Hosting a conference is not an easy task. And I find many similarities to run a startup. You need funding, a strong team, a concept, a business model, traction, marketing and execution.
Therefore I would like to share my insights in organizing one of Europe’s first and largest conferences for Artificial Intelligence in Berlin: Rise of AI.
It started small a few years ago. At the beginning we where 15 people meeting at cbase in Berlin for one evening. We discussed Ray Kurzweil and his theory of the Singularity. I decided to give the concept a greater platform to reach more people. I hosted the first Rise of AI meetup with 70 people and then six months later again with 180 people. Both evenings we had great talks and a waiting list of 700 interested ones. There seemed to be a demand.
So far so good. I decided last September to make Rise of AI a full day conference. Mainly because I want to place Berlin on the map for Artificial Intelligence, to connected the greatest minds and to prepare humanity for the upcoming Rise of Artificial Intelligences.
Like with a startup, you beginn with the team.
A small and powerful team
I didn’t think much and asked my wife right away. She is an event manager for 10 years and runs her own agency for digital clients. I have the vision and network, but she has the operational skills. We can call her the COO, while I took over as CEO & CFO. My task was the program, speakers, partnerships, website, financials and ticket sales. Veronika was in charge for every other detail like catering, location, design, HR or furniture. While it sounds minor, she did the major part of the work.
We worked together not only, because she is a professionell and has great experiences. Additional because I like to work with those, who I trust. I run my investment firm with my father; my conference with my wife and my political activities with my sister.
Pick the right date
You will never find a date, where there won’t be other events. However I tried to avoid events the same day, where my potential guests would rather go to. Therefore I compiled a list of 200 events and analzed their ticket prices, content, strategy, target group, partners, place and date.
Conference season begins in September and Ends in June. We opted for May, since Berlin is the most beautiful in May. Additional there were no larger AI conference announced for May at this time.
Find the a location which fits your needs
Normally finding a great location is tricky. Most event spaces are too small, too expensive or already booked. It takes a lot of time to research them and to visit the spaces.
We finally chose the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin. It was perfect, since it has room for 350 people and fits wonderful to the storyline talking about Artificial Intelligence. Where else can you speak about the future when not at the place, where it was created? For example you could see the (re)build of the Z3 there – the first programmable computer build in the 1930s/1940s by Conrad Zuse.
No concept no conference
Similar to a business plan, you need a concept for you vision, mission and milestones. Who do you want to target? What shall be the content? Who can speak about these topics?
I have worked for months on the concept and it never has been finished. It was important for me to have a storyline:
- What is Artificial Intelligence?
- What is the Future of Artificial Intelligence?
- What are the implications of the Rise of Artificial Intelligence?
First we start in the present, then speak about the future and its consequences.
Furthermore it was important for me to invite those, who know something about AI (scientists and entrepreneurs) and to connect them with those, who would like to learn more (politicians, journalists, top level managers).
In retrospective I have to admit, that politicians do not care for the future, technologies and Artificial Intelligence. Each of them passed on us.
The media was more interested, but inviting journalists sucks. The had the highest no-show quota (people who have a ticket and do not show up). First (many, but not all of them) write you an email with demands. Then they threaten you do write a negative article in their (dying) newspaper, if you do not invite them FOR FREE. Third they get a ticket but do not show up.
I have made better experiences with bloggers.
Content is King
Like for SEO, content is king at conference. Most conference I have visited (>100), the content was not strong enough. Therefore I intended to change that.
I prepared a long list of speakers and checked everyone of them: personal interview, hours of youtube talks, obtaining references and narrowing down possible topics.
That was the part of the organizing, which I enjoyed most. Within my network I was able to win many speakers. Since I am active in the Artificial Intelligence industry, it is easier for me to judge the competence of possible speakers.
By the way it is difficult to win comparable qualified female speakers. There are just significantly more men in the AI business. Nevertheless we emphasized to integrate woman in our content program.
Additional it is hard to find a lighthouse speaker. A lighthouse speaker is someone, everyone knows. The only person everyone wanted to see, was Elon Musk. However even I asked Elon politely, he did not react. I understand that. I would be busy too, if I would build rockets, autonomous cars, send people to Mars, work on Brain Computer Interfaces, dig tunnels, stop the AI apocalypse and fight global warming.
Winning partners is sales
To win a partner is similar to customer sales. If you get a deal, everyone is happy. However it takes a lot of time to make that happen. Sales Cycles were between 2 weeks and 4 months. I had to speak with hundreds of peoples before we closed it down with four partners (KPMG, IBB, HTGF, Axel Springer). I am very thankful for their support, since they helped us to pre-finance the event.
As usual I created a CRM, a lead list and funnel for sales. Partners received from us a combination of tickets, branding and content collaboration.
Always be selling tickets
Really. Sales almost never stops. You start on day one with crazy early bird and most often you sell until the event day. However we were lucky to be sold out a few weeks before the event.
I loved the moment when eventbrite sent me an email, that someone bought a ticket. It reminded my at my former business of selling wedding-dresses. I guess successful sales gives you a boost of dopamine.
There is no golden rule how to sell tickets. Even I tried a lot, no channel was scalable and 100 % trackable. Therefore I used a combination of discounts, personal invitation, facebook, adwords, SEO, cooperations and word-of-mouth. If you know how to sell tickets easier, please let me know.
Events are expensive
For a one day conference you can spend >100k €. If you care for the security and well-being of your guests, nothing should be cheap.
First you need a location and for >350 people, the costs are often 10,000 € to 35,000 € per day. You need the location one day before (for installation), during the event day and one day after (disassembly). That makes three days you have to pay for.
Second catering is expensive. You have to calculate between 50 € and 100 € per person per day, depending on the quality. If it is cheaper, you should not eat it.
Third you have to pay for the electronic equipment. You need a stage, screens, monitors, lighting, beamers, wiring and several technical people during the event and the days before and after.
Then you have to rent furnitures, chairs, tables and lounges. They have to be shipped, assembled and disassembled.
You need some funding for performance market. Additional you should treat your speakers well.
You should not forget insurances, since you rent equipment worth millions. You have to pay fees for certification, applications and safety concept.
Next you have to hire the temporary staff. That includes hostesses for check-in, cash desk, cloakroom, beverages, food, speaker management and cleaning. Additional you need security guards before, during and after the event.
Additional there are hundreds of minor costs, which will show in your profit loss statement: like designer, printing, name tags, logos, garbage collection, event app, speaker presents and floral arrangements.
If you do not have experiences with events, you will most likely forget plenty of things you need. Furthermore there is the risk, that service contractors will not offer you the best possible deal.
You have to pre-finance your conference
To reach break-even is hard and a very important milestone. However more concentration you need for the liquidity management. Ticket sales tend to come in late but most costs occur before. You have to make advance payments for furnitures, equipment and service providers. Additional you face the risk, that one of your service providers go bankrupt and you lose your money.
On top the costs are always higher than expect. Insurances, fees, paper work and other unexpected expensive will have to be paid.
Therefore it is important to have partnership and sell early bird tickets. Even the early bird tickets are sold with a negative contribution margin.
An interesting side fact is, that most guests get the maths wrong. They take the highest ticket price and multiple it with the expected number of guests. The truth is, that 95 % of guests go for the cheapest ticket, 4.8 % buy the middle one and 0.2 % take a premium ticket.
We got something right
It was right to work with my wife. She is a great business partner and I could not have done it without her.
It was right to start early. After the event is before the event. No time to loose.
It was right to give everything. You are never finished.
It was right to invest in content and great speakers.
It was right to support networking amongst our guests.
It was right, how we did marketing. I really do not know what worked well, but since we were sold-out, something had worked.
However we have areas to improve
Mistakes are made. I messed up the ticketing system internally. Instead of creating tickets for speakers, partners, media, team and paying guests; I sorted the tickets from business perspective (going after price). That made operations a bit more complex.
Additional I underestimated the amount of late ticket buyers and partners. Many people wanted to join, when we were sold out.
It is interesting to observe, that even you invite people every month for half a year, they “forget” to buy their ticket and then ask for it on the day of the event.
Some people do not read emails and then complain about lack of information. Do they expect I call them? Sorry, but we don’t have an AI for that yet.
We had a system with catering coins. The idea was to provide food and beverages faster. However it did not work out as expected. We won’t do it again.
Speakers were great but limited in depth. I have a long list of topics I was not able to cover. For 2018 our program will try to fix that.
Our target group was not narrow enough. We had a wonderful mixture of people (corporate CEOs ate lunch with Transhumanists), but for networking that was not optimal.
Rise of AI 2018 – learn how to apply Artificial Intelligence
What are our next steps? Preparation for 2018 has already started.
For 2018 we would like to grow to 500 people – again in Berlin. I will introduce a second stage for more depths.
Stage one will be for Artificial Intelligence Vision:
- What is Artificial Intelligence today?
- How to create ethical and safe AI?
- Consequences from the Rise of AI for society?
- Strategies and Use of AIs
- Regulation and support of AI systems
- Should AIs be allowed to lie?
Stage two will be for Artificial Intelligence Applied.
- What is the progress in deep learning and transfer learning?
- How do I build an AI?
- How do I use AI in my company?
- Use cases from experts, who have build AIs before.
In case you would like to joins us for Rise of 2018, then sign up at www.riseof.ai to get an early invitation and the best offers.
Following some impressions: