How to Host a Kick-Ass Event

307156714Last week I had the privilege of attending an event put on by event organizers for event organizers. The hosts were Sandbox Suites and San Francisco Entrepreneurs for Coworking Meetup. Sasha Vasilyuk, Meetup Organizer and the founder of Sandbox Suites, gathered event experts Edith Yeung of BizTechDay, Myles Weissleder of SF New Tech, and Cassie Phillipps of SNAP Summit’s FailCon — all three are prominent figures in the bay area events world — to provide an evening of valuable tips and advice for event-holders.

Here are my top five takeaways from the panel discussion:

1. Know your audience.

The first step in throwing a kick-ass event is knowing your audience. All three event organizers stressed this multiple times throughout the discussion. To attract both attendees and sponsors you have to focus on creating compelling content that generates excitement and draws a crowd, but in order to focus on the right content you first have to think about who you are trying to attract and the types of things that they would find compelling. So know your audience to create compelling content.

Once you have the content, then you can target the audience and entice them with the event details, but in order to do so you have to know where to find them. By understanding who your audience is you can uncover where they get their information. Whether it is targeting specific online communities, trade journals, or industry associations, know your audience and know where to find them.

Finally, know your audience at the event. Collect data on attendees during the registration process – collect specific information that will help you further understand your audience for future outreach. In addition you can collect information that would be interesting for the audience to know and then share it on the day of the event. Like what percentage of the audience has a blog or contributes to online reviews, or uses Twitter. The organizers stressed the importance of collecting email addresses in the registration process to help you build up a list of people that might be interested in your future events.

2. Location is everything but get it for nothing.

Location is key to throwing a great event. Think about the theme of your event and the vibe you want to create and what type of location will best support it. For example Myles chose Mighty for his SF New Tech events since it is a club with a large open space for networking. It’s entrance is an unmarked door in a big brick warehouse giving attendees the experience of an underground event where they will get to see all the coolest new tech startups.

Think about what amenities will be required, whether outdoor space would be appropriate, if you want the event to feel more like a cocktail hour (bar) or a serious meeting (hotel or conference space). If you’re on a tighter budget, you can often get free event space at a bar if you go with a cash bar and agree to give the bar the proceeds from the drinks – this works well for weekday events where the bar would otherwise have low traffic. Other budget options include using space at local companies like CNET or MySpace who will let you use their offices for free in return for a short speaking slot and some marketing visibility.

Negotiating location rates is definitely a required art – the organizers shared with us that hotels usually quote 30%-40% higher than what you can actually get them for, so don’t be afraid to negotiate. In addition you can usually get 50% off on the quote for AV equipment provided by the space.

If you don’t know how many people you will have at your event get a flexible space that can expand or contract depending on your turnout. For example restaurants with additional rooms to add or conference spaces that have moving walls or that can be set up in different configurations. For example one room set up classroom style that can fit 250 can also be set up theater-style and seat 400.

3. Speakers get as much from your event as you get from them.

In attracting speakers the first step is to find a topic, then know your audience, and then think about whom they would be excited to hear from. It will be much easier to attract speaker once you have a concrete topic or theme to help them envision how they will fit into the overall event. Collect speaker submissions and reach out to contacts that you have. Finding at least a warm intro into a speaker will go along way so once you target an individual search your network for someone who already has the connection.

Cover room and board for your speakers, but 99% of the time you shouldn’t pay them. They are not at your event to do a job, they are at your event to connect with your audience – the value should be one of reciprocity, you give them as much value for being a part of your event as you get from having them speak. You have a lot to offer them – visibility, a chance to meet your attendees, and a chance to meet your other VIPs. As Edith put it, when you reach out to a speaker, “you are giving them the opportunity to speak at your event.”

4. Get creative to sell out early.

Getting an accurate count of attendees before the event is critical yet can be one of the hardest things to do. Getting attendees to put skin in the game by charging event $5 will tremendously increase the accuracy of your RSVPs. Another tactic that Cassie shared was that a few days before the event she sends a message or posts to Twitter saying that the event is sold out, so if you aren’t planning on attending please let her know so that she can give someone on the waitlist your ticket. Another good rule of thumb that she shared was that 10 days before her event if she doubles the number of attendees that are registered that is a very accurate predictor of how many will be registered by the time of the event.

When it comes to selling tickets, stand by your price and believe in your value. Think about what you are giving attendees and what that experience is worth. To help jump-start ticket sales offer early bird pricing or send out discount codes for the first week or two of sales, then move to general ticket sales and then raise prices again for last-minute buyers. Leverage Twitter for the few days before the event to create urgency around buying tickets or registering and allude to selling out. You can do creative things like sending buyers on a goose chase to find discount codes hidden on partner websites.

Another way to drive sales is to use affiliates and incent others to market and sell tickets for you. For every 10 tickets they sell, give them one for free or give them special perks or VIP status if they reach a certain number of referrals. You can manage this all through Eventbrite Affiliate Programs. Partner with as many groups as possible for marketing and comp them some tickets in return. You can even recruit PR firms to work for free in return for access to your event and attendees.

5. Keep your eye on the prize.

On the day of a lot can go wrong, but a lot will go right. Don’t sweat the details, no one notices and if they do, people are generally very forgiving. Remember that people attend your event to have a good time, to connect with others, and to maybe learn something. On the day of the event your role has to change from operator to gracious host. People will have a better time if they see you having a great time. So most of all, enjoy your events!

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