looks great, but what airport should I fly into and when should my plane arrive? If the conference starts on Friday, is it okay to fly on Friday morning or will I need to come on Thursday and pay for an extra night at a hotel? People think about this stuff way before they imagine how awesome your social media seminar will be. They need to know how much their flight will cost and which hotels are in walking distance of the event.
- Negotiate everything. If costs seem set in stone, negotiate for extra benefits. For instance, if you have to spend $3,000 on catering to use the space on Saturday, could you get a free seminar room on Friday to use for a meet-and-greet? In several instances, I’ve made the case that the open bar price should be lower since my entire audience consists of young women doing business networking, and in my experience, that’s generally a one-glass-of-wine-per-hour crowd.
- Reward loyalty. “Insiders” in your business will expect insider prices. That might mean that most attendees expect big discounts. Build it into your model.
- Answer those “elephant in the room” questions. When people look over last year’s photos and read the FAQ, sometimes they’re really trying to answer questions like, “Will I fit in?” and “Will people like me?” Find ways to answer those questions. I like to assure people that we’re “introvert friendly” and that, while most attendees are in their 20s and early 30s, we absolutely welcome women of all ages. (We had one attendee in her 50s who was already in her dream career, and shared her goal of “eating more lobster.” Love it.)
People Remember What They Do More Than What You Do
Last September, I attended The Blogcademy, a conference for bloggers.
While I certainly took a lot of notes during the presentations given by instructors Gala Darling, Shauna Haider, and Kat Williams, the thing I remember most was a brief presentation by Shauna on taking good still lifes for Instagram — followed by a photo break during which we were all instructed to run around taking photos (like this, this, and this), and then post them to Instagram tagged with #theblogcademy.
Shauna told us that Instagram still lifes read best when you use a natural element (a plant, a piece of fruit). I remember this because I physically arranged a branch next to my lipstick. And while I might have moaned and groaned a tiny bit about having to actually get up out of my chair, it was really fun, and sometimes people need an excuse (“Blogcademy made me do it!”) to have a little fun.
Unless you do a Liz Lemon-style bra dance from the stage, people don’t actually think about you that much. They remember the few things you said that really resonated with them. They remember what they thought and how they felt and what they did. So you might as well curate those experiences for them.
When in doubt about your programming, focus on the attendees. If you have a presentation to give or a class to teach, can you instead facilitate a group activity? Don’t ask what you can tell them. Ask what you can guide them to do.
Plan a Small, Easy Event First
If you think a conference would be a great way to promote or grow your business but you don’t feel up to the task, start small. Event planning is a skill like any other.
Here’s a foolproof recipe for a small, easy event:
- Provide food and booze
- Don’t sell anything or try to manipulate people
- Have a core group of at least a couple of friends or co-hosts you know will come (on time!) and have fun
For instance, hold a Working Brunch. Invite over a few hard-hustling friends to work together for a defined period of time, and then celebrate with champagne when the time is up. Your apartment probably can’t accommodate more than a handful of people and their laptops anyway, and most of a Working Brunch is spent working, so this is a very easy event to host.
You can also plan your own networking events on the cheap, either at home or in a bar. Want to do a small-business event? Put together an educational presentation about what you do, and then co-sponsor the event with one or more clubs or groups that already have regular meetings.
To build your event-planning muscles, start with groups of people who inherently want you and/or the event to succeed. Hold a small fundraiser for a cause people close to you believe in. Have a party dedicated to a theme and invite writers to read their work and performers to do performances on the theme. Invite women in your field to an intimate salon to discuss issues facing women in your field.
Holding events of any kind is a great way to meet new people and expand your network as you work up to being an event-planning maven.