Everything You Need To Know About Hosting In-Person Events With Rich Brooks

I am so excited to introduce you to my most recent podcast guest! Rich Brooks is the founder and president of Flyte New Media, and he is an expert in all things entrepreneurship, digital marketing, social media and so much more! Rich has an annual conference called Agents of Change that he has been doing for the last 8 years in Maine, and I wanted to ask a little more about it! Because no matter what type of business you have, whether it be a local small business or an online business, I strongly believe you should be hosting in-person events. So today you can expect to hear us talk about speakers, sponsorship’s and seats. Let’s dive in!

We’re going to be talking all about in person events and I know a lot of times in the online world there are so many people talking about virtual and online and why online is better. But I’m excited to go back to the basics and talk about events and I know you’ve got some amazing things to share, but before we dive in can you give a little bit more of a background with your story and that entrepreneurial journey you’ve taken?

Rich Brooks: “Sure. How long shall I go?! Two hours? Three hours?! So the short version is twenty two years ago or so I was working for another company just doing marketing in-house and realized that I really just wanted to focus entirely on digital marketing and this was not the right company to get it done. They actually wanted to move me into another position and I ended up going to their Christmas party and in the Christmas party they had a psychic. She told me that I needed to start following my gut and I’m like whoa that’s really interesting…and my gut told me this Internet thing was going to be a big deal back in the day before the Internet was a big deal. So it’s kind of revolutionary. So anyways, I started designing websites out of my apartment. I ended up moving to Maine, continue to do that out of my apartment, started to get busier, hired employees, ended up moving into real offices and now twenty two years later I own this digital agency called Flyte New Media and we work with small to medium sized businesses and entrepreneurs.

We design and build websites, we do search engine optimization, social media, all this sort of stuff and along the way I just loved doing presentations and about 11 years ago, me and a couple of friends ended up deciding to put on our own event. We ran that for three years and after the band broke up I decided to basically launch a new conference and I called this conference The Agents of Change. I’m a huge comic book nerd from the moment I came up with the name Agents of Change, I had this vision of like three agents, one representing search, one representing social, one representing mobile marketing and that’s really what I wanted to talk to small businesses and entrepreneurs about and we’re now planning our eighth annual Agents of Change Conference coming this fall in Maine.”

That’s so amazing! So what brought you to Maine? I know you said you moved there and then started your agency.

Rich Brooks: “I had wanted to move here for a while. I just read this article about this consultant who would come into businesses to really understand what motivated employees and where they wanted to go and one woman’s like I want to live in a small shack in Maine…that sounds ridiculous. Well the small shack part doesn’t actually let me think and I don’t know it just clicked and I had some friends up here and I just started regularly coming up here and and there was a girl involved at the time of course, of course, and that caused me to kind of pick up from Boston and moved to Maine and never looked back!”

I love it! It’s always nice to know where you were coming from and what happened before. Let’s talk about these in-person events. I mean eighth annual…wow! I’ve been doing mine for four years and I can only imagine twice as long. What have you learned? What have you experienced, because every year there’s so many learning lessons.

Rich Brooks: “So yeah sometimes I wish there weren’t so many lessons but but they exist nonetheless.”

They do because I think you think, wow, we’ve been doing this for so long but we’re getting larger and every time we get larger there’s new things that pop up. So I love that we’re talking about this because I really think whether you have a digital business or a local business, in person events are such a great way to get your name out there get new people in the door how people find out about you. The connection in person is so much stronger than online. So I think it’s a really great thing for everybody to be listening to today!

Rich Brooks: “Absolutely and I think that there is an argument to be made that it’s important as an attendee to go out and go to conferences. But you know when people ask me like why do I put on events especially because I’m into digital marketing, it’s because it’s a lot of work. I mean that’s really the truth. It’s not a lot of work to put up a post on Facebook or an update on Twitter or LinkedIn and it’s not too much work to write a blog but putting on event it’s a lot of work. Because it’s a lot of work your competition is less likely to do it and that’s actually I think probably the best thing about it is it’s not a simple thing to do and it’s not easy to outsource but if you’re doing it for the reasons I do it, which is basically to generate leads and to make a little bit of money maybe along the way. I think it can be very powerful for you.

Over the years I’ve started to kind of hone what we’re doing and now that we’ve been doing it for so long we do have a lot of things in place that we can recycle from previous years. But even if you’re starting from scratch I usually talk about three things that any business owner should focus on if they’re thinking of starting their own event and for me I call it the three S’s and it’s speakers, sponsors and seats. So speakers are obviously who’s gonna get on stage with you if anyone. Sponsors are going to be anybody who can help underwrite some of your costs and then seats are how do you fill up.”

I’d love to ask you some questions. So one thing you just said is you know when something’s hard it’s a less crowded space and I always tell people that when they come to me they say oh Facebook changed again and I always say listen. the harder it is the less competitors we’re going to have so get excited when something is a little difficult. Even though events can be hard work you can also put systems in place and things that you’re going to be talking about today are going to really help our community so I’m excited about this. Let’s dive into each one of these because I think all three of them are very, very important and I want to get your opinion on a few of these. I would love to hear the evolution of Agents of Change. Did you just start it by yourself? Did you already have speakers in the beginning? Let’s talk strategy behind speakers a little bit.

Rich Brooks: “So for me, my personal journey was I had actually decided to never put on another live event ever after social media hefty w year three round. I’m just like it’s exhausting and I just I don’t know if I can do this again and by chance that night I went to an event where Chris Brogan was and I went up and I introduced myself. Chris…that’s Rich Brooks and he said Rich we’ve met 20 times already, I think I know who you are, you can stop introducing yourself! He’s like how did your event go yesterday? Oh my God…Chris Brogan knows I have an event?! I told him about it, he’s like I’d really like to get involved. So right then I was like I’m going to put on another event and that’s that’s actually part of the birth story of origin story of Agents of Change. But so I knew that I was gonna do another event and I knew I was going to base it initially around Chris Brogan and then from there I knew what kind of events I liked and I hated too many breakout sessions at the time and I wanted to have more of like not exactly a single track. But I got to know Derek Halperin who is a very popular well-known speaker or well-known entrepreneur and at the time he was doing a lot of speaking and Amy Porterfield and I was able to convince all three of them to come and do my event and that was pretty big deal for me but also my events in Maine.”

Amy was willing to come out, she swear she loved it and she’ll never come out again on the trip and Derek was just in New York so I think the bottom line is you know I had a connection with him and the first few years it was asking friends I knew and saying hey would you come out or people come up to me and say Social Media Marketing World, I hear you’ve got an event, I love Maine and so it just kind of all connected for me now. So a lot of times at the beginning it was friends, people who I could get to come speak but in Maine people aren’t wowed by speakers. You know it’s not the biggest driving force. So when I look now because we’ve definitely tried different things when we try to approach that was a single track that was based on the Tonight Show with live music and deejays and we brought people over to a desk to answer questions. It was a lot of fun but the model that we settle into now is get a big name upfront for an opening keynote, a big native the end and I usually put myself in the middle and then the rest of the day is breakouts and we bring in a wide variety of different experts.

I’m really focused on the topics. So for me it’s topic first, speakers second with few exceptions like I knew I wanted Mark Schaefer and so I was able to convince Mark to come out but that was really because Mark’s going to be great in any topic he speaks on. If you’re an entrepreneur, if you’re just starting out, you’ve got your own event, you have to think about who’s going to compliment you. You do have to be aware you know, you don’t necessarily want to bring up your best competitors if they’re better speakers than you and maybe better than you if you’re doing this for the reasons I am which is to ultimately raise my profile and generate business for Flyte. But the bottom line is, if you want people coming back year after year you have to continually bring in new speakers who are really good at their job and one of the tools that I use is this podcast so I interview people like we get requests now all the time. I don’t know about you. Nobody gets on the stage without getting on the show first.

So if you want to come on the show, pitch me on what you’re going to be talking about and then if I like somebody then I kind of add them to this list in my head or actually spreadsheet of people that might be good for the next year’s event. Then it just comes down to you know who I think is going to do a great job, who’s been on the show and then also are the topics being covered you know every year I need to have a few topics that we’ve never done before. So this year we’ve got a breakout session on Alexa flash briefings and we’ve got another one on chat bots which we’ve never done before. So you know those are some things plus we always want to do something on a show or something on digital advertising so we’ve got our our classics and our new stuff.”

A couple of really great things that you said there when you’re talking about those complimentary speakers and bringing in people that you want to make sure they’re not your direct competitor completely. Now if you are a brick and mortar and you’re thinking of other in-person events that you’re hosting, we do this at our at our locations and obviously I’m not speaking but I do bring in other businesses but I’m strategic about that I’m bringing in as complementary businesses. So this really goes back and forth to online and brick and mortar but with these speakers it sounds like everybody that you’re talking to you’ve been building relationships, building connections before, maybe these days you’re much more well-known like you said and people are pitching you but a few years ago or when you first got started it takes a little bit more if you’ve got to use your connections and reach out to people that believe in your vision and want to help. So I assume this is getting easier and easier for you as time goes on.

Rich Brooks: “It’s funny that you say that! In terms of the speakers, I never worry about getting the speakers and I actually belong to a mastermind of other regional event planners and we just happen to have one earlier today and one of the other women just finished one of her events and she’s already ramping up for next year and she was asking questions about who do we go to and how do we get things for her it’s a concern like me she always wants to make sure that she’s delivering the best possible speakers and you know we have a habit of we don’t pay our speakers but in time we do. Certain speakers get flown in, most speakers get a nice hotel, dinner, all that sort of stuff and we try and treat them with respect. But you know this isn’t a huge conference and so depending on the size of your conference you need to decide am I going to pay for speakers to come in? Am I going to buy a copy of their book for everybody? What are the things that are going to get them to do it? So there’s a little bit of negotiation that might go on once you get past that inner circle of friends who are like, o course I’ll fly across the country for you no problem right?!”

Right. I think people might be thinking wow, you really don’t pay them and it depends. There’s a lot of different events and things out there and some are not paid and people are shocked when I tell them this is how it works or this is the type it is. But yeah it just really depends and I think a lot of times too when we are building relationships and are involved in masterminds and things like that we are definitely returning the favor and helping out our friends. So it just depends on kind of what world you’re living in in the moment.

Rich Brooks: “And Social Media unfortunately or fortunately has a habit of not paying its speakers and you know I’ve been on but I’m on both sides of it because I like to speak and hey I like to get paid so I understand if I’m talking to somebody and they’re like Rich I can’t do it for less than $10,000 and I’m like I totally understand but I can’t make those numbers work so I’m on the podcast which doesn’t cost us anything we’ll go forward from there. But, you have to make your own business decisions and when you’re just starting out with an event your money is going to be tight because you’re not sure if you’re getting the sponsor dollars or if you’re going to fill that auditorium or if it’s even as big as an auditorium so I’m a big fan of starting small and then you can kind of see what direction you want to go into.”

My my biggest thing I always tell people is I wish I would have started with calling it something like a workshop because I feel like the pressure is off. But when you call it a conference or a bit like a live event then all of a sudden I think people have different expectations. I’m always saying start small and then it’ll grow as it grows. You can decide how big you want it to get.

Rich Brooks: “Absolutely. I don’t know that I wanted to get a bigger, I mean it’s 400 people when it sells out that’s pretty big for me. One thing I want to tell people is it doesn’t matter how big it is, if it’s 12 people but it’s the right 12 peers and you’ve won.”

Absolutely, I could not agree more! If it’s the wrong 400 people it’s not going to work. So 100%, it’s not a volume game at all. Let’s dive into sponsorship. I want to ask you how early did you get sponsors and people are always thinking they aren’t big enough or asking what do I need to do. So we’d love to hear your opinion on this!

Rich Brooks: “So I hate asking for sponsorship. It’s literally my least favorite thing to do because I can sell all day and all night. Sponsorships are so nebulous that I struggle with selling them. There’s actually a woman out there, Linda Hollander, who is kind of like the person for talking about sponsorship’s but I will tell you like what I’ve done, first of in my second or third year of Social Media, I hired somebody who is supposed to help us bring in sponsors and they brought in zero. The only sponsors we got, we got Constant Contact who I had already developed a really strong relation. They sponsored us the last two years of Social Media and they sponsored us for the first five or six years of Agents of Change and then they got bought out. That changes everything. So what I do these days, is still a struggle. I found a bank, a local bank that really believed in our vision and they sign on for like a three year agreement. You can get somebody signed on trial or agreement. I would never even have thought of that. Here’s the thing and this is what I learned from Linda actually, stop treating it like you’re sponsoring an event…treat it like you’re sponsoring a brand.

This is a whole other tangent but they became like basically the Tostitos of the Tostitos ball as far as our conference was. Their logo is everywhere. They’ve since asked to shift that money into a new endeavor. For that we’re working on together something we’re calling Fast Forward Maine which is a whole different thing but it’s like it was developing that relationship. That’s really what got it started. So some of this has been personal relationships for sure some of this has been just happenstance. This email among a marketing company called Convey, a local company reached out to me and said You know I want Constant Contact out of there, I want you using us right around the time Constant Contact was bought out. I would also say those have been really good and that’s literally why we are able to keep doing it like sponsorship at this stage, this size it’s required.The other piece of it is we do a lot of barter work. So we worked with almost every local TV and newspaper over the years sometimes multiple ones if it’s just barter sort of stuff. We have a networking event and Shipyard Beer gives us free beer and pizza, which was rated the best pizza in the state of Maine, gives us free pizza and my buddy actually owns a distillery. So now we have free spirits as with the networking events they get some free promotion and free tickets and we get basically an open bar with free pizza which of course everybody loves! So that’s been really good. We wanted to give branded water bottles out this year. We found a local company called Crest Line that was willing to do a barter for us for that. So I mean it’s just been, I would say barter sponsors are in some ways even better than paid sponsors. I mean they’re both good. T bottom line is you can get a lot of bang for the buck especially if they’re interested in attending the event right. It’s like you get them to attend the event and you know it’s like I get $500 of pizza.”

I hope my community is hearing the relationships, the connections, the collaboration because it’s a really big part of any part of business but definitely when you’re talking events and collaborating like this.

Rich Brooks: “In fact we’re trying to double down on it. We realize that it’s not about scaling big. It’s about making those relationships even deeper. And so this year we’re talking about doing more video promotion and one of the ideas that we’re looking at doing is going to each one of our sponsors and doing like a video promo from their place like going to get pizza and if our pizza is listening you haven’t talked about this before but being like let’s see how they’re making the pizzas. Let’s go to Shipyard Brewery and take a tour of the brewery. So I’ll go to my buddies Split Rock Distilling and show how they make the bourbon. You know that sort of stuff, that’s really cool. Obviously they’d love it. We love it. It’s good and I also have sponsors or advertisers but I don’t want the people in attendance to see them as advertisers. I want them as partners because that’s really what they are.”

I loved when you said it’s not about sponsoring the event, it’s about sponsoring the brand. That was a big big takeaway for me because we’re naturally doing it. We just had Tailwind come and sponsor our event and I wanted to help them more than just the event. I said let’s do a podcast together, we’ll talk about social media throughout the year. So I think it just it’s such a win-win when you can have it more about the brand and not just this one day to day event. Let’s talk about the last one, seats and for me I know when I started this was the hardest. Just getting people in the door and filling up those seats. So let’s kind of dive into that a little bit.

Rich Brooks: “This is a tricky one and you know we’ve had good years and we’ve had some off years and you know it does get challenging. I think the challenging thing is it’s not like you’re zeroing in on exactly what works because every year it changes and it used to be email was like just you know a gift from the digital marketing guys when it came to selling tickets. But I’ve noticed in the last couple of years that email hasn’t been as effective and maybe I need to be going after other lists all that sort of stuff. In general, e-mail is still the number one source of tickets. Like we always see a burst of ticket sales after we send out emails. That’s a big thing. I would say that you know you want to as much as you can narrow the niche. One of the challenges of Agents of Change is it’s not industry specific. If you can put on an event that’s industry specific people are more willing to go to an event that’s industry specific and they’re more willing to pay more. So that’s something to keep in the back of your mind if you are doing something like this. Besides having our regular Agents of Change thing putting on niche Agents of Change they are real estate agents and something like that. So just the idea out there that we’re going to be pursuing you don’t give that to you.

Obviously you know the email list is a big part of it going back to those people time and time again. I would say we’re also doing a lot of Facebook advertising as well both look like audiences and targeting people. I do a lot of one on one outreach on LinkedIn, usually copy and paste sort of stuff but you know letting people know hey, listen we’ve got this event going on and you’re doing prospecting to find those directors of marketing the social media managers whatever it is and again you know it’s copy and paste but hopefully it starts a conversation. I’ll have a few scripts that I use. I speak at as many local events as I can leading up, gives me some places to talk up the event. Those are definitely some of the ways that we sell we use Eventbrite which is a ticket selling tool which I really like as well. This year we’re trying to create some more videos, we’re going to be playing around YouTube. But you have to keep on trying new ways.

Now again a 400 person event is different than a 150 person event which is different than a 12 person event and ticket price matters too. I mean we feel like we’re putting on a world class event here but we bring in great speakers and have great topics. When I look at similar events around the country they’re looking at somewhere between $200-$500 a day. So I’m like I feel that the day price of $350 is pretty good. $350 is still a lot of money. So another thing we do of course is we have early bird discounts. I’m sure you do as well and then because early bird discounts only allowed you to talk about tickets like twice, like buy tickets now before they go up, we have early bird. We have summer specials. we have August specials, go back to school specials, so every month the price goes up a little bit but it gives us a chance to get back in front of people to say look at there’s still a chance to save $100, whatever it may be and people are motivated by that.”

I was actually surprised how many people were buying tickets the weekend prior to the event. Our events on Wednesday-Thursday and people were buying tickets Saturday/Sunday so that shocked me and not even just local people. We had somebody from Florida by on the Friday before to come to Wisconsin. So it’s crazy how last minute some people are.

Rich Brooks: Absolutely, and we’ve gotten business the day of the event. I have a friend of mine who I couldn’t convince to spend $5,000 on a website but her husband wanted a ticket to the conference, gave it to her she went and before she had left she met with my creative director and ended up buying $21,000 plus a marquee. Then I had other clients who you know because we try and get our clients to come as well we get them discounted tickets. I had one guy who had told me right off the bat he only wants a website, no marketing. After two presentations at the event he walks up to me he goes I was totally wrong…were meeting with you on Monday, you’re totally doing marketing. So for us you know I’m happy to break even on this event and when I say break even I’m also paying for my team’s time. It’s great. But if you have a marketing event that gets you a few different jobs especially the scale that we’re at like that’s well worth it and to have this event that not only gets us jobs but also that ripple effect or that trickle off and where it’s like you know somebody comes in they sign a contract I say, so how did you hear of us at first…oh we go into the Agents of Change events for three years. It’s like wow!

So it’s that kind of stuff that really helps grow your business and again there’s a lot more competition. There are a lot more events out there these days. I won’t say that but at the same time putting on an event at a certain level your competitors just aren’t going to try and do a me too on that one. Right? It really does separate you and it elevates you and limits your brand and I know for me like I make sure that there’s three speakers who get the entire audience outside of breakouts. So my opening keynote, closing keynote and me so now I’m positioning myself whether I deserve to be there or not I’m positioning myself with everybody who comes in, suddenly I’m at the same level in front of my audience and it certainly reflects well on me.”

This has been so good Rich. I appreciate your time and just giving us the details of the behind the scenes! Anything else that you want to wrap up with or any piece of advice for somebody who’s thinking about putting on their own events?

Rich Brooks: “Two things I’d say. One is that don’t be afraid to start small. I think we’ve said this before but this is the key thing. It’s like you do not have to start with the 400 or 4,000 person event. You know if you’re doing this for your business you’re not an event planner or you’re not trying to make a ton of money off the event is start small, get a sense and build your community that way. That’s really going to help you succeed and the other thing I said come out to the Agents of Change conference and see how it’s done! You know obviously it would be fantastic to see you guys. Maybe you should totally come out and early bird tickets are on sale now!”

For more information on Rich’s conference you can go here for more info and if you want to connect more you can find Rich on social, @therichbrooks.

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