Retrospective Part Two: Rolling the Dice at MJBizCon

I just arrived in Las Vegas for MJBizCon 2018. It’s an event that touts itself as the marijuana industry’s biggest trade show (not sure how you measure that when the world seems awash in marijuana conferences and expos). Getting ready, I keep thinking about my experiences at the first MJBizCon in November 2014, when the event was much smaller, but the stakes for me were much, much higher.

I had heard about the conference six months earlier. I was in the middle of putting on a series of cannabis-friendly events with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Joining forces with the symphony had been wildly ambitious and more than a little crazy, but it was working at every level, earning us international attention. But what would I do next? How could I top coverage in The New York Times?

MJBizCon sounded promising. Back then, there were hardly any cannabis conferences being planned, much less any based in a hotspot like Las Vegas. At the time, I wasn’t looking for investors or ways to launch my own cannabis accessories company. I was thinking maybe I could connect with some major marijuana businesses at the tradeshow and end up with a job as an events director. But how could I get any of them to notice me? Or was I destined to fade away, a one-trick pot pony?

In a flash of serendipity, I noticed the conference was taking place at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. To ring in the first New Year of the new millennium, a bunch of my friends and I had rented an RV and driven to Vegas, where we’d celebrated the arrival of the year 2000 at a party on the rooftop of the Rio. What was that space? I called the Rio and was told I was thinking of their presidential suite – the only room in the entire hotel that had a balcony (which was needed if I was hosting parties where people could consume cannabis). No one else involved with the conference had thought to reserve it.

I booked the suite for the week of the conference for $1,200 a night, despite the fact that I didn’t know how, exactly, I’d cover the cost. I approached the rest of my pre-conference prep work with the same blithe optimism. I ordered thousands of cocktail napkins branded with the name of my company, “Edible Events,” actually far too many for the undertaking, I still have stacks in my basement. I spent weeks preparing the invite list for my big party. For music, I dismantled and packed up our home speaker system, leaving wires sticking out of our walls.

I arrived in Las Vegas with six suitcases of party materials in tow. I hardly had time to take in the awesome view from the balcony before I got to work, stocking the suite with water and Lacroix purchased in bulk from the nearby Costco, and then organizing the space with the help of my friend Whitney, a former work colleague I’d flown out to lend a hand. Once the conference began, I didn’t bother with the panels or seminars. I prowled the exhibition hall and hallways, seeking out key players I’d researched well in advance and passing party invitations that were designed to look like room keys.

I also met with a journalist who’d contacted me out of the blue: Alex Halperin, who was just starting to cover the cannabis industry for Fast Company. I sat down for a breakfast interview with him at Hash House A Go Go, the main breakfast joint at the Rio. As I dug into my bacon and eggs, I carefully recounted the talking points I’d prepared and rehearsed. This was Fast Company, after all. I wanted to sound legit.

Everything culminated with the big party in the presidential suite. One minute, I was rushing around, worrying over last-minute details. The next minute, I stepped out from a side room and found the suite packed wall to wall with people. The music was loud, the vibe was electric – and everyone everywhere was smoking pot. Out on the balcony, around the open-air pool, well-dressed conference goers from all over the country were lighting up joints and blowing smoke into the Las Vegas night.

I had a moment of panic, thinking all that cannabis was going to get us kicked out. But the hotel staffer assigned to be our concierge set me straight. Compared to everything else he’d seen transpire in this suite over his years, a bunch of people smoking cannabis was nothing.

I woke up mid-morning the next day to the sound of someone exclaiming, “Oh my God!” A friend who was crashing in the suite ran into my bedroom to show me what she was reading online: Alex Halperin’s story for Fast Company. I read the first line: “I got a drink from a bar that was lit up green, the color of money, and went to meet Jane West.”

Alex had come to the party the night before, and had made the experience – and my story – the focal point of his article. I didn’t have a conference booth and I hadn’t even bothered to purchase a conference pass, but Fast Company had decided to put me front and center in its coverage of the trade show. Once again, I’d aimed for the stars, doubts and uncertainties be damned – and somehow I’d succeeded. At a time when no one was throwing formal cannabis-friendly social events – part of a social consumption conundrum that still exists today – I’d pulled off the biggest party at the biggest cannabis trade show and earned national media attention for doing so. (I also broke even, thanks to a few organizations and companies that rented the suite from me for other conference-related events.)

More than any other moment, this was the moment when I started to feel legitimate, that I wasn’t just a flash in the pan. I was a cannabis entrepreneur, and I was in it for the long haul.

Maybe I just got lucky. Las Vegas, after all, is about tempting fate – sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But I don’t think so. I think the secret was I’d spent months planning for the conference, ignoring all those voices in my head telling me I was crazy and it was time to go back to a normal job. Yes, in the heady world of cannabis these days, whether you succeed or fail is sometimes out of your control. But I am a firm believer that if you want to improve your chances, you have to be ready to put in the work: Long days and nights of sweat equity, plus a healthy dose of raw, sometimes wild, ambition. This combination won’t always be enough to make your dreams a reality. But sometimes, all of that effort and determination will help you win – and win big.

See you in Las Vegas!