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Scaling a Summit: What Goes Into Producing a Top-Tier Event

This fall, financial professionals will resume a time-honored tradition not experienced since March 2020: attending in-person conferences. For some, it will be their first time and for others, it will be making up for lost time. The reasons behind attending are as varied as the possible financial services events to attend.

From evaluating new technology, meeting CE requirements, or connecting with like-minded peers, advisors are attending events at an increasingly staggering pace. When we polled our event attendees, we found that most attend 3 to 4 other events during the year. Adding it all up over a 30-year career, an advisor will spend nearly a year of their life at industry events!

So, what goes into producing a top-tier industry event? Here’s the behind-the-scenes look starting years before any attendee arrives.

Location, Location, Location

The real estate mantra rings true for every event. The cornerstone of the event is the venue and figuring out a place that makes sense for your attendees. For the event planner, it starts with a list.

You make your list of requirements like needing space for 500 people, an on-site spa, a connected golf course, being within 30 minutes of an airport, and so on. You turn that into a request for a proposal and send it to venues for review at least a year, if not two, before the desired event start date. Choosing the right event site has only increased in importance, and we’ve written about some of the things all attendees should think through before attending an in-person event.

The bigger the event, the fewer your options. Around the 2,000 attendees mark, you transition from hotels to convention cities like Orlando, Las Vegas, Boston, and other major metro areas.

Once the list of requests is sent, it begins negotiations between the hotel and event organizer, with hotels often offering attractive incentives to land the bid. What determines the quality and quantity of those incentives are the hotel’s availability over the desired dates, how many total rooms you’re looking to reserve, estimated food and beverage spend, and how successful your past events have been. These concessions can include waived meeting space fees, complimentary hotel rooms, VIP amenities, and much, much more. Ever wonder how the event organizer is staying in the usually $2,000-a-night penthouse suite? It’s because it’s free. 

Some planners take a venue-first approach while others know their firm dates and find hotels with availability over that pattern. Either way, there is collaboration and communication between other large events in the financial services industry. For our Summit, we take a venue-first approach.

Once we find the ideal location, we start to narrow down dates while emailing and making calls with other industry planners, confirming that it won’t conflict with their own event dates and location. And yes, you can spot which event has a rookie planner when they schedule an event that overlaps with another announced conference’s date. 

Secure the Talent

Outside of location and educational opportunities, our attendees have noted the speaker lineup as the third most important factor for the event. To start the process, you hopefully know a friend who knows a friend, or you work through a speaker’s bureau. Regardless, it’s time to pull out the checkbook because a speaker with decent name recognition typically starts at $25,000 for a 30-minute presentation. That’s just the honorarium and doesn’t include their travel (sometimes a mandatory private jet), meals, or getting your event prepared to host them – like having a particular microphone or a hospitality room stocked with their favorite protein bars.

Famous speakers and entertainment start at $75,000 and only go up from there. One country band was $90,000, and that didn’t include the fee for the Fire Marshall to come and inspect the “needed” flamethrowers for their show. You usually pay 50% of the speaking fee upon contract signing, followed by a few installments before the event date. The only exception, just like in real life, is for politicians. If you’re planning to invite a current member of Congress, you can’t pay them, and they won’t give you an answer a year out. It’s best to hold a spot in the program and try closer to 3-6 months out.

Audio/Visual [A/V] Selection

Unless the event plans on using cue cards and candlelight, now’s the time to think through the audio/video (A/V) selection. A/V is a broad category encompassing the venue’s internet, power outlets, the lighting truss hung 14 feet above seated attendees, fog machines, and other unique assets.

For us, this comes after booking our speaking talent so we can align the production requests outlined in the speaker’s rider to our own A/V needs. When thinking about the budget, we pick the production and food & beverage as the two areas we want to invest in the most. Roughly 50% of our total event budget is allocated solely to those two categories. The quotes you’ll receive from A/V companies will shock you but always  remember: everything in events is negotiable.

Attendee Experience

Once the A/V is locked in, this is when you can really dive into the attendee experience. What should an attendee feel when first arriving, how many attendees can your check-in stations process per hour, what food options are available for those with diet sensitivities – these are some of the small details that translate to a conference’s overall experience and perception. We once flew an employee back to a venue before an event started because we forgot to time how long it took to walk between each location on the conference agenda. Any aspect of an event that asks an attendee to spend their time doing it is important and should be done at the highest standard. You can always order more bagels; you can’t get back an attendee’s time.

Another way to differentiate your event is through staffing.Every Summit, we fly in 70 Riskalyzers so we can maintain a 10:1 attendee to staff ratio and outfit them in bright blue polos so they’re easy to find. We combine the Ritz-Carlton rule with the Zappos rule — staff are automatically approved to spend up to a certain dollar amount to take an attendee’s experience to the next level, and we encourage attendees to ask for help with things that have nothing to do with the event. We’ve delivered tacos mid-keynote, arranged two marriage proposals, booked Tesla airport pickups, and replaced the generic photos in a guest’s hotel room with pictures of his family, to name a few. 

Running the Event

Once you’ve planned a great experience, it’s time for the actual event. There is no shortage of things to do onsite, so most event planners will fly in 3-5 days before the actual start to meet with the hotel and work through any last-minute requests.

Before a big event, a hotel will designate a point of contact from each hotel department for the “Tie Down” meeting. This is where the event planner, the hotel staff, and other stakeholders go line by line in the schedule, catering menu, room layout, and ‘tie down’ every last detail. Clear your calendar because this can last two to three hours, depending on how long your event is and how many moving parts there are. 

The moment the planner steps on-site at the venue, they need to be done with all of the planning, or else pieces of excrement are about to hit the fan. A good rule of thumb is you plan for 100%, expect 80% of it to happen as planned, and build contingencies and sometimes literal safety nets for the other 20%. I’ve yet to work a perfect event. With thousands of variables, the odds are not in your favor for everything to work.

One of the helpful things we do ahead of time is host what we call a “Pre-Mortem” meeting and create a list for every plausible situation or area where something could go wrong. What happens if a speaker faints on stage? We have a plan and a medic on-call. What if a fire alarm goes off during a keynote? We’ve got the specs for each fire alarm pull station in the hotel and know who has the master key to turn it off.

Whenever you see the planner standing in the back of the room, seemingly doing nothing, the best are there to watch, listen, and observe attendees. Yes, we know it’s too cold in the ballroom. We knew it the moment we walked in and already notified our hotel point of contact, but unfortunately, the HVAC system that covers the 20,000 sqft ballroom can only move up one degree every thirty minutes. As luck usually has it, it’ll be the perfect temperature about 3 minutes before the session ends.

Understanding these “What Ifs” is critical to responding quickly, preferably without attendees even realizing something went wrong. Once the event is running, we follow the two-call rule: if I don’t answer the first call, call a second time, and I’ll step out of whatever I’m doing to respond. 

While these are a few of the pillars that make up an event, the truth is a successful event is made up of hundreds of small decisions, made at the right time and for the right audience. So later this year, as you sit in that ballroom chair listening to a speaker wondering why the room is too cold, enjoy it. There is a serendipity that only comes from people gathering in the same place, and a team has been working behind the scenes for months to bring it into reality. We’re ready to be back and can’t wait for you to join us.

Dan Bolton is Managing Director of Customer Marketing at Riskalyze and oversees the Fearless Investing Summit, the annual industry conference attracting over 700 top financial professionals each year.  

He has planned events on four continents and for some of the world’s most recognizable names and organizations, including prominent political figures and Hollywood actors, Google, USA Today, MTV, the US Secret Service, and others.

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