From silent discos to burger battles: How events are driving Time Out to profitability

Events have become a more attractive option for publishers keen to get closer to their audience.

For Time Out, which started as a city guide, events have always been core to its brand. According to the publisher, it’s been evolving them over the years to make events a bigger part of its ad proposition and grow its e-commerce line, rather than adding incremental revenue to drive it to profitability.

In London this summer, the publisher is putting on Time Out’s Eye-Openers, 24 events inside the capsule of the London Eye, including drag queen acts and yoga sessions; Movies on the River, a floating cinema on the Thames with a takeover to celebrate Midsummer sponsored by Rekorderlig Botanicals cider; and other events including silent disco at London skyscraper The Shard and Battle of the Burger in New York. Last year, the publisher ran nearly 800 global events — up from 250 the previous year — for 150,000 attendees.

“It’s a combination of our brand and our content,” said Christine Petersen, CEO of Time Out Digital, part of Time Out Group. “Brands can interact with our customers in a 360-degree way.”

In March, Time Out hosted its annual Mac & Cheese Smackdown in New York, its largest event yet, where 13 cheesemongers fed 2,000 attendees their dishes. Tickets to the event cost £42 ($55), and it was sponsored by Jack Daniel’s, whose goal was to get its drink into younger people’s hands.

In Time Out’s annual report, ticket sales from events fall under e-commerce revenue, which was up 57 percent in 2017 to drive 19 percent, or £7.3 million ($9.6 million), of Time Out Digital’s total revenue. Event sponsorship falls under digital advertising revenue, which grew by 19 percent last year to make up 31 percent, or £12 million ($15.8 million), of Time Out Digital’s revenue.

Petersen said events are a core driver of Time Out’s e-commerce growth, driving over 400,000 e-commerce transactions in 2017, including restaurant bookings, theater tickets and other product lines, up 33 percent from the previous year.

As the types of events vary, so do the sponsorship objectives: For Jack Daniel’s, the goal was getting the drink in younger people’s hands. For others, the goal is driving social reach. “If you’re not a brand that people follow, it’s all about the Instagram moment,” said Petersen. “It’s incredibly powerful if a sponsor can get into the Instagram moment tied up with Time Out.”

The danger with events is they can be low-margin and hard to scale, and publishers looking for a quick fix to stem falling ad revenue will come unstuck. “It takes strategic decision-making,” said Richard Gillis, managing partner at Havas sports and entertainment agency Cake. “Sometimes publishers shy away from bold decision-making and investment.”

Time Out doesn’t pull in a sponsor for all events, instead working with third-party providers on a revenue-share model, as it does with Hornblower Cruises for its boat trips in New York. How many events work under different models will affect how much further it can grow.

“Movies on the River is extendable: a boat, a movie rental, a sponsor with a beverage — that’s rinse and repeat around the world,” said Petersen. “You can look at everything as quite bespoke, or you can come with systems. It’s key the events stay fresh and interesting, but not constantly reinvent it. We could do Battle of the Tacos in two years.”

Time Out Group doesn’t break out head count beyond its total of 400 people globally, but Petersen said a small team primarily based in the U.S. and U.K manages events, with outside help from production companies when needed.

Sustained growth at this rate will be a challenge, said Gillis. “You don’t want to get into a scale game to drive growth. Something else has to happen,” he said. “Value is a feature of scarcity. The price will go up if you create more value in each event. There’s no reason they can’t do that, but it’s harder with 800 events than with 250.”

Petersen said events are starting to intersect with Time Out Markets, which are part of Time Out Group but managed separately from Time Out Digital, opening up more ways for brands to reach Time Out’s audience.

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