by Max Kaplun
August 9, 2016
How to build a world-class event series from scratch
Two years ago, we created an outlandish pitch deck in order to convince one of the coolest venues in Montreal to host a design event we were calling Dynamic/MTL. To our surprise, the venue, Phi Centre, agreed, and gave us a great deal on the space, which includes AV and bar staff. We had no audience, no budget, and no speakers. Two years later, we’ve held more than eight Dynamic/MTL events, with 26 of the most inspiring and creative speakers in design, tech and creative fields. Interest in the conference series has ballooned with each event and continues to grow. Looking back on our experience, we can identify a few things that made it successful.
Here are some replicable ideas for any budding event organizers and large established conferences out there:
It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Or, JUST DO IT
The idea of a design event is not for the risk averse. There are many sunk costs, including venue fees, travel and accommodations for speakers, and of course, the most valuable expenditure of time. The risk of the event being a giant failure is always looming. Dynamic/MTL was fortunate to have been “incubated” within Dynamo, a digital agency in Montreal. Dynamo’s founders believed in the event enough to pay for the first edition in October 2014. It was a gamble, but losing a few thousand dollars seemed less drastic knowing that at least one great event with potential was to come out of it. After a successful event, convincing sponsors to support you is that much easier. Rather than being worried about what might happen, just go out there and make it happen.
Don’t f$*# with the format
A successful event has to run like clockwork. It is a delicate mix of logistics, speakers and timing all working together to ensure maintaining a captive audience. We went with a tried-and-true speaker format perfected by AIGA/NY—three presentations followed by a panel discussion. We made it our own by always showcasing international speakers along with like-minded locals, adding drinks and mingling to the mix at an accessible ticket price. The opportunity was there for the taking, as prior to Dynamic/MTL, Montreal had no highly produced yet affordable evening design events that were equal parts inspiration and happy hour. If you’re interested in reproducing a similar type of event, take a look at your local conference scene to spot an untapped opportunity.
Go beyond local
We have a strict rule to keep the Dynamic speaker panels diverse. Far too often, we see largely white male speaker rosters at design and tech conferences. We vowed that Dynamic/MTL would be different with distinguished speakers from all walks of life. As an upstart event, it would have been easier for us to go with all local Montreal speakers. Instead, we choose to fly in a wide range of talented speakers from around the world and juxtapose them with Montrealers, highlighting local creativity alongside top global creators. Seeing big personalities like Eddie Opara, Tobias van Schneider or Ann Friedman in your hometown is a huge draw for our community.
Practice hospitality and generosity
At Dynamic/MTL, we strive to give our speakers an unforgettable experience. It’s important to consider the value of a speaker’s time, especially if they are traveling from abroad. They have to put aside their work, fly to another country and prepare a showstopper keynote. That’s a lot to ask. The least we can do is cover the flight, accommodations and anything else the speaker may require. By the end of the evening, most speakers have been swept away by the attentive treatment they’ve received and the general good vibes surrounding the event.
If you build it, they will come
The audience showing up is essential to any event’s success. You can pull out all the stops, but if no one’s there, the event is a failure and will probably not happen again. Appealing to your audience is a delicate mix of some of the points listed above. It’s about delivering a great experience with top-speakers a reasonable price ($20 in our case). The event should be a response to your community’s needs. Of course, there are saturated markets out there such as NYC or SF, where the same formula would not be as successful. Read the crowd and find the speakers that will be most relevant to your audience. If you give them value and inspiration, you’ll have a sold-out show each time.
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