Publishers Say (Surprise!) Events Are a Tough Business

As many big publishing companies make live events part of their business portfolio, they are gaining newfound respect for the meeting-planner role.

Bill Gates speaks at a Wired conference.
Bill Gates speaks at a Wired conference.

Some time ago, we noticed that publishing companies were getting into the events business in a big way. In fact, we highlighted this trend as it related to medical meetings two years ago in a story Executive Editor Christopher Durso wrote about The Atlantic and The Economist magazines hosting their own health-care summits. 

Since then, it’s become increasingly more common for media brands to move from the page and/or screen to the live stage. According to a recent article in Publishing Executive magazine, events are now an important part of the publishing model, because they “have the potential to unlock new revenue, solidify audience engagement, and bolster advertisers’ integrated marketing campaigns.” 

But (surprise!) planning those events is no piece of cake. As a Wall Street Journal blog post — “Publishers Love Throwing Events, But It’s No Easy Business” — pointed out last month , there’s more to it than renting out conference space and charging attendees. “A lot of publishers go into events not realizing how hard events are,” Digiday Editor in Chief Brian Morrissey told the Journal.

Citing stiff competition — too many conferences on similar topics drawing similar audiences — as a major challenge, Morrissey predicted there will be a shakeout in the media events world.

If things go haywire during an event, there’s not really a fix for that.

It’s not just competing events, however, that make the conference business a tougher proposition than publishing, publishing executives interviewed in the post said: There are (surprise again!) those tricky logistics you have to deal with. “If you make a mistake in a story, you can make a retraction,” Jay Lauf, president and publisher of Quartz, an Atlantic Media–owned business site, said. “If you fail to serve an ad, you can make a make-good. [But] if things go haywire during an event, there’s not really a fix for that.”

He added: “There’s no question that events are a complex and precise business, certainly more so than selling advertising is.”

As someone who straddles both worlds, I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.