Kate Levenstien: Founder, Cannonball Productions

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A lifelong foodie with an insatiable appetite for adventure, Kate Levenstien 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. When she isn't busy making bacon and beer lovers' dreams come true, Kate loves exploring her Big Apple home. You can find her listening to live music in Brooklyn; seeking out the best ramen shops across Manhattan; or cheering on her alma mater team, the Wisconsin Badgers, from her favorite dive bar.

How did you get into the industry?

I graduated in 2008 during the recession. I was working for the Oprah show and after it ended my then-boyfriend and I decided to backpack. While in Vietnam, I was recruited by LivingSocial, which was then a new startup launching a live events division. I transferred my live TV production skills to live events for the Chicago and the Midwest market. I was 24 and in two and a half years, we grew the team to 50 but management issues led to the shutdown of the division.

I loved what I was doing at LivingSocial so much and there were very few jobs out there like it. My mom was an entrepreneur who founded a corporate relocation company in the 90s that employed 150 people. She was the one who said ‘Why don’t you run your company?’ So I leveraged my background and relationships at Living Social and launched Cannonball Productions and our first Bacon and Beer Classic in 2013.

Any emerging industry trends?

Both the food and events industries are always evolving, which keeps our work interesting and challenging. Instagrammable experiences are particularly trendy right now, like 29Rooms. We are conscious of the fact that as much as attendees want to take in our events physically, they also want to capture their favorite moments digitally and share them on social media. We are keeping social shareability in mind as we work on our lineup of spring festivals.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

One of my biggest challenges is adapting our production and marketing strategy to fit the new cities and stadiums we visit, from coordinating with the stadium to recruiting local vendors to selling tickets in a new market. No matter how prepared and strategic we are, each new city posts a significant risk. Touring nationally definitely keeps us on our toes! Another challenge has been building and maintaining a strong team. No one tells you how HR is the most difficult component! As a small business owner, I am constantly thinking about how to find the right talent, retain that talent, and structure the company so that it continues to grow with my team.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

I am passionate about bringing people together and getting them out of their normal routine to try something new. Nothing makes me happier than creating new connections and providing people with unique places, experiences, and conversations to explore. I launched Cannonball Productions as a way to do just that. The perfect marriage of food, drink and adventure, our festivals give attendees the opportunity to experience the products they love in a completely new way.

My vision moving forward is to introduce new event concepts and refine our current festival lineup, which includes the nationally-touring Bacon and Beer Classic, Taco Takeover, and Whiskey Feast. As we build a loyal following in host cities across the country, it’s important that we continue to innovate and think creatively about how to produce a quality attendee experience. This year will mark the fifth anniversary of the Bacon and Beer Classic in Seattle and NYC, for example, and we are committed to making the experience just as special and unique for returning attendees as it was their first time.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

We just launched tickets for The Bacon and Beer Classic in Santa Clara, Seattle, and Denver with the Twin Cities coming up next.  We are also exploring new venues for the Classic in NYC so stay tuned!

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

Right now, a key initiative for our success and a major focus for our team is developing sponsorships and brand partnerships. Hormel Black Label Bacon is our national bacon sponsor, for example, and our relationship is mutually beneficial in that it allows us to activate unique bacon tastings and pairings on site and it also gives Hormel the opportunity to engage with new and existing customers in a profound way. We recently offered our Nashville attendees the chance to get upgraded to a VIP ticket if they bought a package of Black Label bacon before the Classic, and we saw an overwhelmingly positive response. After all, who wouldn't want to buy a package of their favorite bacon AND have a VIP experience? There are so many creative ways to work with sponsors to increase revenue flow, build brand awareness, and surprise and delight attendees. It's a triple win!

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

Growth can be more difficult than it seems. This fall we we introduced a new event concept in three major markets; hired more team members; and experimented with a new production process. Juggling all three of those initiatives and shifts within the company was exciting but also challenging. It’s important, especially on a small, constantly evolving team like ours, to take the time to reflect on and refine our processes as we move forward.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

Our festivals draw thousands of attendees who are attracted to the experience for different reasons. At any Bacon and Beer Classic, for example, the crowd might include die-hard sports fans, beer connoisseurs, beer novices, foodies, bacon lovers, couples, groups of friends...the list goes on and on. Because of the diversity of our audience, we work hard to produce an event that offers something for everyone. Outside of the food and drink sampling, guests are able to play games, compete in a bacon eating contest, talk with brewers, explore on the field, and more. We also sell a range of ticket types, from General Admission to Power Hour to VIP, to match everyone’s preferences.

In addition to the variety of activations on site, our all-inclusive model means that attendees never have to think about their wallets. From the minute our guests walk through the main gate and are handed signature keepsake tasting cups, unlimited sampling is guaranteed. This fosters a more intimate relationship between attendees and vendors, who mingle with guests and share the inspiration for the dishes and beers they serve.

How do you motivate others?

I am a big believer in giving my team as much creative control and responsibility as possible. Everyone has a voice and a stake in our events, no matter how junior or senior they are. I think it's motivating for team members to know that I trust them and their ideas, whether it's a bold email subject line, a new on-site activation, or an experimental social media campaign.

I also think that work-life balance is important for keeping the team motivated and committed. We work from home on Fridays in the summer and anyone is able to work remotely when needed. I love being able to accommodate and reward dedicated team members with that flexibility.

Career advice to those in your industry?

The first piece of advice I can offer is to think big -- it will take you a lot farther than following the status quo. Look in the mirror and see a lion rather than a cat. Secondly, if you have a good idea, pursue it but also protect it. At the end of the day, business is business. I try to neutralize potential competition by forming strategic partnerships and seeking out opportunities for collaboration. The last piece of advice, and this is especially true when first starting out: you won’t know everything, and you might feel lost or unable to succeed. Initially you’re trying to prioritize different foundational elements from forming a legal business entity and cash flow to the brand and website.  Everyone experiences this overwhelming confusion, and the best thing you can do is educate yourself, network, make a decision, and move forward.