Turbocharged Takeoffs: The Why and How of Fast Event Launches

By Michelle Bruno
November 7, 2023

Like fast food, fast cash, fast fashion and every other fast product, fast events (exhibitions, conferences, brand activations or fan-based events launched in six months or less) serve a valuable purpose. There are lessons in the fast-launch world that even traditional, business-to-business organizations can learn from.

Organizers who drink the fast event Kool-Aid® have their reasons. Lance Fensterman, former vice president at Reed Exhibitions, past president of ReedPop, and now CEO at Fanatics Events, finds himself in a completely different event culture.

At an event company, “there’s an accepted rule of thumb that it takes about a year plus to build a show,” he says. But running the event arm of a brand that can “design, manufacture, sell and ship a product in 24 hours” obliged him to challenge past assumptions.

Fast launches are just some of the events Fensterman plans to execute. They will complement a portfolio of other medium- and large-scale events:

“We’ll apply firsthand learnings [from fast launches] to the larger events we’re building, as opposed to forming a hypothesis, building an event over 12 months and hoping all goes well,” he explains.

Fast launches help smaller, more nimble organizations exploit the white space that other companies can’t quickly act upon or justify the investment in because their profitability and sustainability bar is too high. Moreover, being first to market can give organizers a significant advantage.

Fast launches can also help organizers take more calculated risks later by allowing them to develop reusable tools and skill sets to respond to trends and conditions in the moment. “Otherwise, we might sit on the sidelines and say, ‘yeah, we can’t move that fast,’” Fensterman admits.

Fast launches are the kinds of things entrepreneurs do, asserts Marty Glynn, CEO and partner at MAD Event Management. But rather than being part of a predesigned blueprint, they’re more like “seeds,” he says. “Once you plant them, you have to wait and see what grows,” he says.  

Recently, Glynn and his partner Martha Donato launched Thriv in Atlantic City. MAD aimed the event at people with interests and aspirations that differ from those in the earlier stages of their lives and careers.

“We were trying to create a new paradigm for consumer shows for a particular age group that's not targeted and instead it turned into something completely different in the process,” Glynn says.

Sometimes, a fast launch is an opportunity that’s too good to pass up. Emerald signed a deal with the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the first NBA Con in April of 2023 and launched the event in July to coincide with the NBA Summer League, a ten-day convergence of the NBA ecosystem featuring the newly drafted rookies, veteran players, coaches, recruiters, scouts and brands.

The icing on the cake for Summer League 2023 was that the top NBA draft pick, Victor Wembanyama, was scheduled to appear, and the league was going to announce a new tournament. “The timing was right,” says Ron Walden, senior vice president of strategic partnerships and DEI executive-level advocate at Emerald.

Fensterman’s fast launch plan, which he refers to as an “expeditionary” marketing strategy, is to “send somebody out into the wilderness with a couple of ideas, pop them up as quickly as we can, and see what we can learn,” he explains. With content as the primary driver of all Fanatics events, he’ll launch events in 300- to 800-seat venues with experimental formats and media personalities and iterate from there. 

Sometimes, the resources for a fast launch fall naturally into place. NBA Con is a prime example:

“What allowed us to move forward comfortably was that we already had a venue. We had a marquee event and an established market with hundreds of thousands already in the marketplace. We had a significant and capable partner in the NBA. The rest was up to us to activate logistically, and we thought we could get it done,” Emerald’s Walden explains.

NBA Con is not just any event. “It’s an event associated with an iconic, global brand with very high standards and an extremely loyal fan base,” says Walden. Even with significant elements for a successful event at the ready, it required a Herculean effort on Emerald’s part to pull off. “We were able to temporarily tap super talented folks working on other parts of our business to help us deliver on marketing, sales, operations and content.”

Launching fast has some downsides. In Fensterman’s case, as a startup operation lacking in human resources and market data, he’s prepared to “sacrifice a bit of margin” in the beginning. “We’ll make higher short-term investments [by hiring agencies] until our knowledge base allows us to make longer-term investments around infrastructure and capabilities,” he says. 

Finding venues, many booked out months or years in advance, is another challenge for fast launches. Fensterman addresses that issue in a couple of ways. “If we have a strong sense of the event we’re building and the types of communities we’re building it for, we can be flexible about [the location].” He’s also open to targeted acquisitions, joint ventures or partnerships with organizations “already in the market, doing things we admire, in venues we want or need and that we can work with.”

Glynn finds available space through partnerships with venues in second or third-tier cities open to experimenting with event organizing—a type of “third rail, sometimes,” he says—but not unheard of in cities willing to take creative steps to be noticed by future paying customers. 

Launches of any size are inherently risky, Marty Glynn says. And without the kind of cash that, for example, private equity has injected into the event space, small to medium organizations that attempt fast launches must be financially creative. MAD Event Management uses revenue from various lines of business—consulting, owning several consumer events and managing the events of other organizations—to fund their “seeds.”

This type of funding comes in handy for fast launches—especially those in the business-to-business trade show space:

With fast B2B launches, “You don’t get to have a sponsor universe at that stage. You don't necessarily get to have an exhibitor community because the attendee is undefined, and you never follow somebody's budget cycle. So, typically, it's a needle in a haystack,” Glynn admits.

Emerald had to make tradeoffs for NBA Con too. Conceived as a celebration of sport, music, fashion, culture and brand loyalty, the organizers had to work within the constraints of musical artists, celebrities and partners that were available, could allocate budget and deliver merchandise on a punishing timeline. And although the event was well received,it was an “only I know my shoes hurt my feet” endeavor for Emerald, Walden says.

While the ten-week launch of NBA Con was a harrowing, don’t-try-this-at-home experience, it was personally fulfilling for Emerald’s Ron Walden. Having developed the concept nearly five years before but unable to participate until this year, he wasn’t going to let the NBA down, he says. 

A lot was riding on the success of NBA Con for Emerald also. “[NBA Con] is the cornerstone of what will be a b-to-c category in our Xcelerator pillar, allowing us to replicate this type of event in other sports industries,” Walden explains.

Fast events are central to the experimentation and risk-taking an industry needs to evolve. In the absence of an industry-wide, collaborative effort to incubate new event concepts, the practice is left to a handful of intra and entrepreneurs willing to pull a rabbit out of their own hat. 

And for event professionals like Marty Glynn, there’s a certain thrill in doing something a little risky and audacious, like launching an event on a dime (perhaps literally). He likens it to the question posed in a Steve Martin movie. Would you rather be on a rollercoaster or a merry-go-round?

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