The New York Times is using its upcoming Food Festival as a testing bed for a revamped live events strategy – one which, like the rest of its content, sees its commercial team walk in step behind the direction of its editors.
Much like publishers such as Condé Nast, Hearst and the UK’s ESI Media, The New York Times has become more serious about positioning events as a critical revenue driver.
Allison Murphy, its senior vice-president of ad innovation, set out the company’s plans to grow its live offering at the Times’ NewFront earlier this year, announcing initiatives such as an event supporting the European expansion of its Daily podcast and its inaugural Food Festival.
The paper isn’t a complete stranger to the world of live events, having run 35,000-delegate New York Times Travel Show since 2005. However, the Food Festival, slated to run across the brand’s hometown in early October, will see it level up to the production values of its rival publishers with its first original live product for consumers – not trade.
“The Times has been super-focused on its newsroom and on getting the journalism right ... that's what's helped us stand out and that's what our readers are paying for,” said Lisa Howard, the company’s senior vice-president general manager for media. “I view [the festival] as an innovation for us, not because it's a new format, but because the way we're doing it is really deliberate. It's really about our journalism and [we're] not just trying to make some money on ticket sales.
“That obviously contributes to the bottom line and that helps us afford to do it. But when I say that the editors are curating and running it, that means they're going to make the decisions that are best for the New York Times journalism and not for the bottom line. That's an important distinction.”
At the top, it’s the founding editor of NYT Cooking, Sam Sifton, that’s calling the shots on content. The decision to put the veteran journalist in charge over a commercial lead was one not made by a singular person; rather, it organically spun from the Times’ current elevation of its reporting staff.
The Cannes Lions award-winning ‘The Truth is Worth it’ campaign demonstrated how the publication is committing to putting its journalists at the heart of everything it doe, as did the launch of Times Insider – ‘behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together’ and Michael Barbaro’s decision to interview his own co-workers on The Daily.
“There's this idea of readers wanting to get to know the journalist behind the stories that they're reading ... and so we knew that we wanted to bring our editors to life for our readers,” said Howard.
“We make more money from subscriptions than we do from advertising, and that's not typical in the industry. When you can see the light on that, I think you start to understand that everything is really driven by your reader. “[The Times] wasn’t going to do this if I couldn't at least make it make sense financially. But the thing I think that would kill any venture that we had before money [was involved] would be if it didn’t reflect our brand. We’re just guided by that. And if we can make this thing work financially, all those other benefits will come.”
The result of empowering Times journalists to curate pretty much every part of the program is a festival comprised of a highly vetted ‘Restaurant Row’ of vendors in Bryant Park, live demonstrations from the best cooks in the game, an Ideas Festival held at the Times Center and a serious of ticketed, exclusive dinners held at the hottest restaurants across town, according to chief restaurant critic Pete Wells.
The festival is one of the first times it will be a case of all hands on deck at The Times, which Howard notes were living a “siloed culture” up until the last few years.
While its food writers will quite literally take center stage, they will be supported by everyone from Howard’s team, which is currently inking sponsorship deals, to the company’s T Brand content studio, which is producing a branded programming guide across digital and print.
Reporters and editors from across other reporting verticals will contribute, too. The event may present fluffier content than is produced by, say, its journalists investigating the southern border crisis, however, Howard stressed it is not meant to be “light – it is meant to be culturally inclusive”.
Thus, the line-up also includes Michael Kimmelman, the Times’ architecture critic, discussing the physical build of restaurants, and its pop critic, Jon Caramanica, briefed to hold court with the rapper-slash-chef Action Bronson. More programming announcements are still to come.
Such a strong editorial focus has meant the festival’s monetization strategy will be twofold: sell tickets ($25 for general daily admission and $45 for entry to hour-long panel sessions) and supplement this with sponsorship deals. The model is rather like that of the Times’ journalism: charge the readers a subscription for journalism they want and augment this revenue with advertising dollars.
“This is really Sam [Sifton’s] vision ... and that helps us keep it clearly in the lens of something that's for our readers – something that is worth paying for and not just a marketing event,” said Howard. “Sam and I both felt exactly the same way on that – that this is not a chance to market to people. This is a chance to let them experience our journalism and nothing is going to get in the way of that.
“The New York Times has had huge success in the last couple of years because we've been staying true to that, because we've been following the eye of our reader, not, the eye of an advertiser or the cheapest, quickest way to get a subscription.”
The Food Festival sponsors, which currently comprise the likes of Mastercard, Uber Eats, Diageo and Deloitte, will therefore not be paying to shoehorn their execs onto panels or shilling for product placement from a Times editor.
Howard’s team are instead working to build bespoke packages so they actively contribute towards the ticket-hold experience; Mastercard, for instance, will be making such the Bryant Park vendors can operate with or without cash, and Uber Eats will be helping deliver the exclusive fare created by chefs specifically for the festival to consumers outside of the Midtown location.
“The editors are not involved in any of the activations – that is absolutely a no-go and will not change,” said Howard, noting that – so far – brands have not been asking for such a deal.
“I think they see the value in just associating with the New York Times,” she said.
Providing the event is an editorial and commercial success (Howard is laser-focused on making it profitable), then the Times will begin to invest more in the live events space.
What that investment would turn into is unclear currently, but Howard throws around ideas about expansion outside of New York, a bigger festival with wider programming and the creation of new events in other verticals such as travel. She also hopes the sponsorship relations forged in these early stages will carry forward into new ventures.
So why was food was chosen as the subject of the Times’ consumer event debut?
“We live in a very divided world,” said Howard. “Food is one of those great unifiers – it's a way to bring people together.”