3 Million Tickets and 1 Million Marshmallows: Keys to Running a Successful Event Company
By TR Gourley
Thinking about starting an event production company? I started from nothing, and in three years I’ve sold 3 million tickets to events all over the globe. Here’s how.
It’s called the event industry because it takes a lot of work to be successful in this line of business. I’m talking about walking 20 miles in an 18-hour day, and smiling while you do it. I started my company Sack Lunch Productions (ticker: SAKL) over three years ago, and in that time have brought events to cities all over the world. Sack Lunch now contains four brands and has sold over 3 million tickets. Anyone who knows event management will recognize the extreme success of that statement, and how much work it takes to get there.
It has been a bit of a rollercoaster to get here, and I now hope to share some of the insights I’ve gained from my experience. I also have a much more in-depth training web series available that shows, step-by-step, how to create an event from scratch by following me from conception to event on my new brand “Sparkle Park”.
The concept of mass human events is relatively new, and was made possible by the advent of social media and the marketing advantages that came with it. It is a fun, lucrative industry with huge room for growth. The entrepreneurs that fill its top positions are young, vibrant, strong individuals. The lifestyle is one of adventure and travel. It takes a person with intelligence and tenacity to be successful here, but more than anything else it takes hard work.
Massive human event production is about bringing thousands of people together. It can be for a themed run, to see a concert, or in the case of my company (Sack Lunch Productions), to send thousands of glowing lanterns into the night sky. The turnout can be huge, like the 16,000 people who gathered for the last Lantern Fest in Salt Lake City, and the profits enormous. Thousands of people from all walks of life come together to create an experience that takes “more the merrier” to a whole new level.
These events are incredible, and intense. Some points as you embark on your journey:
Make your event scalable and repeatable.
Creating an event that can’t be repeated yearly or monthly and in different cities is like building a house on spec when you could be building tract homes; you’re taking on a huge amount of risk without the opportunity for continued benefits and growth. When we talk about a sustainable business, we’re talking about a steady stream of income, consistency and responsibility. We don’t want to be in the business of reinventing the wheel every time we build a car.
So in that vein, create an event that works and can be held more than once, in many different markets. Create a company that can put on multiple events at a time. That also means making your venue agreements renewable. Find venues that can put your event on their calendar for years to come, and find workers who want to grow and take on more responsibility over time. Sack Lunch Productions operates out of Salt Lake City, Utah, and now boasts four brands: Slide the City, Color Me Rad, The Dirty Dash, and The Lantern Fest. I make my venue agreements for 3–5 years with non-competes on similar events, and now host these events across the U.S. and the world.
Make your event profitable.
Focus on the bottom line. Yes, you want to make people happy. Yes, you want to create an unforgettable experience. But above all else, a successful event company must first make money. We’ve all heard of the nightclub owners who become part of the party; a healthy bottom line requires a lot of work. It is important to see your event company as your business, not your party. From merchandising to ticket sales, your mind must be focused on profit.
I remember, early on in my event career, spending weeks working on merchandising and when it wasn’t the biggest source of revenue by far. One day I thought to myself, “Why am I spending so much time on a few thousand dollars? Wouldn’t that time be better spent elsewhere?” Then I remembered my lean years and thought, “Are you kidding? That’s a few thousand dollars. That’s a lot of money.”
I was right. It’s so easy to lose focus on the small opportunities for revenue when there is so much money on the line, but the small things count. Years ago I had the good fortune of losing everything. That gave me perspective and an uber-positive attitude when times get tough. I remember at one point during these years, I only had seven dollars left in my checking account. Losing everything made me grounded and I’ll never forget what a dollar is worth. Take the time to seal the cracks in your business, and it will be around for a long time.
Make your event unmissable.
If it’s not the hottest ticket in town, then everyone will be going somewhere else during your event. Figure out what your event will be and how you are going to do it. What would be fun for thousands of people to do together that they couldn’t do alone? What will people pay to do? The launch of a space shuttle is an event. A pick-up basketball game is not.
I have created three successful touring brands in as many years and I have three more in preproduction. And when I decide on which event to produce, I concentrate on three things. First, I focus on an element of nostalgia. This can be seen in the throwback effect of a slip ‘n slide in my debut event Slide the City, and the upcoming Trike Riot (a gang ride through city streets on adult-size big wheels). Second, my events are logistically simple; they are contained in one venue and require minimal amounts of crew. Third, I create events that are visually stunning. Photos are the most impactful way your participants will share their experiences with their friends. Think spectacular.
Make your event tellable.
There’s no such thing as writer’s block. There are simply bad stories. Bad stories are hard to tell and worse to listen to; a bad story will stop a writer like a pair of headlights freezes a deer in its tracks. Your participants are the marketers of your event. If they are unable or unwilling to tell the story of your event, then you will have a hard time with social media/viral marketing and surviving over multiple seasons. Take the time to build your event into an experience people want to tell others about. Like any good story, your event should have a beginning, a middle and an end. It should build up to a climax and taper off into a resolution. Read up on strong storytelling so you can build your event to contain all of the elements that make a successful experience.
Make your event run itself.
The best managers can walk away from their work and their team will take care of every aspect of the business. By the time event day rolls up, every detail of your event should be in order. Your crew should be well aware of their jobs and well trained to handle any situations that may arise. This is not the time to be worried about things that could have been prepared beforehand. During the event you should be available to troubleshoot inevitable problems and put out occasional fires.
A big part of making an event that runs itself is good communication with your guests. Participants should know where to park, what they need to bring, how to claim tickets, the event schedule, etc. These are easily placed online, but signage and crew in correct positions are key to a successful event. If your participants are not well-informed beforehand, the event will not run smoothly and you will spend hours guiding crowds and answering simple questions that should have been addressed earlier.
My crews work smoothly, causing the events to run as if they were running themselves. The human element is seen but not felt. Instead, each event becomes its own playground with no teachers, where people can gather and enjoy themselves. One of the things that I excel at is finding great people to work with. The people you hire are the face of your business. The way that they present themselves to your participants and business partners determine your business’ reputation. The reputation of your business will open or close doors for you in the future. Trustworthy, loyal, honest and hard-working people who take ownership of the event will be invaluable to your success.
Make your event yourself.
You must know every aspect of your business. I’ve learned to receive many questions and give accurate answers in a short amount of time because I built my company from the ground up. I started at the bottom working with another event company for two years before starting my own events, and this gave me a great opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes. Instead of costing myself thousands of dollars to make the same mistakes as the company I worked for, I was able to glean information while getting paid to learn and grow without the pains of falling down. If you have an attitude of learning, accepting and growing, you will gain valuable experience that you can use throughout your career.
Make your event formulaic.
People are conditioned to seek the formulas that make events successful. For example, a music fan understands what it is like to go to a rock concert and a film buff knows what a thriller is like. If you go to a thriller and in the opening scene all of the teenage kids kill the monster, or you go to a concert and the headlining act goes on at 7:00, there’s something wrong.
Formulas work. Find yours and follow it so your audience can feel comfortable and get what they expect. If someone goes to a restaurant and orders a steak and you give them a pizza, they may not be happy. Not because they don’t like pizza, but because they wanted steak. Find the formula that works for your event, and fill that formula perfectly.
While these tips sound straightforward and simple, following through with them requires a lot of hard work and tenacity. But as long as you keep your goal in mind —a profitable, repeatable, organized event that draws thousands into an experience they’ll share forever— it’s well worth the work.