Forbes: Who Says Techies Have All The Fun?

Originally Published in Forbes by Elaine Pofeldt | July 14, 2012

So much attention goes to tech firms like Facebook that it’s easy to forget about the young companies that are changing other industries.

But, as serial entrepreneur Paul Mandell reminded me last week, shaking up even old-line fields can be exciting, too.

He’s the founder and CEO of Consero Group LLC, based in Bethesda, Md., which specializes in putting together events for senior executives. These gatherings are typically three-day affairs for professionals such as lawyers in resort settings. For instance, Consero’s recent Corporate Litigation Forum took place at The Boulders, A Waldorf Astoria resort, in Scottsdale, Arizona in late June.

Holding events like this might not sound revolutionary, but in today’s marketplace, it’s a somewhat unusual approach. Many of the companies, institutions and nonprofits that used to hold giant events have scaled back conference attendance to one or two days at most–to avoid losing productive work time–and opted for moderately priced settings that offer convenience, like airport hotels.

Nonetheless, Consero Group is doing well, thanks, in part, to Mandell’s ability to tap into his frustration about the meetings he attended in earlier phases of his career. He formerly practiced as a corporate lawyer after serving as a senior editor of the Yale Law Review when he attended Yale Law School. He went on to start Clutch Legal Staffing, a legal support company that had about $20 million in revenues when he sold it to another company in 2007.

Along the way, he went to lots of industry events and sponsored some. One thing that vexed him was how many sponsors were competing for attendees’ attention, piranha-like, at some events. “All of the sponsors were relegated to a booth farm,” he says. “It was very hard to get to know the attendees and stave off the competition.”

He started Consero Group to offer a different approach to events in 2010. Consero Group packages entire events, down to choosing the roster of speakers, and sells a limited set of sponsorships. “We do turn away some sponsors with the hope of creating a different type of experience,” he says. The sponsors seem to appreciate it. “It’s not uncommon for more than 50% of our sponsors to come back, which in this market is not something you take for granted,” he says.

While some meeting organizers continue to shorten the duration of professional gatherings in response to attendees’ demands or to switch to “virtual” get-togethers, Mandell is sticking with his guns. “We’re not changing our model, primarily because one of the most valuable elements of our events is the networking,” he says. That takes time, he says. The company, which has raised just under $1 million in equity capital, hopes to hold more than 200 events by 2016, he says.

It’ll be interesting to see how Consero Group fares in a climate of continuing economic uncertainty. The meetings industry has recovered somewhat from the darkest days of the recession, but, by many accounts, it’s not back to where it was during the last economic boom. Many meeting organizers are still concerned about how the public or shareholders will view spending on meetings, even when going to a meeting or trade show does help with sales.

Mandell isn’t deterred. ”A non-tech startup can be disruptive,” says Mandell. “It can still have a growth trajectory similar to a tech company.”

He may be onto something. Last year, the company, which has about 33 employees, brought in more than $2 million in revenues.

“We’re on a mission here,” he says. “We are passionate about delivering a better kind of event.”

Perhaps this is a reflection of how many tech firms pitch their stories to me, but I found it refreshing to hear from someone who, in his own words, is working in what’s “not the most sexy industry”–but still sees lots of opportunity ahead. So often, the Reddits and their competitors grab all of the headlines, but they’re not the only ones that offer interesting business lessons.