Imagine standing in the middle of an expansive desert. Walking among fellow dwellers, you arrive at a 14-foot wooden structure shaped like an Owl. There’s no sign or explanation, only an open invitation for curious visitors to come inside and explore. Adjacent to the Owl sits a man at a typewriter tapping out impromptu poetry from passersby suggestions. Behind him a woman plays a hand drum and offers you a gratis grilled cheese. Welcome to Burning Man.
Held in the seemingly inhospitable blank slate of the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada, this beloved festival becomes a magical pop-up city built by 70,000 global attendees. Affectionately referred to as “home,” Burning Man holds the philosophy that every attendee or “Burner” is a participant and citizen of Black Rock City; there are no spectators. Each event is different (no professional acts or entertainment are booked), as citizens are encouraged to create the inclusive spaces, events, and art themselves.
Part of creating a personalized, memorable brand experience is making sure the experience is immersive — Burning Man embraces this best practice to the delight of enthusiastic repeat attendees. Whether it’s a festival in the desert or your industry’s annual conference, if the experience speaks to the intellect, imagination, and heart of your target audience, they’ll return year after year.
Burning Man runs on ten main principles that draw in attendees:
- Radical Inclusion
- Radical Self-reliance
- Radical Self-expression
- Communal Effort
- Civic Responsibility
- Gifting (it’s a no-cash zone!)
- Leave No Trace (go green!)
In addition to its abundance of personal inspiration and self-discovery, Burning Man offers some key professional insights — namely, what event managers can learn from this festival to gain (and retain!) their own loyal community. Check out these eight themes to inspire your next event.
1. Lead with the heart to create emotional bonds
Think back to the last concert you attended. Did the singer engage with the audience, or did they just stand there and play songs? The best musicians know that for live shows, playing tunes is only part of the job. They also need to entertain: evoke an uplifting mood and create a strong connection with the audience. Entertainers who truly perform are the ones who bring in loyal crowds.
Creating connections is also key to Burning Man's success. Everybody who attends is there to help, be part of the experience, and connect with others, whether they’re sharing resources or lending an ear to a fellow Burner. By fostering that environment, Burning Man nurtures the creation of deep emotional bonds. People come away feeling like they learned, but also that they’ve made a difference.
2. Take chances and unleash the imagination
To create a truly immersive experience, you need to get creative. By offering unique, interesting, and interactive features, you make visitors part of the event, not just passive spectators. This connected environment is created entirely by the community, with people sharing their own visions.
People love beautiful visuals and a chance to express their own creativity. Give them the space and materials to do so and you may wind up inspiring each other.
3. Seek opportunities for new insight
If you go to an event and don't discover anything new, you probably won't return. At Burning Man, there is always something new to discover. The events that generate fandom are those that provoke new ideas, thoughts, and insights. When you have the opportunity to learn from a wide range of people, and to contribute your own thoughts and expertise, you can spark moments where ideas fly like fireworks.
4. Speak to the inner child
Yes, we're all professionals, but there’s no reason why professionalism and play have to be mutually exclusive. The benefits of play for adults have been well-documented, helping us be less stressed, more creative, and more open to learning. And by incorporating play into events, we get more out of the experience. The poet at Burning Man who set up his typewriter by the owl understood the value of play and engagement. His spontaneous poetry was a huge draw, sparking the creativity of everybody involved. At your own events, look over the activities planned and ask yourself if people are likely to have fun with them. It's an important goal, but easy to overlook.
5. Embrace FOMO
Fear of missing out is a powerful human force (the struggle is real!). If your event experience can't be recreated at home, and you can't get the same benefits from dialing in, you're on the right track. Burning Man accomplishes this feat with a sense of impermanence: By embracing change and rejuvenation in its events, no two Burning Mans are exactly alike. The result? Nobody wants to sit out a year, in case they miss something amazing. The event sells out each year; this year the main sale tickets sold out in 35 minutes!
6. Make it sustainable
Burning Man is the largest Leave No Trace event in the world. Being a green event means every attendee must do their part to remove all Matter Out of Place (MOOP). It is an honor to live in this protected desert for the event and the community takes pride in leaving no physical trace after exodus — that practice shows respect to the land and preserves it for coming years and generations. This ethical philosophy is a major part of the event's brand appeal.
You can also help people create an emotional connection with your event by being environmentally responsible. The event industry can generate excessive waste. By examining your footprint throughout the life cycle of the event and thinking of ways to offset it during the event, you can show leadership and generate considerable goodwill.
7. Maximize engagement and build community
By engaging in literal community building, complete with a city name (Black Rock City), nicknames for the locale ("The City" or "The Playa"), a demonym ("Burner"), and a set of societal mores, Burning Man becomes more than an event — it’s a creative exchange between like-minded people. It’s built entirely for that community who shares their resources, art, ideas, and energy.
It takes a village to create a successful event. By practicing "radical inclusion" and thinking of every person involved in your event as part of one cohesive group, you set the stage for engagement. Come up with ways in which you can make exhibitors, sponsors, event staff, and attendees all feel like they're part of one big community creating something amazing, helping each other learn and grow.
8. Sit with what you've learned
After a big event, it can be tempting to debrief immediately so you don't forget anything. Taking notes so you remember all of the details is important, but as far as digesting and making sense of them? Give yourself a few days. After a high-adrenaline experience, it's important to let the dust settle (and at Burning Man that’s literal!), absorb everything you've experienced and learned, and note what patterns might be forming. Stepping back allows you to view what worked well and how you can make next year's event an entirely new and better experience.
Speaking to the intellect, imagination, and heart is Burning Man’s secret to success. Instead of attracting passive event-goers, Burning Man fosters a participatory community — one that’s emotionally invested and determined to attend every year. By adopting some of Burning Man’s principles, you can increase engagement at your events, garnering a loyal following for years to come.