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Mixing Work & Play: The Value of Signature Events

March 6, 2012

Brad Svrluga

We’re basking in the glow over here at High Peaks this week, fresh off an amazingly successful event we threw last Thursday and Friday. It sparked some thoughts for me over the weekend about when and how events can be a valuable part of an organization’s branding/outreach/PR strategy.

Every March, we host an event called Peak Pitch. It’s our spin on the business plan competition – a mashup of a ski day and an elevator pitch contest. The concept for Peak Pitch can be credited to our friends at Borealis Ventures in New Hampshire. We hosted our first one six years ago, and based on the trajectory of the first six, I think we’ll be doing this every March for years to come.

This year we had 30 investors and 50 entrepreneurs gather for a half-day of skiing at Hunter Mountain, a couple hours north of New York City. As in years past, we hosted an investors dinner on Thursday night, and then bring in the entrepreneurs (most of them traveling via the early morning wifi-enabled, coffee & bagel serving bus we provide from Manhattan) for breakfast through a late lunch on Friday.

The format is simple – investors wear green ski bibs, entrepreneurs wear blue. We block off a short and simple chairlift at the mountain. Get in the lift line, find a bib of the opposite color, and ride the lift to the top. In that 8 minute ride, entrepreneur gives her best pitch to investor. Get to the top, ski down, find another opposite bib, repeat. If you ski hard, you’ll get about 15 lifts/meetings in 2.5 hours. Then you can meet more people over breakfast and lunch. It’s unique, it’s efficient, and it’s a blast.

It takes a lot of work to get an event like this pulled together (just ask my colleagues Rahul and Tracy, who carried most of the burden), but having done this six times now, there is not an ounce of doubt in my head that all the work is worthwhile. Peak Pitch has become something of a signature event for us – an opportunity to bring our community together, connect casually with friends, and meet amazing new people. And it’s a tremendous goodwill generator. The sort of goodwill that is pure gold, and not easy to come by, in our relationship-driven business.

The value and momentum we get out of hosting Peak Pitch is the sort of thing that nearly every organization would benefit from, and should consider if and how they can achieve.

So why has Peak Pitch become so successful when so many other comparable events fall flat, with attendees arriving with a sense of obligation, not anticipation? I’ve seen a number of organizations pull it off (our portfolio company Ticketfly stands out with their Client Marketing Summit, as well as the trivia night hosted by the Charter School my wife runs – her counter to the traditional fundraising rubber chicken dinner). Thinking across these examples there are a few themes that I think almost any organization interested in a jolt of marketing juice can learn from.

  1. Make it feel like a gift. This is critical. You’re having the event because you want to get something from it. But you’ll never succeed in getting people to just show up en masse to help you out. You’ve got to give them something, and it’s got to be good. We offer people a free day of skiing and a highly structured environment in which to have a rapid fire succession of meetings with potential partners. A gift. Ticketfly offered a free trip to San Francisco, some great parties and music, and lots of collaborative thinking about how promoters could sell more concert tickets. Gift.
  2. Creative and memorable format. Peak Pitch is totally unique in its format. Every investor and entrepreneur has been to several business plan competitions and investor speed dating events before. But the added spice of the ski lift gets people’s attention, drives signups, and creates a unique context for the pitches, leading to more engaged dialogue. Don’t be afraid to take risks and be creative when contemplating formats. We were dead certain that Peak Pitch would be an embarrassing flop on the morning of our very first edition. But it worked.
  3. Make it rich and efficient. People’s time is very valuable. Be respectful of it, and pack your event full of good material. Part of what we communicate to people in inviting them to Peak Pitch is that it’s actually an incredibly efficient format for entrepreneurs and investors to connect. For an entrepreneur who gives up 5 hours at the event we promise them the captive attention of a couple dozen or more potential investors. Where else are they going to get that in 5 hours? This is a critical distinction vs the traditional boondoggle. Sure, it would be fun to play golf and have a fancy dinner w/ a group of peers or prospective partners, but why am I going to give up ½ a day to do that? I need more value than that.
  4. Make it casual, and shift people out of their normal context. Create an environment that is not about sportscoats and slacks. Put people in an environment where they can let their guard down. Who wouldn’t be more comfortable and candid when they’re wearing a ski helmet?
  5. Do the hard work to fill the room with the right people. A creative format and the promise of an efficient program will get people’s attention. But it won’t be enough to drive attention. Particularly in the early years of any event like this, you are going to have to twist arms, grovel, and flat out get on your knees and beg to get people to show up. That doesn’t mean your organization and event aren’t appealing, it’s just that inertia is a powerful thing – left to their own devices, people won’t do new things, regardless how appealing they may seem.
  6. Give people time to interact. At least half the value that people get from programs like this is in the casual conversations that emerge in the lunch line or otherwise around the edges of the core content. There was a fascinating piece in the New Yorker last week about what actually goes on at Davos, perhaps the most signature-ish of all signature events. One of the themes, not surprisingly, is that it isn’t so much about the conference content, but it’s about who’s there and the efficiency with which one can pack his days with scheduled and impromptu meetings. As Larry Summers said, “Everyone comes because everyone else comes.” Achieve that status with your event and you’ve found the Holy Grail.

Signature events are not for everyone, for sure. But if you have an excuse or an idea that will bring people together, they’re often worth the work to make it happen. If you’re at the scale where you have 100+ customers with whom you have deep relationships (a la Ticketfly), just bringing together customers is enough of an excuse.

It’s a lot of effort, but give it a try. When it works out, it feels great.

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