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Behind the Festival Industry with XLIVE CEO Waco Hoover

by Chris Carver
on November 29, 2016

Imagine you had to put on an event for the event world. Yeah... sit on that one for a moment. Every one of the attendees judging every single step, thinking they could do it better. You know you who you are. Bottom-line, you better be on your A game to take on something like that.

So I thought it would be fun to sit down with one of the guys taking on that challenge and producing one of the premier festival industry conferences: XLIVE

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I have to say, I am not a big conference guy, but the beauty of these gatherings (at least the good ones), is that many of them are the only thing that is really focused on building community in their respective industries. You have to constantly stay on top of the the trends, the changes, the latest innovations and the future of the industry. While at the same time, figure out ways to cultivate the community year around. Then there is the little challenge of producing an event that can stand up to the event world’s critique.   

So… I figured a chat with Waco Hoover, the Co-Founder & CEO of XLIVE would be really eye opening for all of us.

Going into the interview I was really interested to hear:

- What he thinks most events are struggling with and how the industry can evolve.
- How they are focusing on growing XLIVE and what we can learn from their approach.
- The power of branding and he strategy behind their recent re-brand (IMFCON to XLIVE)  
- The importance of mentorship and more.

BTW - You're going to love his career advice. At least I did.


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#WTF Festival Industry Career Advice #1: Find your own way to decompress. The jet suit seems to be Waco's.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Vero Beach, Florida. It's about 60 miles north of Palm Beach.

What was 15-year old Waco like?
15-year old Waco was, a surfer, soccer player, swimmer, with bleached blonde hair from being in the chlorine and the ocean so much. Definitely a late bloomer in terms of growing up.

So at that age, what was hanging on your wall in your room?
Oh man. Definitely a lot of surf pictures, like big, epic waves. And of course a few Reef girl ads from Surfer magazine.

And if your friends were a little tipsy, how would they describe you now?
They would probably describe me as a little crazy, but also very focused when I need to be. I was in the Marine Corps before I started my professional career. I was an Infantry Marine. I still do a lot of mountaineering and adventure-related activities. It helps to keep the adrenaline going. At least up to the appropriate levels at my age.

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Nothing like a little ice climbing to take the edge off and get the blood flowing.

In what ways did the Marines prepare you for this particular endeavor?
Overall, I would describe it as some of the best and worst experiences of my life. It instilled in me discipline, integrity, the notion of esprit de corps but most important to never quit. As far as being an entrepreneur, it prepared me better than anything else to keep fighting and stay the course.

If you believe in what you're doing and you have a good idea and good people around you, you can succeed.

It's the most extraordinary feeling when you’ve built something out of nothing that impacts thousands, sometimes millions of people in a meaningful way.

Photo Cred: US Marine Corp Sergeant Waco Hoover

If you weren't working on XLIVE, what would you be doing?
I've started a number of companies over the years, all kind of in a similar space. I would be doing something in a similar fashion in a tangential industry. I really love this idea of producing events that bring people together where you can have a meaningful exchange of knowledge and information.

With your entrepreneurial background, you could have gone into any industry. So why the festival industry?
I did an internship at the Cannes Film Festival, May of 2002, and it kind of opened my eyes to the whole entertainment technology industry. Before going to that, I really didn't know anything about the industry. I went to school to do finance, so I never thought I'd attempt to get into that industry.

A year later, I was at the Berlin Film Festival, listening to a panel discussion with my business partner. There was just a massive disconnect about how festivals were run and whether they were actually executing the way they should. I took a step back and looked at the industry at that time in 2003 and said, "Is there an annual event or a trade body for this?" and the answer was no. Later that year we hosted the first, the International Film Festival Summit in New York.

Then we ran it. We added music and renamed it the International Music Festival Conference. The business models are starkly different from music festivals to film festivals in terms of the amount of revenue you can generate and the different channels for that. With the music addition, it really started to take off and grow. We brought it to Vegas, Austin, San Diego, and now we're back in Vegas.

This is an industry you fall into through experiences, internships, connections, and you end up where you are, being an entrepreneur and just working to make a meaningful impact in what you do.

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What are some of the things that have kept you up at night this past year?
Making sure that we execute, that we deliver for our customers, and that people participating in our programs have meaningful discussions.

At the end of the day, if we can deliver value to our constituents, to this community, then people will continue to come back to XLIVE and they'll love what we give.

You did a pretty significant re-brand this year.
Yes we did.

So how has your re-brand changed your mentality and your messaging about the greater opportunity that you have and the direction you want to go with the conference an community? 

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Well the number of events, producers, organizations, that we can make an impact on has expanded significantly. The market trends for music festivals continue to grow with film, food and wine, beer festivals, the whole community that we serve. Festivals and eSporting events can learn from each other on a number of different levels.

It’s laid the foundation for the announcements we're going to make in 2017 and a much bigger opportunity for us to engage more stakeholders more frequently in different parts of the world.

One of the things that I'm really fascinated with, is that no matter what type of event you're producing, whether it's Music or Food and Wine festival, an experiential event, or even a conference, there's a ton of similarities when it comes to the logistics and operations.

So, do you feel like that concept is something people are embracing or are you having to educate the community that there's more similarities than differences?
I think people are responding to it more now than ever. Technology is becoming a cornerstone to produce a successful live event, especially the scale of festivals, when you look at the data analytics and the infrastructure required to deploy these programs. I think people are slowly starting to realize that if I'm a music festival, I can learn a tremendous amount from this food and wine festival.

And when you think about how you're going to continue to iterate on your festival, reinvent it, and build extraordinary experiences, you've got to borrow ideas from different market segments. That's the only way you can stay relevant.


I'm curious what advice you would have to a festival about re-branding or reinventing their event, like you did?
I think the first question is, is there a need to actually re-brand the program? If so, why? Doing a thorough analysis of "The Why Factor" is crucial.

Then... if indeed you need to, think about what that pivot is going to look like. First and foremost, you want to make sure that you don't alienate your existing community and stakeholders that are passionate about what you're doing.

Then, as you pivot and bring new elements to the program, is it tangential?  If it's not, you need to keep it separate for a period of time.

Also, getting feedback from doing focus groups or industry surveys, to make sure that what you're doing is going to be received in a positive way. Those are some of the steps that we took before we pulled the trigger on it and settled in on XLIVE.

[To follow up on Waco's comment about "The Why Factor", There's a great Ted Talk from Simon Sinek on why it is so critical to "Start With Why" in everything you do. It's been around for a while, but it's really timeless and applies to everything, even event branding.

Simon Sinek XLIVE

Another thing I'd highly recommend is building profiles or personas for each of your customer types. If you can truly understand the make-up and psychology of your customer (their likes, dislikes, habits, favorite social platforms, fears, dreams, etc.) you can build a much more engaging brand. BTW - this also pertains to vendors, not just events and attendees. But that's for a later post. Here's a great resource on how to create one: LINK]

Lastly, I'd take a few tips from John Connors, Head of Experience at the Color Run. They are one of the best branding teams out there. CLICK HERE FOR HIS INTERVIEW]

Annnd we're back.

So Waco, what three things do you think most events and event teams are struggling with right now, when you talk to a lot of folks in the industry?
I would say hands down NUMBER ONE is competition from other events. It’s a major concern for everyone.

NUMBER TWO, is technology, how can they leverage technology. Some are advanced, and they're starting to jump into data analytics and these type of things and how they can pull value out of their data assets. Then others are just learning how they can integrate successfully and how that ties back as sponsorship activation. There are varying levels of all that.

NUMBER THREE, is how to sustain and continue to grow what you're doing. It's that experience piece. You have to continually change that up so finding those new things and continuing to be creative with your experience is something that is really, really relevant for folks as well. 

We are building a list of the world's top event professionals. Reserve your spot now. Click here.

Has it been hard to build community when competition is such a concern amongst the industry?
Yeah, it's interesting you say that, that was the case years ago, but it's changed significantly. As time goes on, as with any growing industry, you have to establish and start sharing best practices. For example, if one sponsor goes to a festival and has a bad experience, they're going to be a lot less likely to sponsor another festival because they're going to have a certain stigma associated with that.

Making sure the industry comes together in that regard and that people have good experiences, makes a big difference in an industry flourishing for an extended period of time. The rising tide, lifts all ships, so to speak.

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In what areas would you really love to see this event community evolve?
I would like to see more formal, professional development. Particularly, one of the things that we're doing this year is that Young Festival Entrepreneur program this year and then we're going to roll it out. As a part of that, we're going to have some specific mentorship programs for grooming the younger executives in this industry. Formalizing some of the professional development in the industry I think would be really advantageous for folks.

I would also like to see more industry leadership from some of the larger, more established festivals. I think it's being done really informally.

Are there any events, industries or organizations that you look at for inspiration or ideas? 
Yeah, if you look at the travel industry, it is really interesting. When you think of festivals, travel is a giant component of that. When you look at the economic impact, what people are spending on food/beverage, rental cars, airlines, accommodations, etc., there is so much that can be done around that. One of the mandates for many cities, is to bring festivals and cultural events to their communities and actually track how they’ve quantified the impact of those events. I think we can be a real catalyst to help festivals and cities connect. Pick a location or a destination. Festivals are looking to add locations. There are communities that are very pro-festival and they're thoughtful and intentional about what kind of experience they want to create.


What do you think separates the successful events and festivals from those that continue to struggle?
The market that you're in is very important for people to look at, and that some markets are much larger than others so you have to be careful. If you're in a smaller market and you want to make it a destination festival, you have to be very cognizant of that and make sure you're involving those constituents and you're curating, creating content off of them that's going to be interesting.

If your festival takes place in a parking lot, that's not a bad thing, but how do you continually make that meaningful and special and have new elements there that are going to transform that parking lot into something really novel or unique?

Adding new elements to your festival that are different and new is fine, but it also has to resonate with your audience and the community that you're serving. Arguably the most important part of a successful event is having a committed and passionate team planning and executing well. Without that the best ideas are hard to bring to life.


If you were to give the Festival Industry State of the Union Address at XLIVE, what would be the top three topics you'd address?

FIRST: I would address industry growth, where the industry is right now today, and tie in the economic impact. A dialogue between the events and the local community is an important part of how festivals can be engaged and get more out of the surrounding area. When we start seeing a lot of festivals everywhere, being conscious of growth and sustainability is key.

SECOND: Would be technology. How do we leverage it to provide a better experience for fans, for artists, for the local community? Then, how do we leverage that data?

THIRD: Would be about appreciating the power of festivals and how many of them have become social icons. With the attention festivals now receive, there is an enormous opportunity to impact main stream social causes like healthcare, environment, education and more. It’s something festivals can be doing with partners when positioned well and makes them even more relevant if their communities are passionate about those issues.    

What is the best piece of career advice you have received and from whom?
Best piece of career advice was from a captain that I had in the Marine Corps. He told me, "Sergeant Hoover, it's really easy to steer the ship in calm seas, but the true test of an individual, is when the seas are rough and things are going wrong."

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Waco and his team on an humanitarian mission in the Philippines

Parting wisdom?
My parting wisdom is that everyone has had somebody help them get to where they are. Even the most successful people in this industry like Pasquale Rotella, Ashley Capps, Rick Farman to name a few - they all had mentors over the course of their careers that helped them achieve incredible levels of success. Take the opportunity to seek out a mentor if you are just beginning your career or give guidance and develop young professionals if you have knowledge to impart.

Leo Nitzberg, Co-Founder (READ)
Electric Daisy Carnival:
David Chen, Director of Technology (READ)
Firefly Music Festival:
Christiane Pheil, Director of Programming (READ)
Charlotte Motor Speedway:
Garrett Carter, Manager of Event Operations (READ)
RiSE Festival:
Dan Hill, Co-Founder (READ)
Heather Story, Senior Director of Event Operations (READ)
New York City Wine & Food Festival:
John Trumble, Managing Director (READ)
Taylor Gustafson, Director of Ticketing & Credentials (READ)
Brian Wingerd, SVP of Marketing (READ)
Governors Ball Music Festival: Tom Russell, Co-Founder (READ)
Superfly (Bonnaroo & Outside Lands):
Kat Tooley, Senior Director, Event Production (READ)
Firefly Music Festival: Megan Marshall, Assistant Director (READ)
Super Bowl & NFL Draft:
Katie Keenan, NFL's Director of Event Operations (READ)
Rock N' Roll Marathon:
Ted Metellus, Director of Course Operations (READ)
The Enthusiast Network:
 Scott Desiderio, VP of Event Ops (READ)

Sea Otter Classic: Frank Yohannan, Founder (READ)
Los Angeles Marathon: Murphy Reinschreiber, VP of Operations (READ)

Big Sur Marathon: Doug Thurston, Event Director (READ)
Summit Series: Cara Bubes, Event Director (READ)
Color Run: John Connors, VP of Experience (READ)
TechCrunch Disrupt: Leslie Hitchcock, Event Director (READ)
Boston Marathon: Matt West, VP of Operations (READ
Academy Awards: Cheryl Cecchetto, Production Director (READ
RunningUSA: Christine Bowen, Event Director (READ
Charity Ball & Charity Water: Lauren Letta, Chief of Staff (READ)

Electric Run: Latane "Big Bird" Meade, Co-Founder  (READ)
Color Run Australia: Luke Hannan, Event Director (READ)

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