After retiring from Freeman in August 2023, Lisa Van Rosendale is currently consulting with a few of her favorite brands, including Veeva Systems and Freeman. She has worked in the exhibit and experiential design and agency side of the business since 1988, including 15 years at George P. Johnson and five years at Immersa Marketing, before it was acquired by Freeman in 2013. She is a founding member of Chief. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
An Event Pro Experiences Burning Man 2023: Was It Worth It?
I try to go to Burning Man when I can and that may shock a lot of my peers and network. At first blush you might think it's all about drugs and nudity but this is NOT what Burning Man is about.
When Bob Priest-Heck and I joined forces at Immersa Marketing (many moons ago), our focus was on community. I asked him if I could go and "audit" Burning Man, and he agreed. I partnered with Cindy Shine and Shannon Malliet, and we made our way to Black Rock City, Nev. There were many lessons gathered on this pilgrimage as we tried to understand the difference between creating a "moment" vs. creating a "movement." From this event, there were many great takeaways that we leveraged in our business for many years, and now that brings me to this year’s event.
Your brand is only as strong as your weakest moment, and for some "outsiders" you may have heard that Burning Man turned catastrophic with a storm that hit Nevada. Understand that we were in the middle of a lakebed in the middle of the desert. There is limited cell coverage so you can imagine my surprise when I start receiving texts and urgent phone calls that the National Guard was being sent to Burning Man. With more than 70,000 attendees this year and the news making international headlines, I want to share some key observations that I hope can help you as you design your future conferences.
Communication is key and the timeliness of your communication is key. Burning Man immediately jumped into action and shared guidelines on their "Exodus" (the exit plan) strategy so that attendees could relax and enjoy the remaining program. This one move empowered their community to push out TikToks, Facebook and Instagram posts to mediate the damage being done by the press.
They installed cell towers throughout the playa so that we could communicate with family and friends through our networks and minimize the negative chatter that was starting to flame brighter than the flames at Burning Man.
They reverted back to the Burning Man principles, which provided guidance on our behavior at the event. This included encouraging us to share food, water and resources with those who maybe didn't have what they needed.
They extended the program, allowing attendees time to decide when and if they would leave before the grand finale, "The Burning of the Man."
They brought in additional resources to support the questions and concerns of attendees and shared this with the community so that we could spread the message.
They had a radio station playing 24/7 with updates on weather and activities so that you could be informed minute by minute.
The key takeaway: harness your community by being honest about the situation and not filtering information. Whether by accident or by design, not controlling the narrative created an honest dialogue, so if you ask me, was Burning Man worth it this year? The answer is Hell, YEAH!