Jason Taylor is a madman, even at 8,100 feet. While many of his fellow conferencees gasped for breath in the thin Vail air, Taylor commanded the room possessed with the energy of a Boyd Crowder, the wild-eyed, tow-headed preacher criminal of (Elmore Leonard’s) Justified.
Taylor sells neither religion nor rowdiness. He sells events. He is high on events, a Barnum & Bailey events promoter of the 21st century. And, he’s a newspaper guy. Just celebrating his sixth year as president of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, a WEHCO paper, the small chain run by early paywall advocate Walter Hussman, Jr.. Taylor is in the events vanguard.
Sure, Tina Brown just won a new round of notice, leaving Daily Beast and devoting herself to her new Tina Brown Live Media company. And “events” as a revenue strategy are seemingly everywhere nowadays, at the Times, Journal, FT, dozens of metros, public radio stations, the Texas Tribune, and many magazines. But the zeal Taylor brings to the idea — and his success — is worth noting.
But first let’s put the events business in a little perspective. It’s nothing new. But it’s been mostly been business-to-business business, with B2C events and conferences run largely by companies that specialize in them. In fact, about 10 percent of all marketing money in the U.S. is spent on events of one kind or another, amounting to $40 billion or more, according to Outsell research. Of that, $17 billion is spent on B2C events; in the B2C realm, that’s 6.5 percent of overall marketing spending.
Now news publishers are waking up to the potential. Why? It’s part desperation, as the ad business has forced them to push into all kinds of “alternative revenue.” There’s also the high-tech/high-touch angle: The more we go digital, the more we crave actual human connection, it seems. It’s the connection between the written word and the spoken word — from publishing to event to…more publishing. It’s a circle of reader usage, and publishers are starting to round it. If you speak the language of brands, call events “brand extension.”
The Times Free Press now puts on 12 big events a year, making “direct events revenue” 11 percent of its retail revenue, generating well into the seven figures in income; “indirect events revenue” contributes another three percent. Taylor, an ad guy by trade (now 39, he became an ad director at age 23), has made events a centerpiece of the sales push in Tennessee’s fourth-largest city.
His success has led to — of course! — an industry event. On November 3 to 5, the first annual Event Revenue Summit will be held in Chattanooga, sponsored by the Southern Newspapers Publishers Association. The price tag: $949 — which may be a bargain if publishers can replicate just a fraction of Taylor’s model.
There’s a lot of logistics necessary to making an events business successful. One key ingredient is passion. Listen to him describe the malaise surrounding the news business: “I get on a plane. I’m in the newspaper business. And they say, ‘Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh.’ They want to send flowers,” he told an industry group at the annual Vail Roundtable recently. “We’ve got our people excited. We’ve got penetration, brand, and creativity and we’re in the 86th biggest DMA. Mom and Pops [events companies] can’t come in and leverage. Use what you got.”
Competition isn’t an abstraction to Taylor: “Others will swoop in and take money out of our markets. If you don’t take advantage of events, shame on you. The Southern Women’s Show is an interloper,” he says, talking about the rival events company Southern Shows that produces 19 kinds of shows in 11 markets. “I don’t want them in Chattanooga. I came out with a better women’s show. We have to say no.” It’s the kind of fervor that tells us something about how to reassert newspapers’ roles in their communities.
The business model is straightforward. While many publishers are focused singularly on event sponsorship money, Taylor works both traditional ends of the newspaper business: merchants and readers.
Whether it’s a big service show or a major community-recognition awards dinner, all events have overall corporate sponsors. Then, in addition, the expos (senior, bridal, women’s, kids) sell booths to exhibitors. The banquets (“Best of Preps”, “Best of the Best”) also sell tables to companies. All events are paid admission — as little as $5 to more than $100 for a VIP entrance.
So there are two significant revenue streams at play here: businesses and individuals. The newsonomics of the Chattanooga model are intriguing ones and worth study by all publishers into or getting into the events business. The events gospel according to Jeff Taylor:
Where is this all going? There’s plenty of room for creativity; the Austin Chronicle has just sponsored its 11th annual Adult Spelling Bee, with an added inducement: “Worried about stage fright? That’s what $3 ZiegenBock drafts are for.” We’ll have big, intellectual events — think the Atlantic-sponsored Aspen Ideas Festival, or The New Yorker’s — and we’ll have many that help people with the little events (marriage, family raising, retirement) in all their lives. The common denominator is engagement.
For publishers, from the Chattanooga Times Free Press to the fast-innovating Atlantic Media, it’s all about breathing new life into the business. In fact, Elizabeth Baker Keffer, president of Atlantic Live, tells me that The Atlantic’s events idea really germinated about a dozen years ago, out of the experience Keffer and Atlantic owner David Bradley had with both the Advisory Board Company and Corporate Executive Board. Both those B2B businesses utilized events to deliver research and make money. So they adapted the events ideas to The Atlantic, as Bradley bought it in 1999.
“We created a third dimension to our business [after advertising and circulation],” says Keffer. We wanted to get our editors and publishers out to an audience.” Finally, it’s about bringing to life what can sometimes seem like stodgy nameplates: “We wanted to animate the brand.”