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The Evolution of the Trade Show with AGENDA and ComplexCon's Co-Founder Aaron Levant

by Chris Carver
on November 28, 2017
Photo by AGENDA

I'm curious what you all think the biggest change in the event world will be over the next 3-5 years?

I'd argue that it's not just about technology (although you may want to ditch the spreadsheets and check LENND out ;) ) and more about the blending of experiences. What we've historically known as a Trade Show or Conference or Festival or Sporting Event, is completely changing and only going to change more.

So... If you're producing these events, what do you do? Well, first, I'd argue that we all need to get out of our respective bubbles and see how different events, producers and organizations are thinking and acting differently. 

One of those teams we absolutely need to look at, is the AGENDA Trade Show and ComplexCon Team. This team is re-defining what attendees and fans can expect from the events they attend (whether it's for work or fun). 

Photo cred: CDN

I had the chance to sit down with AGENDA and ComplexCon's Co-Founder, Aaron Levant a few weeks back. 

According to Aaron, cross-pollinating multiple interests can be a missed opportunity by one-track trade shows. And he's definitely taking advantage of this trend. What's interesting, is that this is not really a new concept for Aaron, it's just that he's figured out the special sauce on executing it. 

Although Aaron's a wealth of knowledge, I was really excited to dig into the following:

Enjoy. I sure did.

AGENDA: Truly the modern day trade show

Where did you grow up?
Los Angeles.

Big family, small family?
Just me and my two sisters. So maybe medium. Not sure what that qualifies as.

What was 15 year old Aaron like?
Oh wow. I'd say a juvenile delinquent and a entrepreneur simultaneously. I was thrown out of high school at 16. I was a graffiti enthusiast and started a graffiti magazine.

If you were a piece of event equipment, what would you be and why?
I guess I would be a forklift because I am responsible for strategically placing the pieces together.

If you could teach a class on event production, what specific topic would you teach?
Hmm. Not sure if this is a topic. But it would be on brand energy.

I like it. Go ahead Professor Levant.
Hah. I think there is a lot of talk about operations. And you need that thinking in your organization, but I largely think that stuff is easy to replicate. The one thing you can't copy and paste, is brand energy.  It's hard to create and re-create. That’s the magic of certain people and organizations. They are able to bring that energy to their events. And I'll tell you, not all events are created equal. The energy is the magic formula.


The modern day trade show is much more now. Courtesy of AGENDA

A good example is what Pasquale and the team at Insomniac has done. They've been able to bring that magic to their events time and time again. So if I was to teaching this theoretical class, I would love to talk about that. It could be an entire semester unto itself.


"The one thing you can't copy and paste is brand energy." twitter-128.png


So, if you could work on any event in the world (besides AGENDA), what would it be and why?
I think it would be Art Basel. My personal passion is art and that led me to the event world. I love the way it takes over Miami Beach. I love how the event comes alive and the entire city activates. I really love events like that. The idea of the event takes on a life of its own. You can say the same about SXSW.

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When were you like “holy shit” this is going to be big?
I don’t know if it ever really happened like that in the beginning. I think today in our Instagram culture, that’s the way people think things are. But the reality is that it’s the exact opposite. This year is going to be our 15th year. But the first 10 years was just grinding this out. We started in 2003 and it wasn’t until 2009 that we thought we were really on to something.

REED-Lil Yachty at Nike-TOMMYBROCKERT-9.jpg
Courtesy of AGENDA

So walk me through some of the big, memorable moments/milestones from each year?
The first one happened organically. We didn’t create AGENDA to create a business. It happened because we were in this industry and wanted to create a more authentic, organic communal mindset to help our friends and save some money. 250 buyers showed up to a Thai restaurant in Long Beach at our very first event. It doesn’t get any smaller than that. I'll never forget that first event.


"250 buyers showed up to a Thai restaurant in Long Beach at our very first event." twitter-128.png


The second one was when we decided to step out from under the shadow of ASR (the Action Sports Retailers Show). For the first five or six years we were this small event next door to ASR. We were like the little step-brother to the bigger show. So, in 2009 we decided to pick up the show and move it to Long Beach, in line with the US Open. That was a big moment for us. But that’s when a lot of the household name brands came on board with us. It was really a big explosion of growth for us (1000% growth from 2008 to 2009). That was such a defining moment. It allowed us to find our own identity. 

Courtesy of AGENDA FB

The risk really paid off.
Yeah it did.

How did your personal focus evolve as the organization went through it’s various stages of growth?
Hah - it’s changed a lot. From 2003 to 2009, we were a tiny three employee company with a few kids straight out of college. We honestly didn’t have a budget until 2012. It was all based on gut decisions. No business plan. No strategy. That is a very different way than most people run a business.


"It was all based on gut decisions. No business plan. No strategy." twitter-128.png

Then in 2012, we sold the company and now my position is SVP of Reed Exhibitions. So now everything is particularly planned. Everything is poked and prodded. These last five years has been like getting my MBA. We went from total chaos to this serious organization. So my focus now is to blend my experience with this scrappy, creative start-up with that serious business behavior. It's a constant balancing act of creativity with corporate America.

Were there any moments where you thought it wasn’t going to make it?
Oh, yeah. Prior to 2009, everyday I thought it wasn't going to make it.

The beauty of AGENDA was/is that we weren’t trade show guys. We were kids that were passionate about this category and tried to make this event. An hour before opening our second show, this guy knocks on the door and asks for my permit. I was like, "Who are you and why do I need a permit?" He says, "I am the fire marshal and you can't legally hold this event without a permit".

I had no idea how to do these things. Luckily he cut us a break and 30 minutes before the doors open he got us a permit. There were so many moments like that.

Another example was back in 2008 or so, we had a competitor that found out our lease was coming up and they booked our venue immediately when it expired. They then booked every other venue in the area.

Honestly there were so many times, where we had all of this chaos. It was constant for years.

When someone asks you what you do, what do you say?
I hate when people ask me that question. Because if I say I am in the trade show business, it sounds like I’m doing a pharmaceutical show. I'm not really a festival producer, even though we have music at our shows, There is no good way to describe what we do.

Design, fashion, music. AGENDA keeps the lifestyle fashion trade show innovative. Courtesy of AGENDA

Now that the events have become so popular, what are 2-3 biggest technical and operational challenges?
FIRST: Is Operational: The frequency of events we produce makes things operationally tough. I now oversee 20 events in our portfolio. So it is hard to make each event special. How do you pump out events like an assembly line, but make sure each has soul and uniqueness? Operationally and creatively, it is really difficult.

SECOND: is the Sheer Competition: The events market, especially in southern California is becoming extremely competitive. The landscape of ComplexCon type events and consumer facing events is always extremely hard to get the best people. It is extremely competitive for on-stage talent.

THIRD: The biggest thing I encounter is that when you have a big success, you have to figure out how to top yourself over and over again. That becomes a bigger and bigger logistical challenge. You have to come back and wow the crowd, but not necessarily with a bigger budget. You're always trying to figure out what’s the next rabbit to pull out of your hat.


"You're always trying to figure out what’s the next rabbit to pull out of your hat." twitter-128.png


When you think about AGENDA, what is your absolute favorite moment?
We do this section called AGENDA Emerge, which is a TED Talk style that is focused on creative entrepreneurs. For our very first one, we had Marc Ecko speak who is the founder of Marc Ecko Enterprises. For those that don't know, Marc is this artist, fashion designer, entrepreneur. Given how much I was into art growing up, he was my Michael Jordan. So one of the coolest moments was just me sitting there listening and learning from my heroes.

Photo Cred: ComplexCon

It’s cool because it’s an environment for young people to learn from these amazing creatives and understand how to get into the industry. You can even argue that doing those led to our ComplexCon collaboration.

When did you come up with the idea for ComplexCon?
I have always toyed with the idea of creating a Comic Con type event for pop culture. So when we got rolled up into REED, I saw this opportunity to leverage our relationships with brands and artists. So I finally sat down with Marc Ecko and said why don’t we create this ComplexCon for this generation. That conversation began at the end of 2014 and it took us a couple of years to launch it.

When you think about the growth of AGENDA, where do you typically concentrate?
The growth happens when you create great content. So I spend a lot of time on what that content is. We must have a multi-sensory approach. The music, the panels, the skate contest, the sneaker drops, etc. have to all be amazing. Each have to be a draw in it’s own right.

Looking at ComplexCon: it’s like a food festival, a music festival, a trade show, a mall. We’re trying to bring all of those together. We have to make sure that each stand alone and are meaningful, but then bringing them together makes it extremely unique.

Photo Cred: ComplexCon @JenjPhoto

When you think about the future of your events, what are you most excited about?
I’m excited about the moment we are in. If you look out in the event landscape, there is a new story that resonates. What is that surprise moment that you are giving to your fans that they weren’t expecting. Whether that is a surprise performance, something organically that happens, two people collaborating or something else. I love when something special happens that blows peoples minds. However, you can’t always engineer it, but you can put the elements together to create that.

Where are you getting your inspiration and ideas?
It sounds really weird, but I don’t go to a lot of events. I honestly just don’t have time. So I am constantly looking at YouTube and art books. I am kind of a nerd for graphic design. There’s also a lot of people in our office that are really tapped in and give me a ton of energy. I really enjoy our creative team. They inspire me a ton because I am definitely not trying to be some trade show executive.

Flexfit-Herschel-AgendaLB-2 (3).jpg
Photo Cred: AGENDA

What’s the best leadership advice you have been given and from whom?
My buddy Brian Atlas, President of Dyrdek Machine and a founder of Skateboarding Street League, told me that there is a direct correlation between how many uncomfortable conversations you have with how successful you are. Every time I failed at something, it was because I was afraid to have the tough conversation early on.

With all of the success you have had, I am curious, in your work life, are you insecure about anything?
I don’t know about insecure. But I am constantly worried that it’s not going to get done. Even after 15 years, I am constantly still uneasy. I am constantly obsessing on what could be better or what went wrong. It’s not about lack of confidence. But if you're too confident I think that’s a recipe for disaster.

So this is the modern day trade show (part convention, part experiential, part festival). Photo Cred: ComplexCon

Parting wisdom?
If you want to have a happy life and keep your hair, you should probably not get into the events business. At the same time you meet a lot of amazing people, go to some incredible spaces. But it’s no joke.

LENND is an event management platform helping production teams streamline their logistics and operations. For early access or if you're interested in a demo contact us HERE.

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ComplexCon is an expertly curated convention and festival bringing the world of Complex to life. This is our generation's world fair. The minds behind Complex have come together with a Host Committee led by our Cultural Director/Executive Chair Pharrell Williams, legendary artist Takashi Murakami, Off-White designer and founder Virgil Abloh, Colette co-founder Sarah Andelman, reggaeton superstar J. Balvin, and actor/activist Jaden Smith.  

Imagine a place where creators, curators and YOU converge to celebrate and shape our culture.  

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Photo Cred: ComplexCon

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