Events Businesses Are Paying Off for Publishers

But Field Faces Beginning to Face the Same Clutter Problem Plaguing Traditional Ad Sales

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While publishers struggle to mine revenue from their core print operations, their events businesses are starting to look like a comparative gold rush.

In June, Fortune magazine is introducing a half-day London version of its three-day Most Powerful Women Summit. It will be the 14-year-old conference's first venture overseas, with an Asian iteration following in the fourth quarter. Fortune is also raising attendance fees on the summit's U.S. edition in October by $2,000, to $7,500. And it's holding an event May 7 that 's tied to the annual Fortune 500 list.

President Obama at Fortune's 2010 Most Powerful Women event.
President Obama at Fortune's 2010 Most Powerful Women event.

You can see the appeal from Fortune's perspective: Profit from events rose 63% last year and is expected to grow 55% this year, according to a Time Inc. executive. Its Global Forum -- typically held every other year -- will return in 2013, this time in China. The function could help double the event division's revenue from an estimated $15 million this year.

Fortune's stages attract speakers such as President Barack Obama, Warren Buffett and Facebook No. 2 Sheryl Sandberg, and streaming video means the various confabs can reach many more people.

They also give advertisers something compelling to buy other than ad pages.

"Events give you the ability to actually meet people on the ground, the ability to influence and gain thought leadership from others," said Esther Lee, senior VP-brand marketing and advertising at AT&T.

As more publishers succeed in the field, however, they risk a problem that has dogged traditional ad sales: clutter.

"There is truly what I would call an almost unmanageable proliferation of events," Ms. Lee said.

Some marketers are responding by getting more deliberate about where they invest, according to Elizabeth Baker Keffer, president of Atlantic Live, The Atlantic's events division.

"I am seeing the underwriter community starting to concentrate their resources," Ms. Keffer said. "Because of the plethora of events, they're saying, "Let's see which ones are working for us.'"

The Atlantic, whose activities include the Aspen Ideas Festival every summer, has "ambitious" growth plans, Ms. Keffer said. They include expanding its 3-year-old Washington Ideas Forum and two events, Brave Thinkers and The Atlantic Meets the Pacific, rolled out last year.

It also has designs on Silicon Valley. "We have two [events] on the drawing board and hope to get at least one off the ground," Ms. Keffer said. "And our big hope is to do something on a global stage."

Events now account for 17% of The Atlantic's revenue, vs. 14% in 2009. That is a higher share than at most magazines, but that may change as publishers expand their event businesses more quickly than they can grow print.

The swath of print-affiliated extensions vying for audiences include the Women in the World Summit from Newsweek and The Daily Beast; O You! from O, The Oprah Magazine; The New Yorker Festival; The New York Times' TimesTalks; and the art-centric Creators Project from Vice Media and Intel.

Creators Project functions in New York, Beijing, Paris, Lyon, São Paulo and Seoul attracted more than 560,000 attendees last year, according to Vice. On March 17 and 18, Vice and Intel are hosting the project's first San Francisco event.

And don't forget other players, including TechCrunch Disrupt, the D Conference from Dow Jones' All Things D website and broad-based conferences such as South by Southwest. AT&T is a big sponsor of Most Powerful Women and South by Southwest.

Some events charge for admission, while others depend entirely on marketer support. Sponsorship models also vary.

"We do many big, integrated programs where [an advertiser] will sponsor an element of the event and do parallel print and digital, and sometimes custom elements," said Jed Hartman, group publisher at Fortune. "In addition, some companies focus on different things, such as live events rather than print-and-digital strategies."

If some of print's challenges are following publishers into the events space, at least some of its strengths are tagging along. Fortune's venerable brand and extensive reach, for example, help it garner prestigious speakers, large audiences and marketer support.

"There's no question that there are more events than there were, say, 10 years ago," said Andy Serwer, managing editor of Fortune. "In one sense we welcome the competition, and we're flattered that other people are coming to the space. Having said that , we have a big head start in many instances."

Marketers' move to concentrate their resources has benefited The Atlantic, an established brand with a well-defined following and more events experience than some, Ms. Keffer said.

"The competition, the clutter and events being commoditized is an issue," she said. "We focus on trying to remain unique -- even as the field has gotten more crowded -- by differentiating through our content."

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