Departure of VOICE Summit shows challenges Newark, state still face on global stage

By Tom Bergeron
Newark | Nov 15, 2019 at 6:55 am
Editor’s Desk

Pete Erickson, the founder and creator of the VOICE Summit, said all the right things.

So did Aaron Price, the CEO of the New Jersey Tech Council.

And Karin Aaron, the CEO of the Greater Newark Convention & Visitors Bureau.

But the simple fact remains. When Erickson announced earlier this month that the VOICE Summit will not return to Newark and the campus of New Jersey Institute of Technology for year three next summer, the city lost more than just a four-day event that serves as the biggest gathering for those involved in one of the hottest technologies, voice recognition.

Newark lost an opportunity to prove it can host world-class events.

Erickson, who picked Newark over New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles two years ago, said he pitched the idea of staying five years. The popularity of the event, however, overwhelmed his expectations. Last summer, it drew more than 4,000 people from 30 countries. Erickson realized Newark could not keep up. (News of the conference’s departure was first reported by NJTechWeekly.com, a partner of ROI-NJ.)

“I have no regrets on choosing Newark as the launch for VOICE Summit,” he told ROI-NJ. “It gave us a unique platform. We chose Newark on the merits. There’s a lot there. But the conference was moving at a trajectory that Newark cannot keep up with. We think we’re headed for 25,000 people.

“I don’t want to beat up on Newark. We had a very good experience. We made a lot of friends. I feel like we made a great decision on being in Newark, especially our first two years. But the conference was drawing at a trajectory where we needed to move into a larger market. So, that’s what we did.”

The words only tell part of the reality of the situation. Aaron discussed the venue.

“I saw this coming,” she said. “NJIT is a wonderful facility, but it’s a college campus and hotels are not on it. There was no way to do this in one self-contained venue, like you would at a major convention center.”

This only adds credence to one of the best ideas we’ve heard in the past five years: The desire of Meadowlands Chamber CEO Jim Kirkos to bring a world-class convention center to North Jersey.

But even a facility such as that may not be enough.

Price, as founder of the Propelify Festival, has learned firsthand what others don’t understand: Newark — and other New Jersey cities — doesn’t attract the same amount of sponsorship dollars that other areas do.

Price has resisted the idea of moving Propelify. In fact, his recent ascension to head of the Tech Council was done, in part, with the benefit of having a bigger organization, which could bring in bigger sponsors.

Erickson knows he will see this benefit next year. He knows the event, which will be held in Northern Virginia, right outside of Washington, D.C. — and in the shadows of Amazon’s HQ2 project — will attract bigger dollars.

And — here’s a lesson the state needs to learn — more support.

Erickson was not hesitant to say he was disappointed in the support the event got in its second year. He noted, gratefully, the support of three major Newark institutions: Prudential Financial, Audible and Public Service Enterprise Group. But he was hoping for more. And he was hoping for more support from the state. While the Economic Development Authority was a sponsor, Gov. Phil Murphy was a surprising no-show.

The fact remains: Newark — or anywhere in New Jersey — remains a tough sell on the national and global market.

“What VOICE did was show the potential that Newark can have in the market,” Price said. “The ambition and the desire are there. But it is a challenge.

“The successes of VOICE and Propelify show we have the community to handle world-class events, but it also shows the difficulties in doing so.”