The Story Behind #engage14 with @weddex and @kathrynarceFriday, February 07, 2014
Today's guests are Rebecca Grinnals and Kathryn Arce of Engaging Concepts and co-founders of the engage! Summits. I have been speaking at the engage! Summits since their first event in 2008 and can honestly say there is no other event in the industry like it. As engage! has evolved it has become the template that other industry conferences emulate. Conference producers outside the industry have studied it in order to improve their own non-wedding industry related events. It has, without question, raised the bar for what a professional business-to-business event can be. While many people hear about the fun parties at engage! (it's true -- wedding professionals who have to stay on their A-game every Saturday night sure like to dance), speakers and amazing branded gifts and details (down to the logo printed coffee cup stirrer), what many haven't had the privilege to hear is the story behind how it all started. Today, Rebecca and Kath are sharing their inspiration and a bit of the process for making this dream of theirs a reality.
Where did the idea for Engage originate?
The idea for engage! had roots all the way back to our days at Disney in the mid to late 90's (we cut our teeth starting and growing Disney's Fairy Tale Weddings) when we hosted a series of yearly "Council of Advisors" in which we brought together 25 industry leaders and bridal editors of all the publications to objectively advise us in shaping and evolving the program. This was well before the impact of the internet and it truly was one of the first times these wedding industry leaders and influencers spent real, quality time together in a non-competitive environment. People connected in very real ways, both personally and professionally, which became an added benefit to all involved. This Council featured so many of the amazing supporters of engage! from the very beginning: Marcy Blum, Carley Roney, Sylvia Weinstock, Millie Martini-Bratten, Andy Marcus and the list goes on.
Fast forward to the early years of Engaging Concepts (2001-2007), when as an industry consultant, I traveled around the world meeting and networking with incredible industry professionals as well as speaking at various national, regional and local conferences and events. In doing so, I was often struck at the disconnect between speakers and attendees. There were green rooms for speakers and they were kept separate from the attendees. Often the speakers flew in, presented, stayed around for a few questions at the end and some photo opps and then disappeared. They had special badges that designated them as different from the rest of the group. There was a very distinct line between the two camps. At the same time, I saw that within different segments of the wedding industry, there were a lot of opportunities for local networking but on a broader level. Most of the educational/conference type opportunities were highly segmented – the photographers had their world, wedding planners had their world, caterers, stationers, travel/hotels and many more.
There really was not an opportunity for like-minded wedding professionals touching every segment of the market to gather together and 'engage' with each other in a non-client, open and honest forum that addressed real business issues – not trend focused or 'how to' topics. I remember being at a luxury consumer bridal show on behalf of one of our clients and observing all of the networking happening during booth set up, during the show (seemed as if a good percentage of the attendees were actually other industry pros) and after tear down. But that was not the right environment for it – it was an afterthought. Kathryn remembers being at the Condé Nast Wedding March Event on Madison Avenue around this same time. She was attending a lunch that was supposed to be about 'Wedding Trends and Tips', when the editor asked how many people in the room were brides. Several hands went up, but when she asked who in the room were wedding planners a huge surge of hands were raised. We learned that planners had flown in from around the world to attend this totally consumer focused weekend trying to somehow make it 'fit' for their business.
There were many other signs that kept telling us there was something there and we would talk about it, come up with a plan on what our idea could be and wrote lots of back of napkin notes that we tucked away because the timing was not right or we ended up signing on a new consulting project – you name it. In April of 2008, we learned that a global luxury hotel brand client project, that we had been pitching for over a year and were just about to sign a 40-page contract with, fell through when our point of contact was abruptly fired. I remember that next day Kath looked at me over our daily morning breakfast 'meeting' at the Market Street Café and said – ok, well this means it is time to do engage! - let's just go for it! Six weeks later, on June 3, 2008 at the Celebration Bohemian Hotel, we had a packed room of 75 amazing people who, for whatever reason, decided they believed enough in the idea enough to pay $799 for the day to drive and fly in from 12 states and 5 countries. Included in that room were so many people who we had never met but who we now count as some of our closest industry friend and colleagues (including you, Liene!!). At the time, losing that huge hotel client opportunity was devastating and so disappointing (and a little scary as we had put quite a few eggs in that basket in anticipation of how big the project was for our little company) but it truly was a door closing in order for a much, much more exciting door to open!
Our lives were forever changed!
Engage is unapologetically focused on the luxury segment of the wedding market. Why did you and Kathryn decide to focus on this niche rather than the broader industry?
Well, simply put, we are passionate about all things luxury! After a few years of consulting projects to various levels within the industry – from very mass to super luxe, we realized that it never really felt like work at all when we were working on any project related to the luxury end of the market but that it was much more challenging to get excited about the others. It was a clear and concerted effort on our part to shift into targeting luxury clients – I remember writing that down in a blank notebook one New Years Eve. Plus, with engage! we knew there was a huge appetite for those in the market or on the path to moving into the luxury end of the spectrum to get together and that there was a 'sweet spot' for an event to do just that. No one was focused on a b2b opportunity to unite everyone at the top end of the spectrum, so we went for it.
At the heart of it, we created engage! to be a conference that we would want to attend, and that meant it needed to feel really luxurious at every possible touch point. It really was, and is, still that simple.
You just wrapped the 12th Engage this past December and the 13th event is this June at the Ritz-Carlton in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Can you share a bit about how Engage has evolved over the years?
Well certainly wildly above and beyond anything we could have ever imagined it would be. It really has taken on a life of its own and we shake our heads each day in amazement. Honestly, every time a new registration or waiting list form pops up in our inboxes, we collectively think, "How do they know about it?!" Especially the international sign ups – every time we add a new country we get a bit giddy!
Obviously, the event has grown in size and in complexity. The first event had six speakers and our most recent event had 40. We are at 350 attendees, but have a waiting list for June that tops 300 with five months until the event. That is unreal to us. We continue to try to keep the event fresh and change things up, largely influenced by where we are and who all is attending. Every single event we have done tracks around almost exactly 45% first timers and 55% repeat engagees. That definitely keeps things interesting for us to strike the right balance with everything we plan.
What are some of the challenges you've faced in producing a semi-annual conference for wedding professionals who have seen it all? How have you overcome them?
No pressure, right!? We have really tried not to think too hard about that because when we do, it gets pretty daunting and intimidating. We have learned from so many of the masters in our 25 years of being in this industry so like to think that we are applying much of what was taught to us early on, and to this day, by so many of the true pioneers and leaders in the world of weddings, events and marketing. The training and experience that we both received from our years at Disney are the foundation for everything we do – even 12+ years later it continues to be priceless on so many levels. And the biggest thing of all — collaboration. We could have never evolved engage! without so many amazing creative partners who have allowed us to raise the bar each and every time and continue to surprise and delight not just our attendees, but us. engage! is nothing without collaboration – each event brings on new and impressive opportunities to expand our way of thinking. We spend time every day discussing and dissecting every aspect of the events – past, present and future. We are really tough on ourselves and are always looking for things we can improve, tighten up, refresh, surprise and delight . . . but sometimes, it is just as important to realize what we need to leave alone, because it works. We are obsessed with making every engage! the best experience it can possibly be from the inside out and really do reinvent the wheel each and every time.
What has surprised you the most along this journey?
The power of people connecting face to face in this digitally obsessed world is priceless. We have seen extraordinary outcomes from the most unexpected pairings that might not have ever happened were it not for people spending real time talking to each other in a setting that is not their 'turf'. There is something really special that happens when people come together, check their egos at the door and, with their "heads up and hearts open" to the possibilities of truly engaging with like minded peers (quote by the amazing Carla Ten Eyck in a spellbinding talk the opening afternoon of engage!13 Montelucia).
Our lives are enriched beyond measure with each and every engage! we produce.
Think Splendid will be offering insights and perspectives from Splendid Guests for the months of February and March while I am working in Africa.