Kate Levenstien is a lifelong foodie with an insatiable appetite for adventure. She is passionate about creating big, bold, one-of-a-kind experiences. In 2013, she brought her background in events and PR to the world of food and drink, launching the event management agency Cannonball Productions. Today, Cannonball’s signature food and beverage festivals–from the Bacon and Beer Classic to Lions, Tigers and Brews–draw sold-out crowds across the country.
What was the impetus for starting your business?
I had been running live events at LivingSocial for about 3 years. When LivingSocial downsized in 2013 and closed their events division, I found myself at a major crossroads. I was the head of the Midwest events market and absolutely loved it. The last thing I wanted was for my job to end, but the second best thing was to start my own version of it. I felt like I had nothing to lose. As sad as I was at the time, leaving LivingSocial proved to be such a rewarding long-term opportunity.
What have you learned along the way?
What haven’t I learned!? Aside from all of the production, marketing, and financial discoveries over the last 3 years, I feel like I’m always learning how to be a better manager and mentor. We believe in a “bottom up” management style. Our team works collaboratively and owns each of their responsibilities. Instead of me micro-managing their projects, we have a weekly check-in where they explain how I can be better supporting them and what tools they need to succeed. Our team has an open policy to giving and receiving positive and helpful feedback. About a year ago I read an article that explained why it’s important to treat your team better than your clients, and that really put everything into perspective for me. As a result we have never had a team member choose to leave the company, which has created a strong culture and foundation.
You’re in a fun category (food and events). What’s the “dark side” of what you do?
There are always challenges! Some of these we are “team made” because we’re always pushing ourselves to innovate and do better. And one of our company pillars is to explore opportunities and not see them as problems. One of the biggest risks is the unpredictability of ticket sales. When we enter into a new market, we’re essentially starting from scratch and aren’t as familiar with customer buying patterns. It’s also natural to wait until the week or day of the event to buy tickets, so it’s can be difficult to estimate headcount and revenue. Luckily, it has always worked out, but has resulted in some nail biting and sleepless nights!
What was your proudest moment?
I think it’s really important to consistently step back and recognize small wins. Anytime I see strangers wearing our merchandise (on the street, in the subway, at the gym, and the list goes on) I always get a little prick of pride. I am so proud of our team after every festival, and every goal we hit. By producing these festivals we create a diversion for people from their everyday routine, so I am proud anytime I can see a positive reaction from our attendees.
Biggest mistake and how you fixed it?
One of the biggest mistakes was not having bacon strips at the first handful of festivals. I had envisioned it being more of an elevated culinary experience, but we listened to the attendees and they rightfully expected there to be bacon at a bacon festival! We approached Hormel® Black Label® bacon and now they’re one of our biggest partners nationwide. Attendees love the variety of flavors, their bacon strip photo booth and the Hormel® Fully Cooked Bacon bacon-eating contest. We saw a problem and created an opportunity for attendees to have a much better experience.
What’s next for you?
We’re always expanding to more markets, creating new concepts, and implementing innovative ideas at our existing festivals. It’s a never-ending whiteboard of ideas and implementation!
Advice for other women who are interested in producing food events?
My advice is to work with great people and have a clear direction. Choose your venue, partners, vendors and collaborators wisely because if all goes well you could be working with them for years to come! If you’re looking to get involved, I would recommend volunteering at events around your city. It’s the best way to get behind-the-scenes and connect with some of the producers.