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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 1 month ago

Social entrepreneur starts conference from scratch

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The Voice + Visibility Women’s Summit is Feb. 4 in Sarasota.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Shannon Rohrer-Phillips has big goals.

An entrepreneur and education executive, she started a new venture hosting small events with speakers, and now she’s planning a women’s summit for hundreds of attendees that’s bringing big-name speakers to Sarasota.

She’d like the summit to be an annual event that draws people from the area and beyond. “And I’d like it to be wildly profitable,” she says. And have a social impact. It’s a tall order, but Rohrer-Phillips isn’t afraid of the work it will take — and the months of work it’s already taken. “There’s no substitute for incredibly hard work,” she says.

Rohrer-Phillips started with a series of small salon events, the first in October 2018. To date, her company, Shannon Rohrer-Phillips LLC, has put on 12 events. Now she’s days away from her venture’s biggest undertaking yet: the Voice + Visibility Women’s Summit scheduled for Feb. 4 at the Hyatt Regency in Sarasota.

Starting a major conference from scratch involves building an audience, securing speakers and signing sponsors — all while watching the bottom line. “The challenge for me is really pushing myself to stay bottom-line focused,” she says. “I see myself as a creative entrepreneur, yet the challenge now is to look at sustained growth and the bottom line and saying ‘no’ to opportunities that don’t fit.”  

Rohrer-Phillips takes experience into the venture from working in fundraising, advancement and events for Visible Men Academy, a charter school in Bradenton for boys. “I understand the event-planning timeline and the tasks involved,” she says. Prior to her work with the academy, Rohrer-Phillips was a social worker and nonprofit director. “It was time to go back to my roots in a more innovative way,” she says.

The first couple of events she hosted allowed her to determine that getting women to tell their stories had the most impact. “It became clear to me that was the model I wanted,” she says. “Speakers and their stories are just so powerful.”

The smaller events she’s held served as proof-of-concept testing for a larger event. Her goal is to host one flagship event annually plus other smaller events. Hosting more than one event is important, she says. “It’s about keeping the relationships warm.”

For 2020, she has additional smaller events planned and is looking at venues that can accommodate 50 to 75 people. She also already has a date for next year’s summit — Feb. 5, 2021.

Rohrer-Phillips has self-funded so far and declines to disclose the up-front investment, which includes the cost of speakers, the venue and more. “I’ve bootstrapped very painfully, but I’m glad I have,” she says. “It’s important to me to build something brick by brick.”

She has a revenue goal, but also declines to disclose that figure, saying the summit is on track to meet it. Rohrer-Phillips will measure the event's success in part through financials. “Obviously I need it to be profitable,” she says. “We’ll be consistently looking at how did we keep our overhead contained. I want to grow my team and invest in them more, so profitability is important.”

‘I’m a persistent entrepreneur. I’m definitely not afraid of the ‘no.’’ — Shannon Rohrer-Phillips, Shannon Rohrer-Phillips LLC

The team that includes a production coordinator, marketing coordinator and legal and finance advisors working part-time and on a freelance basis. She’s the only full-time employee. Another measure of success, she says, would be having an in-house production and creative team.

Rohrer-Phillips has had success attracting local and national sponsors. They’ve found the summit’s audience — diverse and heavily female — is a good demographic.

One key challenge the summit has faced is Sarasota is an event-saturated market, which can make it difficult to stand out. Rohrer-Phillips and her team have used social media and grassroots marketing to help spread the word.

Rohrer-Phillips believes the path to greater profitability involves signing on bigger speakers who lead to a higher ticket price and larger sponsors. She's also looking at other potential revenue streams beyond events. That could include digital content, merchandise and media content, which is in the pipeline for the next 12 to 18 months.

She will also gather feedback from summit speakers, sponsors and guests about how to improve. “I think it will really help us to refine year two,” she says. “The goal is to make it an annual destination.”

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