Bitten founder Naz Riahi on how to plan a conference

Later on this month, creatives from across the country will descend on Chelsea, New York. They’ll be there to listen to thought leaders talk about the future of the food industry at Bitten, a conference with a mission to shake up the conversation around food and open the culinary world up to a wider audience.

The first conference took place in New York back in 2005. Tickets sold out a week before the event started and on the launch day the team found themselves fielding off ticket request from people willing to pay cash to get in.

The person behind it all? Naz Riahi, a 30-something woman who turned the experience of being fired from her last role in advertising and marketing into a big opportunity. You see, Bitten isn’t your usual conference. Naz has made it her mission to introduce you to the kind of founders and businesses you may not have heard of, but who are the forefront of what’s next in the industry. They break down their successes, failures and not just what they’re doing but how they’re doing it, too.

Planning a conference isn’t easy – there’s multiple moving parts at any given time and they often take a year or more to organise. You have speakers to think about the overall program, not to mention the logistics of sponsors, venues, selling tickets and building a stellar team. That’s precisely why we caught up with Naz to help break everything down. If you’re thinking of hosting a large-scale event, think of this is your blueprint.


Bitten founder Naz Riahi on how to plan a conferenceTHE CREATIVE PROCESS FOR BRINGING A CONFERENCE TOGETHER

Sometimes this process feels very linear and logical and sometimes it’s pure chaos. The conference is just one day, so most of the year, I’m reading about food and food innovation and food and culture and meeting with a lot of amazing creative people over coffee or lunch. It’s through these interactions and this research that I find my speakers.

Next, I go about trying to curate the talks, figuring out everyone’s area of expertise and how they can inspire the audience through their work, knowledge or experience. That’s really key. I don’t want anyone on stage who is going to give a sales pitch about their start-up. I want every speaker to share a piece of themselves and be vulnerable to make the audience feel something.  To that end, I work closely with my speakers on refining their talks.

The rest of my time is spent doing producer things, like securing a venue, finding our partners, building relationships with brands for sponsorship and getting the word out. I speak at a lot of conferences and a lot of panels, as well as consult with large food companies and start-ups, which, little by little, helps Bitten grow.

It might sound insane, but it takes me a full year to curate the event. I put a lot of thought into it. I make sure that everything is to the benefit of the audience and that speakers have an optimal opportunity for success by giving a great talk that people will share on social and tell their friends about. Most of the year the work is quite casual. But the last two months are hectic and I have Bitten on the brain 24/7.  That’s also when the anxiety dreams start. I so don’t want to disappoint anyone and that fear really manifests in my dreams. I once dreamt that the day of the conference I was sitting in the audience, in a full auditorium waiting for the first speaker to go on when it dawned on me that I had forgotten to book the speakers!

ON TAKING THE BEST ELEMENTS OF EXISTING CONFERENCES FURTHER & HOW SHE CURATES THE PROGRAM

I’m a conference junkie and Bitten was very much inspired by conferences like TED Talks and PSFK. What I loved most was the energy of the audience. How eager they were to learn and to connect and how open they were to being inspired. I also loved that I could go to a conference and learn something from someone who wouldn’t normally cross my path.  I found that those interactions were the ones that generated the best ideas for me and sparked collaborations. That was one of the main reasons I founded Bitten. I wanted to give people the opportunity to take a break and reenergize and be inspired. I chose food because it’s become a pillar of pop culture and it affects everyone whether they work at a food company or not.

I’m open to everyone who is doing work they love, who is changing the world for the better, who is willing to be vulnerable about their experiences so that others can learn from their challenges and failures as much as from their successes. But one thing I consistently saw missing from every other conference I’ve attended or hear of is equal representation of women and people of colour. I believe that as someone with a platform, it is my duty to work as hard to make sure my stage isn’t 90% white men. This year’s bitten conference speakers are half women and half people of colour. That’s important. Politically, it’s important to make space for minorities to have opportunities and to be heard. I’ve never been to a conference that wasn’t a “women’s conference” that had an equal number of women (not by a mile) to the number of men speaking. Same goes for POC. As someone who has a stage and a microphone to offer, it is my responsibility to make sure I give equal access. This is not always easy because most VCs are run by white men and they fund mostly projects by white men and so most start-ups/restaurants etc. are founded by white men. The other part of this is purely selfish. Diversity is important because it brings stories and perspectives to the front that we may not normally hear. It makes for better programming for me and my audience.


By taking in-kind sponsorship you are setting a bad president that brands don’t have to pay for access to all of that magic that you just created. Click To Tweet


HOW TO GET PROMINENT SPEAKERS ON BOARD

Honesty and direct communication are very important. I don’t often work with people’s publicists or agents. It makes things complicated. The best speakers I have are those I’ve approached who are excited enough to communicate directly with me. This can be the CEO of a massive company or a really popular creative. That said, I also never have anyone on my stage for celebrity. I know that sells tickets but I’d rather introduce my audience to a cool person or project they wouldn’t otherwise know about.  In terms of getting people on board, I usually just write a short and to the point email explaining who I am, what Bitten is, that I’d like them to speak and why. Don’t overcomplicate, don’t fake flatter, none of that.

My speakers are incredibly kind, generous and down to earth. That’s why I love working with them. They realize that Bitten isn’t a huge corporation with deep pockets. I’ve only ever had one speaker ask for a car (and it was very indicative of this person’s personality). I also had the team of a potential speaker (someone I’d reached out to just to get the conversation going and see if there was potential there) ask if we provide hair and makeup. When those things come up, I realize that I’m not a good fit for that speaker and they are not a good fit for me. I like easy relationships, those that are based on respect and mutual excitement about each other’s work.


Bitten founder Naz Riahi on how to plan a conferenceTHERE ISN’T A ‘PERFECT’ MONTH TO HOST A CONFERENCE

It really depends on the conference, topic and location. For the first two years, we hosted Bitten NYC in February. That was great, because winters in NYC are sometimes so long and people are looking to get out and do something that will revitalize them. But, it was too stressful to host a conference during a season when we could have had a storm that would shut everything down. That’s why I moved it to October. It’s generally good to steer clear of holidays, long weekends and similar events.

ON THE BIGGEST FINANCIAL CHALLENGES OF PUTTING A CONFERENCE TOGETHER & HOW TO CREATE A REALISTIC BUDGET

Everything is a negotiation. Bitten operates on a shoestring budget. Yes. I’d love to have money for tons of decorations and the most lavish catering, but the truth is, I don’t. I don’t want to be wasteful – as a result our event isn’t an Instagram exhibit – but it’s also important not to buy a ton of props and decorations that I’ll discard. As far as costs, most things you pay for in advance, some things you pay for right after. We usually have great sponsors who help us and our tickets sell fairly quickly, so that enables me to pay for everything in a timely manner.

I budget for the things I know I’ll need: venue, catering, producer, graphic design, PA, video, etc. Those costs are usually about the same and at this point, I think I’ve seen every venue in NYC so I know which ones cost how much and how much space they have, etc. I always start with the venue and go from there. My producer, Rubina Shafi, has been with me since the start. She’s an incredible resource and partner in putting on the event. So I know her fee already. Same with our PA. A lot stays the same. After that, I throw in additional line items for surprise expenses because you never know. It’s better to expect to plan for paying ore and have leftover money than to go over budget. 

I wish I could talk to you about typical margins in the conference space. Big events like TED Talks have probably figured this out and know exactly what to expect. With Bitten, I literally never know. So much of it is dependent on how many sponsors I get and how much money they are willing to spend to be a part of the event. I adore my sponsors to no end. They make this conference possible. But the same time, the sponsorship game is a really challenging one. Brands can get a lot better ROI buying Facebook ads. Partnering with Bitten is a brand positioning opportunity and a chance to showcase how cool you are, but not everyone gets that. It takes someone with a deep understanding of brand value. More and more I’ve realized that I have to make Bitten profitable without sponsors. That’s a challenge I’ll be working on this year. 

HOW SHE SECURED HER FIRST SPONSOR

My first sponsor was Mailchimp. I filled out a form on their website and they set up a call with me. Shortly thereafter they agreed to support us. This was before I even had a venue or a full speaker line-up. It literally blew my mind.  And it made me really scared. Because suddenly I had a check from a brand and now there was no turning back. I had to do this thing I’d said I was going to do. It made me both hustle and believe in myself. I didn’t want to let them down. Mailchimp continued to sponsor Bitten, giving us more funding each year, for three conferences. This is the first year they haven’t been our partner and it’s an understatement to say that I miss them. Mailchimp is also unique because they don’t ask for anything in return. Not social posts, or tickets or to have speakers at our event. I once asked them what I could do in exchange for their generous support and they said, “put on an amazing event.”

I always tell my sponsors that I’m open to their suggestions. I want to build long lasting relationships so if someone wants something I don’t have listed on or haven’t thought of, I’m definitely open to hearing their idea and making it happen.


Bitten founder Naz Riahi on how to plan a conferenceTHE ONE THING TO AVOID WHEN PLANNING YOUR SPONSORSHIP STRATEGY

My advice to anyone who is going to put on an event and recruit sponsors is simple: keep it authentic (for example, don’t sell sponsorship for log on a lanynard. Laynards are a waste anyway and that’s not meaningful), and don’t take in-kind sponsors. You are putting on an event, putting work into designing, curating and producing this thing. If you’re doing a good job, it’s a lot of hard work. It’s tears and fears and all of that, as the event gets pulled together. You are gathering an amazing audience who have paid to be there. By taking in-kind sponsorship you are setting a bad president that brands don’t have to pay for access to all of that magic that you just created. That they can showcase their amazing product to your audience and not help subsidize the cost of tickets. It doesn’t just hurt you in the long run, it hurts the entire industry. I would rather have pitchers of water and clear cups, than bottles of water from a brand that didn’t support us financially and help us put on the event. It’s not easy to turn down free stuff, but it is essential to do so.

HER STRATEGY FOR SELLING TICKETS AND SPREADING THE WORD

I start promoting about 6-8 weeks out. The first few years we invited a lot of really cool Instagram photographers and they helped us spread the word. Now, it’s mostly word of mouth and through some incredible press including Refinery29, Cool Hunting, PSFK, etc. Bitten has sold out every year so far, but it’s not yet to a place where it sells out over night or even in a week so I continue to push out emails with great content leading up to the conference, and I email individuals who I think will enjoy the event. I also tap into my friends and board and speakers, and ask them to share with their networks. It’s a lot of hard work. I think if our tickets were $20 or $50 we’d sell out in a heartbeat, but we can’t afford to sell at those prices and we value having an intimate event where people can connect and build relationships.  

When people decide to buy varies depending on the price of the tickets, your audience and the location of the event. Our experience in Los Angeles was very different to New York or Boston. Most of our audience there didn’t want to purchase until the night before. It was very stressful in terms of planning for catering etc.

HOW SHE’S USING THE CONFERENCE TO FEED INTO HER OTHER BUSINESS VENTURES

I consider the conference an extension of my creative practice. It’s curation and a gathering and there is a voice to the event and purpose. So, in addition to that, I’m working on some dinner experiences that I would consider to be an artistic endeavour. At the same time, Bitten is very much a platform for my paid work which is as a brand strategist. I work with big brands and start-ups and advise on company strategy, product design and market disruption.

I am approached by a lot of super cool CPG brands and restaurant groups, as well as agencies for consulting projects. It’s allowed me to be picky with the clients I choose and work with people I really want to work with. I never want to be someone who comes in, hands over a bunch of research and then walks out and leaves the client hanging. I do high level thought leadership that can be incorporated into brand strategy. I help brands work on their communication and with product design. I also curate custom Bitten events for brand partners and I am launching a bi-monthly subscription report about the business of food, full of insights, interviews and trends.



ON TAKING THE CONFERENCE FROM NEW YORK TO LA

LA is bursting with so much culture right now. It has been for some time. And the food scene there is one of the best. Add to that a growing start-up hub and a whole lot of creatives. It just made sense. I lived in LA for a few years and really wanted to go back with this thing I’d created. In part to tap into all the innovation and creativity the city is fostering, but also because there was demand and people kept asking me to put on an event there and I wanted all of my LA friends to come see what I do! That conference ended up being one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I learned a lot and if I were to go back I would probably host smaller, shorter events or maybe host something on a weekend. On the positive side, our venue was incredibly beautiful, the audience was so energetic and generous in their openness to the experience and we had Jonathan Gold! And one of my best friends, Maude Standish, gave a great talk about the convergence of food and sci-fi and my oldest friend from Seattle came to help me out. It was beautiful how it came together. You can see photos on Instagram at #BittenLA.

THE HARD WORK IS WORTH IT

In some ways, my life was easier when I was planning the first event and didn’t know what to expect. I thought hosting a conference would be so easy. Just get a few sponsors and invite a few speakers and the audience would come. That was incredibly naïve. If I had known how hard it would be, I never ever would have done it. So, I’m glad for that naiveté.

That said, knowing how hard it is, doesn’t make it any easier. I do this because every day I have an email in my inbox from someone I don’t know asking when the next conference will be. I do it, because that moment when everyone takes their seat and the speakers begin their presentations is magic. I can’t believe that I’ve built something that allows me to enrich and inspire other people’s lives. It’s never easy, but it’s always incredible. 

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