There’s a shiny Studebaker pickup sitting in Austin Johnston’s office. When the planner couldn’t find the right vehicle to rent for Keurig’s float for the 2014 Hollywood Christmas Parade, he bought the pickup on eBay and hired a trucking company to bring it from Staten Island, New York, to Los Angeles in four days. With the help of his team, including an expert mechanic, Johnston returned the 1949 model to all its gleaming, persimmon glory before its big parade debut. “I take it to lunch every once in a while to make sure it runs,” Johnston says.
The restoration is one of many bold moves taken by the 28-year-old founder and executive director of AKJohnston Group to boost his events to the next level. Starting out in sales at a production group, he entered the events business seven years ago—in the middle of the Great Recession, and barely of legal drinking age. After specializing in lighting, Johnston wanted to branch out to focus on brands. In 2008, he launched AKJohnston Group, an Orange, California-based company he started with $5,000 and three storage units that have since grown by 300 percent. The young entrepreneur is a pioneer in his field, always brainstorming unusual, eye-catching ways to connect audiences to brands. “I love to do fun, crazy stuff,” he says. As Connect’s Kelsey Ogletree discovered in an interview days after Johnston hosted a wildly successful party for Keurig, his passion for the industry is evident.
Tell us about a recent conference you organized.
An international company came to us and said they don’t have the money to do what we do. I said, “I think we can give you better engineers, a better plan and better equipment.” Because I have all this equipment, we can do everything custom, starting with a custom stage skirt and podium. When you’re in the audience, you walk in and notice a difference. We did that for the client for 10 percent less than in-house AV and created more compelling digital imagery on the screen.
How do you spice up a typical slideshow presentation?
At educational conferences, there’s always the same old death by PowerPoint. When you’re able to inject a little bit more into that, people like it. For example, one of my clients asked what we could do to create more energy between each session. My team pulled video clips to help the audience go from micro to macro (think big-idea videos to head off each session, like TED talks). Any way you can, draw parallels with more overarching themes to make people care. For example, take a banking conference and relate it to more global things. Make it beyond the conference room, beyond the company.
What about general sessions?
One thing I do at all my conferences is put a giant screen upstage with a countdown session. As soon as you run late, especially before a lunch session, people start looking at their watches. Even if you have to tell the CEO to get offstage, you’re saving him from himself. Talk to your AV provider and get a countdown clock in there. It’s cheap to do, and people are excited to start and end on time.
What’s a low-cost way to jazz up AV?
Get a Lucite podium and put your company name on it. People go crazy over branded podiums, and they’re cheap to do. Think about it: Whenever someone recaps an event, most of the photos are taken at the podium. Swap out that beat-up wooden one for something memorable.
What are your tips for transforming a generic ballroom?
People think too much about package A, B or C without thinking about how to maximize content. For example, if you’re putting gobos on the walls of a convention center ballroom, once you hit four gobos, ask your AV team for a projector. Once you hit four, you could put a projector on a stick for the same price, but it’s going to look better and you can put in content.
How do you create something amazing from a blank space?
We do a lot of weird things. We planned a really boring grand opening of an office complex, and the whole floor of the building was empty. So we created a regulation-size pingpong table (built by our in-house metal fabricator) with the company logo on pingpong paddles. There are all these photos now with the mayor of the city playing pingpong with the company name visible. It created a great photo opportunity.
What’s another example of a vignette you’ve done?
We did a photo booth option for K-Cups at the Keurig Grammy party. It created a digital and a physical experience. We had a pixelated background behind them made of images of the 400 K-Cup flavors. Out of 300 guests at the event, we had 360 photos posted. The physical experience was the K-Cup lids. The digital experience—this very pixelated-looking background—got people engaged in selling the marketing message. You show this photo to a friend, and they ask what’s behind you. It’s an educational process they take away and end up talking about. It’s a subliminal way of bringing in the elements to keep people talking after the events. The biggest thing is engaging a dialogue with them afterward of their own free will.
How do you convert a physical experience to digital?
The most important thing when we’re doing an experiential space, whether it’s an after-party or a trade show booth, is how we can give someone the tone, mood and atmosphere for the brand without using its logo. You need to personify and bring the brand to life. Bring it a personality. When you walk into a trade show booth, and someone thinks, “OMG, this is so that company,” then you’ve done your job. It can be through lighting, furniture, messaging and signage—but it’s the total mood and feel. The hardest thing to get is what that brand feels like.
What do you make of current design trends? Marketing trends roll in and roll out, and they’re not bad. Fads are when you look at photos in a year and you’re embarrassed. I’m super burned out on market lights and marquee signage. Those can be just too kitsch. That being said, there are trends that are very cool. We did a K-shaped doughnut for the Keurig party. Those were a little kitschy, but for the brand it translates and people will digest that well. Keurig has a doughnut-flavored coffee, and really, what better treat to have if you’re drunk at an after-party?
What’s the biggest thing conferences are missing?
An espresso bar. How many people go to Starbucks before they start their day, and how many conferences serve nothing but terrible burnt coffee in the buffet line? At one conference, we did a latte bar for 2,000 people, and for that investment, people appreciate and remember that. At the Keurig party, we had a Keurig bar set up in the back of the room. People loved it because they knew how to use it and they could choose their own. It was a win-win because people enjoyed it and the company got high-level executives sampling their coffee.
So a little kitsch works sometimes?
Despite me saying I don’t love kitsch ideas, there are times where you can make it work. We did a corporate Christmas party, and because I now own that Studebaker, we parked it in front of the country club and put a Christmas tree and snow in the back as people were coming in. We folded down the tailgate later and had chestnuts roasting on an open fire for guests to take when they were waiting for valet. It was a fun takeaway, and we rebooted a classic—a vintage pickup truck, not Santa in a sleigh.
That also sounds like a good way to solve the pain point of waiting in line. Any other ideas for easing wait times for attendees?
Always put a video screen behind or next to your bar. Planners spend all this money and time thinking about how to advertise stuff and get logos up. If you put a video screen next to the bar where people are waiting in line, at least the content is being absorbed, and sometimes we even find people are more engaged with it.
Speaking of bars, have you done any interesting setups? We had a client who wanted to start a “Wine Wednesday” every week. We wanted to create a bar that’s not a bar for them. But with licensing restrictions, you can’t just have people walking around with alcohol. So we built an 8-by-8-ft. hedge wall with pressurized wine dispensers built in, so we can serve nice wines by the glass. We created a different pouring experience just by taking the bar and putting it vertically and having a sharp-dressed guy in front of it telling people what is available. It’s still legal, safe and controllable. I’ve seen bucket-of-beer situations… don’t get me started.