For the 10th edition of its free Business Class Live conference on July 20, American Express offered traditional panels, breakouts and main stage presentations at New York City’s Javits Center. But it was the luxury lifestyle touchpoints as much as the educational content that Amex attributes to the success of the event. Of course, success looks different today than it did when the show launched a decade ago. So we sat down with Clayton Ruebensaal, evp-global b2b marketing at American Express, for a deep dive into the evolution of Business Class Live—and the b-to-b event attendee.
Event Marketer: What was the purpose of launching Business Class Live?
Clayton Ruebensaal: A little over 10 years ago, the team started talking about how everything we do needs to help [small] businesses do more business. If we stay focused on how our customers are growing, adding more locations and new employees, going into new product lines, it’ll be good for them to grow their business—but it’s good for our bottom line as well. And that central premise is what led to Small Business Saturday, Shop Small and Open Forum. So the original Business Class Live that we started 10 years ago, the essence has been the same, which is creating a first-class-level conference for that purpose of helping these businesses do more business. And we do everything in these events from really big picture—like inspiration—to very tactical help. So it started as this platform to democratize business education.
EM: How has the event evolved?
CR: I think evolution is a great word for it. So it started as an event in Washington, D.C., with hundreds of people attending. The last one we did live before the pandemic was 2019, and we had about 1,000 people. And over the pandemic we, like a lot of people, took the event digital, which gave us a lot of scale. Then coming out of the pandemic, we combined the best of what we were doing in person with the best of what we were doing digitally. And now we’ve got the numbers in—we had over 5,000 attendees between physical and digital in this last version. So the growth has been exponential, which is awesome because it allows us to serve so many more customers and non-customers, because if we really mean it about democratizing business education, it has to be for everybody, not just paying customers. So it’s evolved in size.
What also changed over the pandemic is that we saw we could help these businesses grow by democratizing business education across tons of platforms. We have a daily newsletter called “The Brief.” We have a video series that we create with very high production value with people like Jonathan Adler and Tom Colicchio. We do an Office Hours podcast. And Business Class Live as it was produced [this year] is really the in-person personification of everything we do.
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EM: What differentiates Business Class Live from other SMB conferences?
CR: When we went into business education, there was so much good content out there, even from our near competitors and other companies. And they do two things really well: They provide very useful information and they provide it in a very accessible way, digitally. I think the third leg of that stool that we bring and why people love being at Business Class Live is the lifestyle part of the American Express brand. 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. 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.
EM: Do b-to-b attendees still crave networking opportunities?
CR: “Certainly” is the easy answer… We work for months to create a first-class program—everything from amazing external speakers to really thoughtful breakout sessions—but you could tell what people really appreciated most in the post-pandemic world was seeing each other. That kept coming up throughout the day. Issa Rae was the first speaker we had and I asked if she had parting advice for everybody. She said, “Take advantage of being with each other. Take advantage of the partnerships you can create in this room. Take advantage of the networking. Maybe you’ll meet a customer. Maybe you’ll meet a mentor. Maybe you’ll meet a mentee. Maybe you’ll meet another small business owner in your area and you can partner together on sending out emails to double the list of subscribers to your email list.” And you could see in the room that people had this pent up desire to be together again. We ended the event at 5 p.m., and I took the team that worked on the event out for drinks afterwards to say thank you. At 7:20, I was walking back to my car at the Javits Center and there was a huge crowd of people still coming out of the center from [the event]. Two hours and 20 minutes later, people still wanted to be there.
EM: What about creating networking opportunities for virtual attendees?
CR: It’s always worked really well in live events. We need to figure out a way to scale it so that that can work digitally as powerfully as it does in person. That would be nirvana to me. You can see how much people do get out of it and it’s not impossible. Certainly, dating sites have done a good job of matching up people through technology in ways that they used to do offline. We need to do that same thing for business interaction.
EM: Talk about finding the right speaker talent for the event.
CR: We’ve had good success with celebrities who are known for their acting or singing or athletics, but who also are true small business owners, like the attendees. So on paper, 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. But 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. I would say there were as many people there for Jay Shetty at the very end of the day as were there for Issa Rae at the beginning of the day. It just showed that having the right content really does make a difference. It makes people want to be there, makes them want to stay, keeps them engaged… That has been a real differentiator for us.
EM: Is it more challenging to persuade people to attend events in person these days?
CR: Yes, absolutely. And it’s also a moving target with in-person events these days, not knowing, that week, if there’s going to be another spike in COVID and all the other barriers. Plus, we’re not quite out of the woods yet. I always feel tentative when I say things like “post-COVID” or “almost out of the pandemic.” It is touch and go with knowing what are the drop-off rates from how many people say they’ll come and how many people actually come.This story appeared in the Fall 2022 issue