Q&A with Len HersteinBy Dan Johnson

CEO and president, ManageCamp Inc.

Len Herstein began his career as a systems consultant for Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). He quickly realized that he wasn’t cut out for programming computers and soon discovered his true calling—brand management. He completed an MBA program at the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University and then served in brand-marketing roles for Nabisco, Coca-Cola and the Campbell Soup Company. During this time, he attended many marketing conferences, and his disappointment with them motivated him to start his own brand-marketing company, ManageCamp, in 2002. Some 70 percent of the company’s business is in the meetings industry.

Tell us more about why you decided to start ManageCamp.

I started to become disillusioned by the quality of the events at the marketing conferences that I attended. They all looked great on paper, but in reality they were being executed poorly, many important details were ignored and they were much more focused on selling and providing a pulpit for vendors than on delivering actual insights that attendees could use. I felt that there was a real opportunity to create events that were focused on the attendees as opposed to the sponsors.

The problem with our industry is that it is very easy to put on an event. It is very hard, however, to put on a great event. Event producers are really able to benefit from thinking like marketers and focusing on the entire experience. When attendees are taking time away from their families and organizations (not to mention spending money), they deserve to be treated like rock stars. It’s the little things that people remember, such as healthy food alternatives, slides that people can actually read and microphones that actually work.

What is the purpose, or mission, of Manage- Camp? What type of services does it provide?

The mission of ManageCamp is to inspire, educate and energize brand marketers around the globe. That manifests itself in our public annual brand-marketing conference (Brand ManageCamp, now in its 11th iteration) as well as in the private conferences/ events that we plan and produce for our clients. In addition to the work we put into planning, producing and marketing events for brand marketers, we are brand marketers ourselves and do brand-marketing consulting for our clients. 

What types of clients do you serve?

We consider every attendee of our events a client, and we focus on delivering each of them an amazing experience. The people who attend our conferences are brand marketers from a wide array of industries and companies from both the United States and around the world. Our attendees represent companies in financial services, pharmaceuticals, consumer packaged goods, automotive, travel, entertainment, restaurants, technology, energy and more.

How many staff members do you have?

We utilize a virtual staffing model that allows us to staff up and down as needed. We have resources around the globe that we tap into, based on the event and/or the project. We have fantastic creative resources, a super-talented Web development team and even folks who do nothing but make presentations look awesome.

Tell us about your conferences and events.

In addition to Brand ManageCamp, we are actively developing two other conferences. We move our events around based on a lot of factors. Of course, when we are planning an event for clients, they often dictate the general geographic location. When planning our own events that draw participants from all over [the world], we tend to look for places that are easy and reasonable to get to from the majority of places in the United States. We take into account availability and cost of direct air travel, as well as proximity of venues to the airport, since we’re looking to keep costs and extra travel times to a minimum. When considering venues, we look at a l lot of things, including amount of space available, quality of space, room rates, and F&B quality and cost.

What have been some of the struggles that you’ve faced in starting a new business, and what struggles do you currently face?

In terms of starting the business, the biggest challenge was leaving behind the safety, security and regular paycheck of a regular job for the uncertainty and risk of an entrepreneurial venture. As it turned out, though, with the recession there wasn’t as much safety and security in regular jobs as people thought!

The biggest struggles we currently face revolve around planning and forecasting. Our industry has been littered with events that have 1,000 people one year and 300 the next. That fluctuation can have devastating effects. Understanding that and planning in a way that allows for growth but protects against downside risk is something we work on every day.

Has your business been financially successful?

We have benefited by taking a very conservative approach to our business. Especially for our own events, we are in a business where we have to build the events and then get people to attend. We specialize in keeping our risks low and our rewards high. This manifests itself in the contracts we negotiate, the commitments we make, the staff we hire and more.

What advice do you have for people starting new companies to address the needs of the meetings industry?

My advice to anybody starting a new company, especially in this day and age, is to be conservative— in your assumptions, in the risks you take on and in your goals. It may not be as sexy as being super aggressive, but the road to entrepreneurship is filled with failed ventures. Most often, people overestimate how easy it is going to be to get started.

The thing about our industry is that for the most part, there are fairly low barriers to entry. It is not hard for someone to call himself or herself an event planner or a conference producer or a destination management service. To succeed in the long run, however, you have to add value. You have to think like a marketer by staying laser-focused on your core target’s needs, wants, insights and problems. Truly listen—not just to what they think they need, but what they need but don’t think they need. Become an invaluable resource for your clients and they will always come back.