Ben Hindman, 24 and fresh out of Vanderbilt University, was running his own tour company in Washington, D.C., when a few friends got the idea to plan a networking junket for the people doing work that interested them—namely new-media entrepreneurs. Dubbed the Summit Series, the first in a now-regular string of destination events brought the founders of enterprises such as Facebook, Zappos, and Daily Candy to New Mexico for a weekend in early 2009.
Also in attendance were Adam Rich and Ben Lerer, the duo behind Thrillist, a growing online newsletter targeting men ages 24 to 35 with frat-boy humor and discriminating recommendations since 2005. “Toward the end of the summit, there was a point where, I believe, a van got lost,” Rich remembers. “And everybody came back with stories about Ben and how he was beatboxing and telling jokes to keep them feeling positive. The thing that was compelling was that he wasn’t just managing every aspect of a complicated, junket type affair. He stayed aware of everyone’s attitudes and kept a positive attitude while enacting all of the logistics. That is what we try to accomplish with our own events.”
Rich and Lerer didn’t hesitate. They offered Hindman a position as Thrillist’s national event manager on the spot. Two months later, he had sold his company and was living in New York, where he hit the ground running at his new gig.
“In about seven months or so, we’d thrown 45 events all across the country, with more than 30 sponsors, in 10 different cities where Thrillist now operates,” Hindman says.
Before bringing him on board, Thrillist didn’t host more than 15 events in its first three years. Hindman helped the company look past the alcohol brands that had already co-hosted smaller cocktail parties (Absolut, Canadian Club, and Patrón among them)to focus on tent-pole events sponsored by the likes of Gillette, H&M, Macy’s, and Trojan, even in the doldrums of the recession.
As readership and event participation have grown, so has revenue. While competing with more established men’s publications like GQ and Maxim for marketing dollars—and fostering a reputation among ad buyers as the new promotional vehicle to try—Thrillist has seen its annual revenues approach $10 million-. It has been profitable since its second year.
“Sponsors recognize the value of localized marketing, and you haven’t seen that go away,” Hindman says. “And it’s not just sponsors that have been eager to partner with us on these events. Venues, performers, and DJs are always approaching us to build relationships. I’m in a unique situation where my budget can be much slimmer because we have the power of voice.”
That playfully masculine voice, which bestows recommendations for restaurants, clothing, and any other consumable, is what Hindman strives to inject into every event—whether they’re open-bar nights for readers or weekend junkets in exotic locales.
“Before I joined the team, we had a thing called Jet Vegas,” Hindman says of a 2008 partnership with Jet Blue to promote a new campaign. The junket, not unlike the Summit Series, took influencers and entrepreneurs on a free flight to Vegas. “It went so well that Thrillist started working with brands to create more comprehensive offline promotions.”
Happy customer Jet Blue approached Thrillist to organize a launch event for a new route to Jamaica and, after seeing them bring on Jamaican brands such as Golden Crust, Myers’s Rum, and Red Stripe for the New York launch party, decided it wanted to do another flight. Hindman rounded up 150 tastemakers—journalists, new-media personalities, and consumers—for what was billed as a mystery flight, taking the unknowing guests to a weekend in Jamaica.
In addition to getting the media types to spend the three days sharing news of the trip online, the reader spots on the flight generated unexpected interest. More than 30,000 people entered a contest to participate in Jet Mystery, at a time when readership was just over a million. (It’s now at 1.5 million.)
As he enters his second year on the job, Hindman is working on larger, more integrated events while maintaining a commitment to the more traditional reader parties that have been there from the start. In the works for the rest of 2010 is a plan to temporarily rebrand a Miami property as Hotel Thrillist in May and host a fifth anniversary party that incorporates elements of past events in New York this fall.
“When I came on board, Ben and Adam told me they wanted to create an offline voice that complemented what they already had online,” Hindman says. “The voice of Thrillist resonates through each of the events we do and, more than that, there’s the embedded notion of access. You can get the newsletter letting you know you can make reservations at a new restaurant, and then, with our events, it’s never out of the question that any of our readers couldn’t come and be a part of them themselves.”