When American Express launched its free Business Class Live conference a decade ago, the goal was to help small companies do more business by democratizing business education. Flash forward to 2022 and that original objective remains steadfast, but the event strategy has evolved with the times. For the 10th installment on July 20 at the Javits Center in Manhattan, Amex was particularly focused on ensuring the event was livestreamed to expand access and grow its attendee base, and balancing big-picture content themes, like inspiration, with workshops and breakouts designed to hone more tactical skills. The approach ultimately helped attract more than 5,000 small business owners in-person and online. But according to the brand, there’s another key ingredient that has been, and continues to be, crucial to its recipe for success: Providing a luxury lifestyle experience.
Indeed, the 2022 iteration of Business Class Live had all the trappings of a traditional b-to-b show, like panels, networking, wellness moments and breakouts. But it was touchpoints like the all-star main stage speaker roster (think: actress and entrepreneur Issa Rae), a partner marketplace and premium F&B that the brand says differentiated the event from that of its competitors.
“We’re bringing the same style and swagger that we bring to Coachella or the US Open to a business event where every detail is something that you want to do, not something that you need to do,” says Clayton Ruebensaal, evp-global b2b marketing at American Express. “And by that, I mean amazing speakers on stage, fantastic food, a really well designed environment, the best coffee you can buy and great ice cream for the afternoon break. Making sure that those [elements] feel like part of a luxury lifestyle experience really makes people want to be there. It makes people want to come back. It makes people feel like we really appreciate them—and we do.”
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Amex also enlisted a team of partners to up the ante on this year’s conference, with brand giants like LinkedIn and Amazon, as well as government agencies, on hand to lend their business expertise. The marketplace, for instance, included representatives from Women Impacting Public Policy, whose ChallengeHER initiative is aimed at boosting government contracting opportunities for women-owned small businesses; Accion Opportunity Fund, a nonprofit lender that provides loans and resources to historically underfunded small business owners; and U.S. Black Chambers, Inc., which last year, together with Amex, launched the ByBlack certification program to help companies identify as publicly designated Black-owned businesses.
There was also The Next Chapter Library, an actual library of relevant books that highlighted Amex’s newly launched podcast, The Next Chapter, produced in partnership with The New York Times. In each episode, host Cardiff Garcia interviews a different prominent business author and asks, “If you were to write the next chapter of your book today, what would it be about,” a practice that was replicated on stage at Business Class Live between Garcia and author Adam Grant.
Rounding out the conference were “Meet the Experts” sessions that gave attendees a chance to sit down for one-on-one meetings with representatives from Adobe, LinkedIn, Amazon and other top corporations to get insights on topics like creative marketing solutions and tips for promoting a business on LinkedIn.
All told, Ruebensaal says the latest installment of Business Class Live was a resounding success, from the high-energy sessions and networking events, to the emotional connections made across the show floor.
“On paper, [speaker] Issa Rae was the right person to bring. She has a coffee company and she has a beauty company focused on Black women called Sienna Naturals,” he says. “But emotionally, when I introduced her and she came on stage, I’ve never in my life experienced such an emotional excitement from an audience. And it showed, not only did we bring the right people on paper, but we really brought that lifestyle excitement to a business event… And that has been a real differentiator for us.” Agencies: Momentum Worldwide (concept, design, production); Sarancko (event visual identity, signage); Freeman (a/v, fabrication); Day One Agency (p.r.); starpower (speaker talent).
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Photo credit: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for American Express