Cannes, Coachella, [Your Event Here]

Inside the “festivalization” of corporate events

Allow us to set the scene: You’re sipping a beer and reliving your glory days at a Black Keys concert. After the gig, you grab some birria tacos from a cheffed-up food truck and head over to catch a movie screening and Q&A with Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt. Next morning, you’re up at 8am for… a keynote conference speech?

This isn’t your best friend’s bachelor party— it’s a trade show. SXSW, the corporate event so cool that even A-list celebrities attend, started out as an industry event for music and media back in the ‘80s. Since then it has become the epitome of the movement towards ‘festivalization’, where previously staid business events (yes, even trade shows) are injected with celebratory festival feels. 

Festivalization may sound cool (who doesn’t want to eat tacos with Ryan Gosling?), but what does it actually entail from an event planning perspective? Will the trend help corporate events teams hit their revenue and pipeline goals? And is it even realistic for many events teams to pull off? 

We’ve been hearing about festivalization for a while now, so we put our detective hats on and dug into this event trend. After all, if there’s a party going on somewhere, we want an invite…

What makes the festival model effective

First, let’s dig deeper into the precedent set by SXSW. 

Started in 1987 as a music-industry trade show, SXSW evolved into the perfect model for a large-scale, fully-festivalized event. Upon registering, attendees can choose from 24 different “tracks” that include Tech, Advertising, Creator Economy, Film, Government, Transportation, Sports, and Psychedelics. There’s an accompanying Film & TV festival, as well as a music festival. Keynote speakers from across industries (think Barack Obama and Tilda Swinton) draw packed crowds every year. And attendees can eat, drink, dance, and mingle to their hearts’ content. In summary: SXSW is a weeklong party with some networking and educational programming built in.

It’s hard to speak for everyone, but even the most skilled event teams might get a little antsy if they had to coordinate Hollywood stars, Barack Obama, and hundreds of food trucks. A big, multifaceted event with a full slate of talent and a long list of partners requires a lot of (expensive) production work, complex logistics, crisis management, and other tasks that may stretch the bandwidth and budget of many event teams. But most importantly, event leaders may wonder, Is it worth the hassle? Can you even drive revenue from this kind of event?

It’s a good question. In reality, leaders have to already be fully bought in on events to even try out festivalization. But the risk is worth it in several meaningful ways. For hosts, festivalized events offer:

  • A competitive edge in a world of online events
  • More authentic networking opportunities
  • Stickier brand awareness
  • Individualized experiences

A competitive edge in a world of of online events

Festivalization is not common for corporate events, and when it is implemented, it stands out. It also offers a compelling alternative to the convenience of digital events in a WFH world. Let’s face it, many of us would not put on our hard pants for a standard trade show; but for SXSW, we most definitely would.

More authentic networking opportunities

Instead of forced socializing in a hotel bar, festivals offer a multitude of locations and opportunities for spontaneous conversations. A comedy show, for instance, or a spa pop-up.

Stickier brand awareness in a celebratory atmosphere

Events are always a great way to create positive associations with your brand in people’s minds. By inviting fascinating speakers, partnering with cool sponsors, and creating content from the event, you can boost brand awareness from a festival for months after the stages have come down.

We collected together even more fun ideas for corporate events here.

Greater opportunities for a personalized attendee experience

As marketers learn more about the complexity of decision-making and customer journeys, personalized experiences have become table stakes. Events marketing is no different. Festivalized events are jam-packed with programming, meaning attendees can curate their own schedules to their interests, explore topics outside of a typical niche, and discover new products. 

What does festivalization look like in practice?

All festivalized events are tailored to the organizations producing them, as well as the attendees who register, but there are some common features we see across the board:

  • Diverse speaker lineups
  • An atmosphere of innovation
  • Local culture woven in
  • High entertainment value
  • Foodie heaven
  • No heavy selling

Diverse speaker lineups

Festivalized events often have a speaker line-up that goes beyond the event organizer’s industry.  For example, Dreamforce, Salesforce’s premier event, includes keynotes from journalists, politicians, musicians, and actors to bring fresh perspectives and engage attendees on various topics.

You don’t have to bring in celebrities to captivate crowds. The theme of Dreamforce ‘23 was AI, and many AI professionals spoke on the wide-ranging effects of the technology.

An atmosphere of innovation

Emulate the energetic atmosphere of TED conferences by fostering an environment where attendees feel inspired and engaged by intellectual topics. Encourage interactive discussions, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities to stimulate creativity and collaboration.

Local culture woven in

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE)’s annual conference is not just a chance for EdTech entrepreneurs to showcase their wares, it’s a summit for educators and businesses to come together. 

The ISTE conference is always city-based and takes advantage of the urban location to leverage different venues for attendees. For 2024’s conference in Denver, the events schedule includes daily museum trips, tours, and field trips, alongside its talks, labs, workshops, and expo exhibits. These “offsite” adventures add depth and excitement to the event.

High entertainment value

Coachella is Coachella for a reason: it’s nonstop, wall-to-wall (well, outdoor) entertainment, from its headline shows to playground-esque brand activations, to the ability to camp on its grounds. OK, OK, we know that Coachella is far from a B2B trade show. But (hear us out!) B2B corporate events can also incorporate entertainment elements to enhance the attendee experience, even if they don’t have the budget to bring in Billie Eilish. 

For example, you can host local talent such as singers, dancers, and artists alongside your main program, allowing attendees to unwind and interact with creators while enjoying live performances, and getting to know the host city better.

Foodie heaven

Many festivalized corporate events go way beyond the obligatory food truck experience. For example, in 2023 Fast Company Innovation Festival featured a series of “Taste of Innovation” dinners, personalized culinary events that were tailored to specific niche attendee groups. An expensive dinner at Michelin-starred Le Bernardin brought executive attendees together, at the same time as a taco spot dinner for those looking for a more down-to-earth dining experience.

The lesson here is that festivalization opens the door for innovative, personalized attendee experiences, mediated through communal dining.

No heavy selling

No matter how subtly, you’re hosting this event to promote products and/or services. Atlassian manages to do this while staying on theme for their festivalized flagship event, Team. The event offers over 100 sessions and activities, all loosely connected to the concept of “teamwork.” In 2024, the keynote speakers included the creators and stars of Ted Lasso, who spoke about teamwork in the writers’ room. But they also included the company’s founders, who introduced new Atlassian products in the context of team growth with AI. 

By incorporating these festivalization elements into your corporate event planning, you can create immersive, memorable experiences that mark a distinct turn away from traditional industry conferences, without leaving your attendees feeling like they’re being sold to, or have just sat through a pitch.

But wait! Can festivalization really impact the bottom line?

A festivalized event is part of a long-term strategy, and marketers and executives need to align on that before moving forward with planning one. The upfront investment is higher than a traditional B2B event, both in terms of effort and finances, and may not deliver immediate ROI.

So why make the leap at all, if you’re a B2B enterprise company? Because you’re here to solve your audience’s problems and make their lives better, not just sell them your product or services. 

No matter how subtle the link between a film fest and your service or product, a festivalized event contributes to positive associations with your brand, deeper relationships, and thus greater trust with your core audience. 

This can have many positive ripple effects, such as increasing participant engagement and likelihood of repeat business, increasing word-of-mouth promotion, contributing to a longer customer lifecycle, and more. 

However, festivalization is also complex and requires a dedicated event strategy to pull off, as well as years of building relationships with partners and sponsors, something which we address in the next section. 

That all being said, if putting on a festivalized event doesn’t sound like tons of fun, your budget is simply too tight, or your overall business goals are focused on short-term growth, full-on festivalization may not be for you; but it might still be worth borrowing some elements of a festivalized event to drive differentiation and unexpected experiences for your attendees.  

How brands and sponsors show up at these events

Connecting the right sponsors and partners with the right attendees enhances the festival experience, and makes sure your events model is profitable. This means that event hosts need to find creative ways to seamlessly weave in partners with ticketed programming.  

Twiggy Goldberg, Associate Director, Experiential & Marketing Partnerships at Vox Media, manages partnerships for Vulture Festival, one of Vox’s tentpole events. For Vulture Fest, there are multiple budgets Twiggy’s team works within to make sure the event is a success and that partners are happy. “We have wonderful partners that we work with year after year,” she says, which gives the Vox team some added flexibility. “They’re familiar with what we’re putting on and know ways to do it sustainably.” 

For those on a tight budget, sponsorships and in-kind exchanges can also be a great way to incorporate festivalized event elements without breaking the bank. Creative sponsorship packages can even offer sponsors the chance to support some of the unique, festivalized elements of an event.

Twiggy explains how Vulture Fest has leveraged that kind of mutually beneficial sponsorship opportunity. “Sponsors can come in and kind of sponsor these different ‘moments’ throughout the festival.” She shares some examples from the past: a photo opp with human-sized gummy worms, skincare giveaways, and sponsored DJ sets.

It’s [all about] making sure that everything looks cohesive, and still giving the brand its moment.
Twiggy Goldberg | Associate Director, Experiential & Marketing Partnerships | Vox Media

Measuring revenue for festivalized events

For all the potential revenue channels you can create from a festivalized event, you have to be prepared to tackle a complex event schedule and invest deeply in brand-building initiatives that may not deliver immediate ROI.

That means baseline metrics, like ticket sales or attendance rate might not move enough for ROI to be obvious on the surface; but when you look at larger business objectives, like pipeline or customer retention, a more positive picture is likely to emerge. 

Still, if those aren’t the metrics your events are measured by, it’s important to keep a closer eye on what’s feasible in terms of budget and output.
If you’re not sure whether your revenue leadership team is ready to hear about event festivalization, you can use Swoogo’s Event maturity model as a guide to determine where your organization fits in event revenue maturity, and whether festivalization is a conversation that’s likely to go smoothly.

To pull off a festivalized event, companies need to:

  • Have moved beyond a transactional relationship to a more personal one with customers
  • Be able to afford non-revenue generating event elements, like musical acts or non-standard food offerings
  • Have the bandwidth to manage several simultaneous events with vastly different partners, while maintaining a high-quality attendee experience

Therefore, festivalized events are best for those further along (stage 4 or 5) of the maturity model. 

Bringing fun and adventure to business event experiences

Corporate events can and should be fun, inspiring, and entertaining, as well as revenue-driving. Weaving festivalized components into an event allows event teams to craft personalized, once-in-a-lifetime experiences for attendees. These cohesive, themed events are the future of events, and if you have the resources to build your own corporate version of SXSW, Coachella, or Vulture Fest, you’ll be ahead of the curve. 

Whether your next business event is fully festivalized or a more scaled-back affair, Swoogo can facilitate your next event.