Deciding an event theme that people care about (and will pay for)

Michael Weiss of Ai4 Conferences gives you the low-down on how to choose the right theme for your event.

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Events… Love ‘em.

Hate ‘em.

Can’t live without ‘em.

I started in the events industry out of college. It was 2012 and I had just joined Bisnow Media, a digital media and events business focused on the commercial real estate industry.

Bisnow is still around, doing a few hundred events each year of varying sizes. They charge $75 a ticket for a 3 hour morning event with two panels, croissants, and networking time.

During my years there, they convened around 50,000 people annually across all their events. What theme did Bisnow choose that people cared about?

For every event Bisnow did, the theme was some flavor of “what’s happening with the hyper local real estate market.” In New York for example, they would choose an event theme like “the west side of Manhattan” that would literally focus on the buildings just on the west side of Manhattan.

Real estate deals are driven by the local and hyper local market, and so keeping up with peers in your community is important to a real estate professional. That theme echoes throughout all of Bisnow’s events and digital content, and it made them flourish.

I left Bisnow in 2015 to pursue my interest of bringing a Worlds Fair back to the U.S. My current co-founder Marcus Jecklin joined me in the effort and in 2016 we started organizing an event called Worlds Fair Nano.

Worlds Fair Nano

WFN was meant to be a mini-Worlds Fair that we would grow into a 6-month Worlds Fair.

At its peak, WFN was an 8,000 person technology fair that provided visitors with an array of technology exhibitors to explore, TED-style talks on various futuristic topics, and fun through a food festival/music component. When we decided to start that event, it was as a means to achieving the goal of creating a 6-month Worlds Fair.

But because we had our eye on that long-term prize, we didn't take the time to ask: which community of people needs an event themed “technology education for the general population?”

Turns out, nobody needed it that bad.

We did four of them across 18 months, two in SF and two in NYC. In total, we  convened 20,000 people, 300 exhibitors, and 250 world class speakers. But - and it’s a key but - we weren’t providing enough value to any party involved.

Worlds Fair Nano failed because we didn’t choose a theme that attracted a community that could add value to itself.

So, with Bisnow I witnessed theme selection done right. I then proceeded to ignore what I witnessed and start Worlds Fair Nano (in my defense, I hadn’t realized the framework that made Bisnow successful at the time. This is one of those hindsight scenarios…). 

With our second event series, Ai4, we got it right. To clarify, “right” in this case is a spectrum and there are others who choose wiser than we. But if 0 is choosing something that doesn’t make enough money to sustain itself, and 1 is financially sustainable, we chose a 1.

Choosing an event theme

Now the question becomes, how did we choose AI as our theme? I’m going to ignore B2C event theme selection and focus on B2B theme selection since the features you look at for B2C would be a bit different.

The key part of B2B event theme selection is recognizing where innovation is happening. Why do people go to a business event? They go to make their company money. They make their company money by:

  1. innovating their product, and
  2. selling their products to people.

By choosing an event theme that focuses on a new area that is making an impact on company bottom lines, it ensures that people will need to both learn about it and buy it. In other words, you’ll have your conference component and your marketplace/trade show component.

The key part of B2B event theme selection is recognizing where innovation is happening. @weissiam #eventprofs


That said, you have to choose a “new area” that has legs. Some technologies may not be valuable enough to enough people yet to support a large event series, like quantum computing or 3D organ printing as examples.

In order to choose a theme that is both innovative and has legs, there are a handful of indicators you can look at: 

  • VC investment / new startups: if an area is experiencing a ton of smart money going into many new companies, it’s a sign that there might be something happening that would be worth an event. 
  • Media hype: if an area is being written about by journalists constantly and the media mentions are growing, it’s another sign that an area is getting sophisticated attention that might indicate a worthy theme. 
  • Corporate adoption: if a certain technology or area of innovation is getting world leading companies to spend money and time on it, it’s a great indicator that the area could sustain an event. 
  • Patents: by analyzing patent trends, you can start to notice which categories of innovation are picking up speed. This is similar to studying startup trends, but it provides another data point to build your case.

By building an analysis process that includes features like the above, you can start to create a robust way to look at innovation. If you run a particular area through such a lens, like AI today or software in the 1990s, each factor you consider will score very high.

For example, a ton of VC money is going into many startups. The media is all over them. Fortune 500 companies are building departments around them. And there’s a steady flow of patent submissions.

These features are by no means exhaustive, but they start to give you an idea for how you can build a strong case for a new event theme.

The other key feature to consider is the current events landscape right around your theme.

You could do the above analysis and think you have a home run, but when you lift your head up and look at the landscape, you might see a million other events all focused on that theme. There could still be room for you, but it might be a tight play.

If you do the theme analysis and it scores high, AND the competitive landscape is a blue ocean, then you may have yourself a $$$ cow.

I hope this proves helpful as you choose your next event theme! I’m always down to talk events, AI, technology, or pretty much anything. You can find me on Twitter @weissiam or check out Ai4 here.