local media insider

How to create a multi-million dollar events franchise

The tricks of the trade from the Chattanooga Times $3 million events franchise

Alisa Cromer
Posted
Life Expo caters to boomers and seniors, attracting big hospital sponsorships

Company: Chattanooga Times Free Press

Market: Chattanooga, TN 
Key Executives: Jason Taylor, President; Angela Doggett, Marketing Events manager; and Lyndsi Sebastian, Marketing Manager

Initiative: Creating an events division that generates millions in new revenues  in just three years

Introduction

Creating a multi-million dollar events franchise is a top new revenue stream for local media companies to grow revenues. But like other revenue opportunities, this one is often overlooked. Events are not in the line of focus, and misunderstood as an opportunitiy to sell advertising rather than a separate business.

“The staff of local media don't understand their full value - or how much revenue is taken out of the market by both local start-up and out-of-state promotors,” says Jason Taylor, Presient of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. In fact, events have such low barriers to entry re skill sets that  third party encroachment into the space often comes from formerly-working woman re-entering the workforce with an events-oriented entrepreneurial idea as well as roving out-of-state promotional companies.  But local media have the advantage for a number of reasons:

• 30% of a major events budget is spent on promotions. This means that in addition to savings in overhead, events stand to earn 30% more if hosted by the local media.

• Trades for advertising can significantly lower hard costs for food, venue, flowers and day-of entertainment.

• High margin with immediate, significant profits. As such, they are often more likely to get support at the C-level  and a win for manager,  that other needed but complex agency strategies that take oen to two years to break even.

Case studies show 50 to 82% in margins from single events that produce $100,000 to high six figures in revenues. The full investment required is the addition of a single first hire in some cases.

• Low barriers to entry. The skillsets are not only lower than technical skills now required for digital marketing or other non-traditional verticals (launching an employment agency or real estate company).

• Leveraging current skillsets.  Typically there is someone in the company that, given a good road map, already with many of the skills required. It isn't always the marketing director currently in charge of events - some media have tapped an organized administrative person as a leader to scout and produce the first revenue producing event. Relationships for trade with venues, entertainment and visuals such as flowers can be tapped, and the sales teams utilized.

• Franchises as an annuity. Most events are held year after year. So as the formula strengths and relationships are in place, they become a standing business.

For media companies in our case studies  who commit to growing a division, the results so far have been immediate.  MediaOne of Utah, for example, non-traditional revenues are the fastests growing category in general, and of those new revenues streams - digital services, real estate, .. and events - events shows the most revenues and highest growth. At the DenverPost, an events division launched with a high six figure Amazing Aging, and added a second event about 2/3 the size in it its first year, with only one additional hire. Some business journals run such profitable monthly recognition events - and devote so much of the editorial calendar around them - that they could be said to be events companies as much as newspapers. Magazines developed as programs are now publsihing glossy wedding guides twice a year. And large scale events such as the second largest Comicon in the country (MediaOne of Utah) or C2SV, a competitor of SouthbySouthwest (Metro Publishing, Inc.) are in year two.

We also looked at a number of events that did have not worked. Here are some factors that are consistent:

Most event efforts that falter share a few common denomators: 

• Under-resourced. That is, "tacked on" to someone with other full time responsibilities, and not enought support and training.

• No business plan, no P&L. 

• When the top two elements are in place,  failure to manage promotions personnel resisting the shift in responsibility.

• Insufficient project management tools. Please take advantage by downloading the planning resources  at the end of this report 

• Lack of participation from the rest of the company, encouraged by compensatory days off, voluntolds and participation of the top executives.

• Lack of commitment from the top, which includes coaching newer promoters on details of making an event great

This is a step by step guide to developing an events franchise, that summarizes take aways from interviews with  three of the most successful events divisions: The Chattanooga Times Free Press MediaOne of Utah and the Denver post.

Discussed in this report:

1. Evaluating events

2. Personnel

3. Core issue - Goals and Events P&L

4. Getting organized

- Calendar

- P&L

- Checklist

- Booth map

- Vendor contract

- Websites

5. Pricing and packaging

6. Events review

7. Growing the department

- Next events

- Master calendar

1. Evaluating the first event to undertake

There are two basid kinds of events:  Expos and banquets, with very  different formulas.

Expos are larger and have higher total revenues which typically run $150,000 to $600,000 but which can top $1 million.  Think of events with 100 plus booths sales as the main driver of revenues, and thousands of attendees.

Banquets on the other hand, are smaller luncheons and dinners with table and sponsorship sales that aare smaller, but very high margin, often created in conjunction with a recognition event that has editorial tie-ins, and launched on a regular schedule.

Expos

When looking for expo opportunties in a market, event executives say they look for "known winners" are events that appeal to women such as "What women want," home and kids expos, and bridal fairs, which are smaller but higher margin within the category.

The second factor is competition. So the number and relative strength of competitors is also an issue. Denver Post launched Amazing Aging in spite of a number of under-financed expos selling tickets  in the market. Event director Sarah Weiss traded booths with the competitors - but allowed seniors to enter free.  The Chattanooga Times Free Press took on an out-of-state bridal show competitor after a phone survey of local exhibitors confirmed they would support a new event from a local promoter.

Finally, there are opportunities based on the size and proclivities in the market. C2SV, a music and technology festival launched by the alternative weekly in Silicon Valley, leveraged the area's  status as a national technology hub. Amazing Adventures, also at the Denver Post, took advantage of the areas status as a popular destination for  outdoor travel.

The safest best is one of the "known winners" without serious competition, or a great idea with a large base of vendors,  confirmed by a phone survey.

While expos are the most profitable events overall.  The bridal fair, outlined on this website,  www.timesfreepress.com/formalaffair, has the highest margin, but  the largest  in overall dollars has been the Kidz Expo, www.timesfreepress.comkidzexpo,  created for the first time in 2012.

Other expos include “She Expo,” www.timesfreepress.com/she, aimed at women, and “Life Expo,” www.timesfreepress.com/lifeexpoan event for boomers and seniors. For the latter, the team hired Betty White to make an appearance, and generated attendance between 5000 and 6,000 people.

Banquets

The most common banquet events are luncheons around business awards - top ceo's, top women in business, best employer, etc.  So if your company is a leading media outlet for the local business community, has the support of the editorial team, - and the competition is not there - this would be considered an easy win. The uber popular awards for top high school athletes,  is another surefire winner for most community media.

Banquets are supported largely by sponsorships and table sales. The exception is the Readers Choice Awards, paid for itself in ticket sales but generated $300,000 in advertising.

These are just the big ones. Your team may have other revenue producing ideas. One simple, revenue maker is  a "Movie Opening" event, in which the Times found a movie with a tie-in to Chattonooga (movie was made there or referenced it in some way), and invited the town leaders to a red carpet grand-opening, givng them a chance to dress-up and walk the carpet in front of (staff photographer) papparozzi. Sponsors included a high-end auto dealership that sold a $100,000 car at the event.

2. Putting the staff in place

At the three companies we talked to, two already had at least one person in the company that was able to step-up. The key is to check internally to see if there is a potential evangelist. Test their interest by letting them in on the research. While the top manager may need to do the phone survey, the new evangelist may go to a number of events, collecting leads lists and reporting back ideas.

 Start with one, then  two

While understaffing will kill the ability to produce quality events, over-staffing is no guarantee of success. All the companies we talked to took a "crawl, walk, run" approach to building the department,  starting with one person and one major event that "pays for the first salary,"  then a second person at least supported by the second event.

Two people, essentially,  can additional events together with much higher margins, adding a third person as the division grows and becomes stronger. 

The team also includes company's leaders and  existing staff, the latter of whom are given compensatory time off to work the event, both as volunteers and "voluntolds." 

To execute this plan in Chattanooga, Taylor utlized the existing marketing manager, a former intern who had “worked her way up" to run the business.  Then Taylor brought hired an experienced expo producer, Anglela Doggett, who worked for him before, as the events manager.

The roles were refined as the events calendar grew into these basic areas of responsibility: 

a.Marketing manager
• Primary responsibility for creating the budgets and monitoring the P&Ls 
• Leadership responsibility  for four annual banquets, and sponsorship sales of same

• Oversite of other events

• Secures celebrity hires

b.Events manager 
• Major responsibility for overseeing the five annual expos
• Oversees expo booth sales, coordinating with the sales department

• Oversees vendor contracts and relationships for all events

Since expos involve multiple booth sales, at Chattanooga  the events managers coordinates with the sales department. The phone numbers on all promotional materials  go to the marketing department first. The events manager then pre-closes the lead and turns it over to the ads staff to follow up. 

The marketing and events managers do not receive commissions on sponsorships or booth sales,  but do receive  a commission on the net profit. So they are not perceived by the sales department as competing, but rather with aiding the sales effort.

After a full schedule of events is in play, an part-time assistant can be added to help with events. In  the third year, this position went full time and was responsible for selling booths. The sales structure at this point - late 2012 - was also readdressed:

Under the new structure, sales reps have two months to close a lead (events are promoted starting six months out) before a the event department's sales representative  is allowed to sell the account and collect the full commission. The third person also assists in the field at all events. This transition did raise quesions from the sales team, but Taylor's leadership talking with the sales team - and their obvious lack of time to full sell all the opportunities - made the transition fairly smooth.  

The three person team produces major events about  once a month, in addition to house ads, charitable sponsorships and other marketing. Since events begin promotions six months out, they are always working on multiple events at once. 

Part of the personnell strategy, overall, however,  depends on how much of the revenues are expected to come from existing clientele. At the Denver Post, with only one events manager, the sales teams is reponsible for all the sales and 85% of sales were to existing advertisers. 

At MediaOne of Utah, on the other hand, the group strives to grow new advertisers and prides itself on a separate sales team developing not only new revenues  but also primarily new clients, so if this is the strategy, staffing needs may be higher.


c.  Involving  the rest of the company

All models require leadership at teh C-level.

As the president of the company, Taylor is the lead evangelist for the events team.

 “My staff would tell you that I am marketing-oriented and the ideas for the events come from me. Whomever is in charge (of the company) has to provide top-down ownership,” Talyor says.

“Sometimes another publisher will seek me out to ask about a particular  event and starts out saying 'I didn’t go but …'  I know right then where the problem starts,” he says. 

To keep margins higher, The Chattanooga and Denver Post models also require participation from other departments.

Big events also require lots of staffing, and most of that - up to 30 people for an expo- comes from employees in other roles throughout the company, starting with sales.   Today at Chatanooga events most of the  staff attends, from the editor to the sales people, all working the event.

To create this engagment,  Taylor gives compensatory days off and relies on some volunteers and some voluntolds.  As events grow, however, more of the staff has chosen to attend key events voluntarily.

At expos,  the  30 people are “on the floor” of the event include sales people who are primarily catering to merchants who bought booths. But editors are also there. 

“The editors enjoy it, they pick up new stories talking to people at the events. “

3. Core competency: Setting revenue goals and P&L accountability

A common key to success is a basic one: Events are treated as a multi-million dollar business with a business plan, revneue targets and P&L.

At all successful events divisions we talked to, each event has a both a revenue goal  and its own P&L, which rolls up into an overall revenue target for events for the year.

(Note: Download the attached event P&L).

In Chattanooga, the marketing manager is responsible for creating the overall budget and managing to the P&L. Event revenues are  also included as a line item under “advertising” and the sales director is accountable for the revenue goal, as well as for developing 70% of the sales. 

“Some papers have messed up because no one is really accountable for the revenue goal. It has to be treated the same way as advertising and circulation,”  Taylor says.

Brent Low, CEO of (?), MediaOne of Utah agrees.  (Add content here from his tips)

4. Pricing and packaging

4. Revenue models: Booth sales, sponsorships and tickets

To a certain extent, events are just another arrow in the quiver when developing the top advertisers in the market. But is is also  an arrow that pierces a different budget of revenues. There are multiple opportunities to bring to the table. In order of importance here is a list of revenue streams and how to maximize them:

a. Booth sales

At expos, typically booth sales account for 60% of expo revenues. Merchants need foot traffic and expos provide unique opportunities to reach the right kinds of people and collect their contacts.

 To maximize revenues add opt-in contact lists to booth sales, such as registered brides, or other opt-ins. A QR code-enter-to-win on tickets or badges or other contests can also help with data collection.

Pricing and packaging at the Chattanooga Times follows a basic formula: 

All booth vendors receive:

•A full color ad in the program distributed prior to the event to the full circulation of the paper and at the event to attendees.

•A banner ad on the event website for a year

•A listing on the website with a description of their company. 

Booth pricing is:

  • Package A (10 x 10 booth space)             $   700
  • Package B (10 x 20 booth space)             $1,250
  • Package C (20 x 20 booth space)             $2,225
  • Package D (20 x 30 booth space)             $3,000
  • * Corner booths are an additional $50 each

b. Sponsorships

In addition to booth sales, sponsors can pay high six figures to sponsor an expo and up to $30,000 to sponsor a luncheon. Unlike expos, banquets rely primarily on sponsorship revenues and ticket sales to drive revenues.

Sponsorship revenues often come from a different bucket than advertising - allowing a foot in the door of companies that otherwise would not do business with the particular local media, or not as much. 

In Chattanooga, for example hospitals were interested for many of the expos because of opportunities to interact with the public. At boomer and senior expos, hospitals provided free health screenings that were enormously popular with the public and also yeilded high ROI for the medical groups. 

Major sponsors in trade are used to lower the costs of the events - the same as cash dollars on the bottom line.  So the marketing manager works hard to secure appropriate alliances that will benefit from contributing food and the venue.

For bridal fairs, for example, in Chattanooga, a hotel initially provided the space knowing that this would both showcase their rooms and facilities to people planning weddings, and also that they would receive the contact list from the bridal registry. 

The hospitality suite or additional cocktail party were originally catered by new restaurants on trade looking for a way to connect with brides or high end spenders and have them taste the food. 

To give an idea of big money from a different bucket, McDonalds sponsored the Chattanooga  Kids Expo out of its marketing budget, then was converted, post-event,  post-it note campaigns in the newpsper. Since then JC Penny and Whirlpool have "called in" about events, outside of any advertising they may or may not be doing.

c.  Ticket sales

Ticketing is often overlooked as a major revenue source, but it is  significant. In the case of some local media companies specializing in the A&E categories, ticketing can be the main source of six figure revenues.  In Chattanooga, ticketing  and incremental revenues accounts for 30% of total revenues for even the booth-driven expos. And at banquets, ticket sales of $75 or so per person, are the second source of revenuews.

Inviting  a celebrity. One successfuly tactic Chattanooga's events team often deploys to boost ticket sales  is paying a top name celebrity to bring out more people - and ticket sales. While paying for talent seems like a gamble, both Taylor and Weiss attest that these choices have more than paid for themselves - or simply guaranteed the success of a first year event.

For their senior event, Chattonooga team paid Betty White to make an appearance. Popular celebrity hosts/event draws are also reality TV stars, using the event to promote their brand. A great example of celebrity appearances at expos is the two day SheExpo, held in July, that included appearances from Cheryl Burke and Mark Ballas of Dancing with the Stars. Michael Phelps was tappped for the High School Athlete Awards.  A free or inexpensive choice is to use authors, who typically will appear in return for the promotional exposure. in Denver, Weiss put together a team of 45 experts on health, finance, travel and housing for seniors, all of whom spoke for free in simulataneous panels, after submitting an application.

For the Amazing Aging event, on the other hand, she hired a lead speaker (who?)

The only event where celebrity entertainment we've seen  backfire is the bridal Faire, in which too much entertainment distracted brides from interacting with vendors. P

Creating premium and VIP tickets.  For incremental revenues, Taylor notes, just about any VIP treatment, real or perceived can result in upsales of tickets, especially freebies created by a velvet rope or shorter line. Pre-parties, after parties, back stage passes to meet celebrities, are also common additions. 

In addition to tickets the events team sells products and newspaper subscriptions at the event. A subscription kiosk with a discount does particularily well. Also popular are event T-shirts especially ones that say “staff.”

6. Getting organized - The events calendar

Since events  require concentrated effort from people with other responsibilities, it is critical that key personnel have enough time to produce them on a schedule, rather than spontaneously  responding to requests to evaluate sponsorships of other events throughout the year. 

To eliminate this issue, Taylor’s team creates Master Calendar both for its own events and for event sponsorships one time per  year. Events are divided into the ones the team produces on its own, events that is co-sponsors in a partnership role, and those it supports with sponsorship and advertising.

Every September the marketing manager sends an RFP to all the event organizers, who have one month to make a request for the following year.

In November, the manager compiles all the requests in a notebook and meets with the publisher and CFO to review which ones to take on, based on profitability and strategy. 

”If you want money  or a sponsorship, you get one chance a year. Otherwise  it is so wasteful of time, and you are (agreeing to do things)  on a whim,” Taylor said. In fact, the time-suck of marketing directors spending all year vetting new opportunities is one of the main reasons most local media are too understaffed to produce revenues from their marketing departments. 

7. Getting organized - Key  tools

Since each event takes six months from start to finish, multiple events are underway at any moment and staying organized is a must.  Key tools used at Chattanooga include several standardized reports: the events P&L, a events check list, and floor plan, all of which are included at the bottom of this report.

The website for the event should include:

•Title with photos, and expo ticket pricing and contact information

• Booth Diagram

• Bios on celebrities 

• Maps and direction

• Lists of actiivities

• Booth pricing  

8.On the floor
In addition there is a formula to holding expos: A team meeting one week out to review roles, reposted to everyone working the event by email.  For expos, the day before the event is reserved for vendor set-up, including giving them credentials for the next day, taking careful notes on which vendors will give credentials to their own staff. Day of, a separate entrance for vendors is ideal, and most of the newspaper staff is engaged in "giving vendors whatever they want" on the floor.

Post-event reviews

There are a number of details in in the executive of events that make a difference. But also important that having a working review process so that every year is better and more profitable. Chattonooga's events grow every year for this reason.

After each event there is a meeting to talk about what worked, what didn’t and how to make it more profitable the next year. The review goes into the file to be used the next year. Taylor's crew is rigorous about "not forgetting" to hold and track this meeting.

9. Treating booth sponsors like royalty

Another execution detail that stands out is how booth sponsors are treated by newspaper staff at the event. 

Running a booth at an event is hard work, and many media event producers miss a key opportunity by ignoring the booth sponsors after the sale.

Taylor sees the event itself as a way to build relationships. Staff at the event are heavily engaged in helping the merchants set up and break down, as well as bringing them bottles of water during the show. That is one reason why many as 30 people from the company are there, roaming about and helping vendors set up, break down and get what they need.

“Think about it, they are going to pay you and they are going to spend the day with you. When you help them load and unload their booth they are going to thank you and feel like you are in it with them, "  Taylor says. 

"All day that day their ad reps are there and the publisher is there. It is so powerful to spend the day with them."

4. Partnering with other events

In some cases, the Times will partner with another event promoter who is already too entrenched to compete with in an important franchise area.

“It needs to be an event that is important or relevant to us - and not watered down with other media sponsors.“

The team considers events that are strategically alligned with a significant vertical such as real estate, automotive, or SMB’s,  or a key demographic the newspaper is targeting, such as women, young families and minorities.

An example of this was a home show, in which Chattanooga sold booths and received $100 per booth sold, by either the promoter or its own sales staff, in return for promotional marketing. 

5. Event turn-arounds 

In some cases, Taylor was took on legacy events that were money losers and turned them into money-makers. One example of this was the Readers Choice Awards. Three years ago, “it was not a coveted award, and not everyone voted.” To give the awards a face-lift, Taylor changed the logo and created a “stringent list of rules” that added to the credibility. 

While most of the $300,000 from the Awards comes from advertising in the Readers Choice Issue, rather than the event,  the Awards party has also transitioned from small and expensive, to  large and break even plus a littel.

While the  former Readers Choice Awards party was free, a did not include food, plaques or other things to make the party feel special, the new party was beefed it up enough for the team to  charged for some of the tickets.

Today the party has a has a full menu, appearance by Miss Tennessee and a well-known “DJ from Atlanta.” While winners still get 2 free tickets, everyone else pays $50 to $60, accounting for about  1/8 of the $300,000 in revenues for the Awards overall.  The team also sells extra plaques and store window decals to chains with multiple locations. 

“You have to be willing to sit back and do a hard analysis of the events, what things are worth keeping and what has no benefit and built a proforma based on making it profitable. Sometimes that means blowing things up and starting over.” 

Another turn around was a high school sports banquet that once  lost $26,000 per year. The event recognizes the best player in each sport in 96 local high schools, then awards a “Player of the year.”  To build-up  the event, Taylor amped up the program, inviting Michael Phelps to speak.  

The new formula resulted in sold-out table sponsorships.  "Everyone wants to give back to high school sports."



Conclusion

As the owners of dominant promotional vehicles, local media are are uniquely positioned to take advantage of key event franchise in their marketplaces to earn significant incremental revenues. By bundling events and other opportunities, media can create a more complete "share of customer" as well as reaching into new cusotmers. However, events are time consumering and a real challenge for time strapped small companies. The major objection is more about "focus"  within the organization - and lack of confidence in being able ot produce a proiftable event that is successful. 

The two key factors to consider are a. people and b. which event to start with. There may be someone already on staff capable of producing money making events  if responsibilities are reorganized, but most successful large events require at least a staff of two. 

Selection of the first franchise event is critical. Doggett says while event selection is strategic and market specific, she would always consider a bridal fair as one of the first expos, since these  can work with even a small number of brides and are easy to sell. We've also seen a Brewfest funded by ticket sales pull in $100,000 plus in Pennsylvania so there are no hard and fast rules here. 

Chattanooga

Events included five major expos and four banquets  in 2012. 


Conversely, starting out by solving these issues give your company the best shot at a money-making vernure.

Resources

Please list of resources attached, including sample of an events P&L, checklist, floor plan and flyer at the bottom of this report.

Please find a copy of a vendor contract here. 

Please find a copy of a vendor welcome pack here. 

Also see these websites:  

 www.timesfreepress.com/formalaffairwww.timesfreepress.comkidzexpo,  www.timesfreepress.com/she,  and  www.timesfreepress.com/lifeexpoan event for boomers and seniors, floor plan is here.

Company: Chattanooga Times Free Press

Resources

Please list of resources attached, including sample of an events P&L, checklist, floor plan and flyer at the bottom of this report.

Please find a copy of a vendor contract here. 

Please find a copy of a vendor welcome pack here. 

Also see these websites:  

 www.timesfreepress.com/formalaffairwww.timesfreepress.comkidzexpo,  www.timesfreepress.com/she,  and  www.timesfreepress.com/lifeexpoan event for boomers and seniors, floor plan is here.

Alisa Cromer

The author, Alisa Cromer is publisher of a variety of online media, including LocalMediaInsider and  MediaExecsTech,  developed while on a fellowship with the Reynolds Journalism Institute and which has evolved into a leading marketing company for media technology start-ups. In 2017 she founded Worldstir.com, an online magazine,  to showcases perspectives from around the  world on new topic each month, translated from and to the top five languages in the world.

Comments

2 comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
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skittle

Hi, I am having problems accessing the Expo flyer and Events checklist. Can you help? Thanks!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013
drbarnes

I am having problems accessing this information, as well. Your help would be appreciated. The article is extremely informative. Thanks!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013
 
met-Media Execs Tech
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