Thursday, August 09, 2012

Changing The Conference Experience - It Is Not A Zero-Sum Game

Many associations, companies and other groups are talking about ways to re-invent their conferences.  Professional planners are seeking ideas.  Industry organizations are leading the way by introducing new formats into their programs.  Attendees claim to desire unique experiences, and not just the same cookie-cutter events.  There is a buzz in the air for change.

Those of us in the meetings industry are reading countless expert articles on re-invention, but when push comes to shove, many conferences and their audiences are striving to remain the same.

An association planner I talked with said that they loved my "Conference Catalyst" program.  In the early negotiations they said it was "different", and that made it ideal for their goals for this year's event.  They were looking for a fun way to engage their audience in a non-traditional manner, and having speakers from outside their industry was exactly what they were seeking.

In the end they went with a speaker (one who is well known in their space and will do a great job at their event!) who is a more traditional choice for their conference.  When I asked them what influenced the decision they said their board of directors wants to try new things, but believed they should wait another year or two before introducing anything out of the ordinary.  They wanted to be "safe" this year, as the recession was still impacting their numbers.

At another conference I was hosting the "Learning Lounge" (an area with several alternative learning environments).  When an attendee came in the room she was confused by the causal setting and the variety of small expert-led conversation clusters to choose from.  She asked for more information about the format of the "Learning Lounge" and then announced she was more comfortable with a breakout where the speakers lectured rather than held an intimate discussion. She walked out.

So are we really ready for new programs and alternative options?  

Yes... I think we are ready.  And I think, NO... we are not ready.  

This is not an all or nothing change.  Some people are not comfortable with too much change, so they will move slowly (or not at all).  This is okay for now.  Others will go too far too fast and have negative reactions to their new formats.  This is okay too... as we have to try new things or nothing ever happens.

Some "mavericks" will succeed, others will fail.  Some who take no risks will succeed, others will fail if they remain the same.  The trick is that everyone should be learning.  All of us who work in the world of meetings need to observe and discover ways to share best practices.

The key is to find the balance.  Introduce new options into your conference, but be prepared that many people will not select the fresh choices.  Don't wait for next year to try things... but do not toss out the old ways all at once.

My two cents:   For my prospective client... they could have had both their traditional keynote and a non-traditional speaker from outside their industry (like me?) to do a "pre-keynote"... thus giving their audience both the old and the new.  For the woman who was more comfortable with a regular breakout session, maybe she could have come to the "Learning Lounge" for one hour over the three days to try out the alternative option.

Yes changes are coming, but it is not an zero-sum game.

Have A Great Day

thom singer

Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections.

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