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Meet the Producer

Launching a successful event series with RiSE Festival Founder Dan Hill

by Chris Carver
on October 17, 2016

As you know, it's hard to launch a successful event, let alone a hit event series. And then there's Dan Hill. This guy is 3 for 3. And we're not just talking your run of mill events.  

Just take a look at his resume (or CV for our fans in Europe):
Event #1: Co-Founder Ragnar Relay Series (one of the most successful event series of all time).
[Alright - maybe he got lucky].

Event #2: Founder Electric Run (one of the fastest growing event series of all time).
[Damn - this guy is good. But let's see if he can do it again.]

Event #3: Co-Founder RiSE Festival.
[WTF! This guy's the freakin event whisperer.]

Whaterver it is, he's definitely got some special sauce. I'm so curious to see how has he done it? 

Photo Cred: @RiSEFestival

I've been wanting to sit down with Dan for quite a while and finally caught up with him a week before this year's RiSE Festival. Clearly not an ideal time, but I've been fascinated with hearing more about the following: 

ONE: What kind of process or formula he uses to develop a new event.
TWO: What traits are necessary for a successful team, when launching a new event.
THREE: The inspiration for and strategy behind RiSE.
FOUR: His feelings on the state of the event industry and more.  

BTW - For those of you who haven't heard about this little Instagram gem called RiSE Festival, it's one of the largest lantern festivals in the United States. Over 20,000 people release a sea of bio degradable lanterns (40,000 to be exact) over the Mojave Desert. I'll let Dan describe the rest.


Photo Cred: @RiSE Festival

So where did you grow up?
I grew up in Farmington, Utah.

If your friends were a little tipsy, how would they describe you?
I think they would say I’m occasionally genius, but mostly distracted and difficult to work with.

Hah! Sounds like most successful entrepreneurs.
Yeah, mostly a pain in the ass with occasional strokes of brilliance.

So if you weren't producing events what would you be doing?
Dude, I have no idea. I mean, I didn't really intend for this to be my career. When I created Ragnar, I was kind of looking at it as something to put on a grad school application.

What three personality traits make for a great event producer?
It’s interesting because I think what makes a really good producer are all attributes I don't really have. They're really detailed. I think that they plan and over plan, and think through every eventuality. I've been lucky to have people like that on my  team because that's not my personality type.

When I can pair with up with people who have those traits, my creativity can really come to life and together we can do something really cool. I'm definitely more outside the box. 

Tip #1 in Launching a Successful Event Series. Understand your weaknesses and surround yourself with the best team possible. 

We’re you at all nervous about trying to replicate the success you had with Ragnar?
Yeah. It was really scary after Ragnar, worrying am I a one hit wonder, could I do this again? And to be three for three now, the world looks a little different. I get more excited about trying to create new things. It's less scary to keep creating outside the box.

So where did the idea for RiSE come from?
I always try to glean inspiration from different things I've seen and a buddy of mine had come to me and we had the conversation of, would a Sky Lantern event work in the U.S. and how would you do it? We visited Thailand and went to where they sent a bunch of sky lanterns. After he and I sent up some sky lanterns, something just clicked. We just had a really clear idea of what Rise should be. We really developed the concept over the space of 24 hours out in Thailand.


When did you finally decide to pull the trigger and go for it?
It was sort of funny. It was this moment of like oh wow this is what it should be. Then it was, oh shit, this is impossible. Environmentally, fire, etc.. Then it was another year of working with the BLM and doing the math and testing. We tested every lantern. None of the sky lanterns that existed were good. They all stayed too hot when they came down, they flew the wrong amount of time. So we had to develop our own. It was a lot of work. It was at least another 8 months before we felt reasonably confident, but a year before we knew we were going to do this. It was a lot of work that first year and we spent a ton of money.

Did you raise money to produce the event that first year?
No, I bet the farm on it. Because it was such a passion project. We don't do any sponsors, there's so many things that we do that are different that I felt it would be really hard to sell to an investor so I wanted to own it.

So after the first year, what were you most excited about improving?
I was most anxious to improve the transportation element. Honestly, I've never said this about any event I've ever produced, but creatively RiSE is perfect. I feel like our job now is just to guard it from us getting bored and trying to change it too much.


Tip #2 to Launch a Successful Event Series: Branding in all aspects of the experience is crticial: Photo: @RiSE Festival

So in your mind, are there many similarities between Ragnar, Electric Run and RiSE?
Man they're all so, so different. Which I really like. The outlier is the Electric Run. Ragnar was really a passion project and it really spoke to me personally. I understood their experience and what they would want and wouldn't. And that's exactly how I feel about RiSE now. 

Did you follow a similar approach when developing the branding and marketing of each event?
Well, I learned a lot about branding with Ragnar. That's something I think I've excelled at relative to my competitors. I think I've got a reputation for producing tighter brands, so I really try to do that consistently.


I'm also more emotionally motivated with the events I produce. And by that I mean there's usually an emotion I want people to feel or experience. I also really like to build things that haven't been built before. So with the events I've been apart of, there's a huge concept phase and I don't think that works for most people.

And from a strategic marketing standpoint, did you follow similar process?
It's interesting because when we launched Ragnar, we had to do expos and mail flyers; social media didn't even exist. Then in the days of Electric Run it was all about Facebook. With RiSE we're pretty innovative; we do some stuff that no one, I don't think, has done. I don't know if I'm ready to share it, maybe in three years when it's outdated we can share how we did it, but we did it a little differently.

I know you want to keep some of that under wraps, but from my perspective there is a level of intrigue and uniqueness that you were able to tap into with the initial branding and marketing of RiSE. The initial video you produced was a perfect medium to highlight that. I’d assume that had to play a major role. I’d love to hear what some of those distribution tactics were at some point.


Fare enough :)

You know, the challenge for me with RiSE is that I don't know any way better to convey emotion than video and music so it's really important for me. RiSE is one of those rare times where there's no possible way for the marketing to capture the experience. It's just better than any of the marketing. 

Tip #2 in launching a successful event series: Connect the story and emotion of the event with the participant.

So, in order of difficulty what do you think was the most difficult event to scale?
I think that Ragnar is without question the most logistically challenging event I've ever produced. I know people that have produced Ironman and marathons. Nothing is as hard as Ragnar. Given that it’s a few hundred miles, over the course of 24+ hours, the course is constantly changing, etc.

Photo Cred: Ragnar Relay

RiSE is different. It's challenging in a different way. Our initial permit was more of legal proof than a permit. I don't think you could start Rise without significant event experience. We had to design and test lanterns under the supervision of the BLM for like a year. It cost us. It was really important for me to do something that was environmentally responsible, that was going to be welcomed back every year, that could also be an iconic event.

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What was the "HOLY SHIT! this is going to work" moment for each?
The first few years with Ragnar, profits weren't what I was thinking about believe it or not. Only two dumb college kids with no event experience would be stupid enough to start Ragnar. We just didn't know any better when we started it. So it was more of "can I create something cool and fun and not lose money?". I remember pulling up to our first event and smiling. The energy was exactly where I wanted it to be. For me that was my holy shit this is going to work moment for Ragnar.

Electric Run was more of a business motivation. We launched an event and had these ridiculous registration numbers, but it was actually kind of horrifying. You would think it would be fun but it was like being at a craps table.

Photo Cred: Electric Run

RiSE Festival is a little different. Witnessing how perfect and impactful the experience was allowed me to realize that this worked. It's yet to be seen if we can make a long term profit from, it but I'm happy with the experience we've delivered.

When you think about RiSE as a brand how do you describe it to people?
It's funny because the media, whenever they ask me what RiSE is about, I always say there's 20,000 people there, so it's about 20,000 different things. I actually don't want to define it because some people are there to propose, some people are there to mourn, some people are there to celebrate. We actually just try to create a space for them to have the unique, personal experience each is looking for.

So, It's the sum total of all of their experiences.

Spoken like a true founder (or politician) :) 


If you could give a state of the union address to the event world, what would be some of the topics that you discuss?
I think it’s unfortunate because we are burning out a lot of people on products that aren't living up to the promises made in the marketing. There are these new experiential events and a lot of unsophisticated consumers. Where I can produce a quality event that costs me a million dollars, I can have a competitor thats website looks just like mine and marketing looks just like mine, and it cost them 100 grand and the consumer can't tell the difference' from the marketing. And if that low budget event doesn't meet their expectations, it reflects bad on all of us. They lose confidence in all similar events.

In your work life are you insecure about anything?
There's a lot of things I'm not good at but I don't feel insecure. I know what I'm good at and what I'm not. Honestly, I feel like I've said what I wanted to say with RiSE. When you speak your truth, you don't really feel like you have anything more to prove.

What is the best piece of professional advice you've received?
It’s less about advice and more about an observation that I’ve taken and have tried to emulate. I learned by watching two close friends Bill Pederson and Dave Alberga lead their companies. They truly want the people that work for them to be successful human beings. They have the best interest of their employees at heart. That's really worked well for me and the more we can all do that in this industry, the better that will be for everyone.

The RiSE Festival Crew

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