8 Ways To Provide Remarkable, Purple Cow, Unique Conference Experiences

There seems to be an important theme lately in some bloggers posts.

The topic de jour is the poor quality of conferences.

These bloggers are tired of paying for negative conference experiences. Their posts give conference organizers some insight into what attendees really value at events.

Conference attendees speak out about their experiences.

Conference attendees speak out about their experiences.

Olivier Blanchard has some harsh, strong and truthful thoughts about social media conferences. His thoughts apply to all events, not just social media conferences.

Thoughts On The Sorry State Of Social Media Conferences- Comments From Readers

3 Conferences & A Funeral – Part 1: Good Conferences Vs. Pointless Conferences
Don’t miss the 70+ comments from conference attendees too. There’s gold in them there attendee hills.

Nathaniel Whittemore wrote The Conference Is Dead (…Does Anyone Care?). He has more than 20 comments, many from dissatisfied attendees. More than 600 people clicked the link I sent out about this post so a lot of people are reading it)

Angela Rao-Brown wrote Are Conferences Really Necessary? about the 2009 SHRM conference.

What do these posts and comments all have a common?

  • Dissatisfied conference attendees
  • Average presentations with boring speakers typically chosen from “a call for proposals”
  • Monologue presentations with little audience engagement
  • Lack of structured peer-to-peer learning and facilitated networking
  • $200-$600 registration fees for status-quo conference experiences

I think these writings are a wake-up call to meeting and event professionals. So what can we do differently to provide a better experience for attendees? How can we create more value for our attendee? How can we create raving evangelists of our conferences and events?

Here are eight things meeting and event professionals can do to provide remarkable, purple cow, unique experience with stellar content

1. Focus on the strategic and education design of the conference first.
What are the goals of the event? How do we provide a memorable, unique and remarkable experience? Think strategic first. Then proceed to the logistics and details of the event.

2. Think holistically about the attendee experience.
Put the attendee first. What can we do to upgrade the attendee experience? If it fits with the goal of the event, how can we create a unique, themed experience from the first marketing piece to the post-event reflections? How can attendees help create the experience? Think of Disney, Starbucks and Vegas which all have experiential elements. Stay away from hokey themes. What “Wow factors” can we employ?

3. Find some unexpected and unusual experiences to shake up the traditional conference format.
Do all presentations have to happen at the front of the room? What about using multiple small stages throughout the room? What about in-the-round? Think about the music you’ll use for walk-ins and walkouts. Consider the décor as it affects the experience.

4. Include money in the budget to pay for quality speakers.
It is imperative that conference organizers at a minimum cover conference registration, lodging, travel and expenses when securing speakers. Stop asking professional speakers to present for free. Write incentives into speaker contracts. If the speaker scores 80%-90% favorable from attendees according to your evaluation process, give them a bonus of $xx amount of dollars. If they score 91%-100% favorable, give them a higher bonus. You get the picture. Put the burden of the speaking performance back on the speaker. They’ll either live up to the job or stop asking for fees to speak.

5. Decide what topics should be discussed before choosing speakers.
What trends are impacting attendees? Identify the niche groups in your audience and topics that will attract each. Think about advanced topics too. Choose the topics first, not the speakers. Then find speakers to meet those topics. Don’t depend on the call for proposals to provide you with the best speakers or best topics. Search for the right speakers and current thought leaders. Talk to those thought leaders and ensure that they know how to present using good adragogy (adult learning techniques). Once topics are chosen, think of ways to extend that content by providing basic and foundational content through webinars and blog posts before the event. Then provide advanced content onsite.

6. Consider how to provide the best education design possible for those living in a Web 2.0 world.
Is this conference only about those attending the face-to-face event? Or do you need to engage a larger community including virtual attendees? What social elements can you add to the conference to extend the community experience? Should you provide a genius bar, free Wi-Fi, a bloggers lounge, etc. View the face-to-face conference as one touchpoint within a larger eco-system of the community experience.

7. Choose a variety of presentation delivery methods for the conference experience.
Intentionally structure both vertical, monologue, one-way presentations and then provide facilitated dialogues and polylogues to discuss that content. When choosing panels, choose moderators with experience that can keep the discussion flowing. Create horizontal, networked learning with peer-to-peer facilitated sessions. Provide plenty of adult white space to allow attendees to digest information and connect with each other.

8. Provide opportunities for attendees to learn without walls and customize their experience to their own needs while providing cutting-edge, content in a variety of ways.

What would you add? What have you done that’s been successful for creating a unique, remarkable purple cow event?


  1. says


    Jeff – Great insight. I’ve thought a lot about how to improve conference content over the years, having been to some yawners myself. Crowdsourcing has some potential there and you hit on it in point 5. Imagine going out to the conference community first to ask what their “pains” are, who they’re following on Twitter, what books they are reading and what they would like to learn at a conference (that no one is teaching them now). I bet there would be some interesting responses to build a conference program around. Focus groups and exhibitor/attendee advisory boards are too limited. You need the power of the crowd.

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Thanks for adding to this post. I agree that crowdsourcing offers some potential to see what attendees would like, the topics they would like to learn more about and the authors they’re reading. I actually tried crowdsourcing speakers and topics several years ago and learned some valuable lessons from it. I think meeting professionals need to provide a mix of giving the audience what they say they want and also other speakers to help them think outside their boxes. When I gave my attendees the exact authors they wanted or speakers they requested, they sometimes scored those speakers low because they were not great speakers. So I try to provide a mix. One of the biggest challenges is the attendee doesn’t know what they don’t know so I see it as the conference organizers to try to see ahead of the audience with some topics that they might completely be missing. It will be interesting to watch as some event organizers maximize crowdsourcing for their benefit for sure.

  2. says

    Jeff, great post! I think you are right on the mark from a content perspective. Bottom line, none of us is as smart as all of us.

    To get the ultimate purple cow conference experience though, one needs to engage the Heart in addition to the Intellect. If you can make the attendees laugh or cry, it will be a more memorable and shared experience.

    In my view, the icing on the cake for face2face events is connections. Conference organizers need to find ways to put their networking on steroids (more, faster, better). Obviously, social media can play a role, but we need to go old school with it too. I’m collecting my thoughts on this now and will work it into a couple sessions and articles I’m working on in the coming weeks.

    Dave Lutz – @velchain
    Velvet Chainsaw Consulting

    • Jeff Hurt says


      Thanks for adding to the conversation. Yes, yes, yes, you hit it on the head that event professionals need to create emotional connections through out their event. Help attendees laugh, cry, feel a sense of awe, wonder and gratitude. That’s exactly why storytelling is so powerful and some motivational speakers are successful. They’ve learned to move the emotions.

      I also agree that it’s about making connections and networking. Tweetups, speed networking, Peer2Peer round table discussions, coffee klatches, open space meetings, “really live face-to-face chat rooms,” meetups, speed exhibitor dating, all have value and a place within today’s face-to-face meetings! I look forward to reading your articles for more about this subject too!

  3. says

    Jeff, your seemingly endless ability to create new ways of thinking is awe inspiring. You’re my favorite geyser of knowledge (hey, better than being a blowhole, eh?).

    Anyways, I’m so with you on turning an event on its head…literally! From an AV stance, lately I’ve been proposing a lot of asymmetrical screen options simply to obliterate the tired two or three screen stage sets. It requires a bit more pre-production work and scares a lot of professionals who are terrified that half of the room won’t be able to see (despite 3D fly-through’s demonstrating otherwise). But, it creates this lovely visual stimulation at seeing mirrored images in two different ways.
    There’s also some incredible high-quality (and greener yay!) display technology we’re hoping to debut this year that involves building displays as you would build a glass cube wall (but different from a bexeled LED wall), releasing us from a rectangular world.

    @velchain, I’m so with you on the emotion thing. I just left a comment on another blog about the importance of multimedia and how this simple, old-fashioned element can evoke such powerful emotions. Imagine the inspiring effect of well-timed track of Freddie Mercury singing “We are the Champions” to a downtrodden sales force who just met their annual goals. Talk about uniting a crowd in emotion!
    To put a Jeff Hurt slant on this thought, when this multimedia is co-created by attendees, the potential impact is even greater. And what about engaging multimedia from a virtual audience? Perhaps the candids reel should include a short video blurb from a remote Account Manager as he attended the meetings at 5AM in his home office…

    Ahh, the ideas floweth when so inspired.
    Midori Connolly, Chief AVGirl
    Pulse Staging and Events

    • Jeff Hurt says

      @Midori (@GreenA_V)
      All i can say is “Awesomesauce comments!” I really like your ideas of rethinking the AV experience. That’s what it’s all about for sure, giving the attendee’s a new experience.

  4. Linda Keith says

    Great post, Jeff. At a conference I co-chaired as a volunteer this summer we added two ways for members to get involved without going through the more extensive concurrent proposal process.

    One was modeled after the Speaker Corner in Hyde Park, London. A dynamic organizer provided a soap box (chair) and signs to round folks up. We put this in the middle of the crowd during 30 minute breaks. Anyone could step up and talk about anything for 2 minutes. A crowd gathered. It added an energy boost to the break, was fun for the crowd and an opportunity for the speaker.

    The second was called 20/20 Lightening Rounds. We did not create this format, but modified it for our use. Those who wanted to participate applied to the volunteer who organized the session. He picked based on variety and interest. Each presenter had 20 slides pre-programmed for 20 seconds each. A short 6 minutes and 20 seconds later it was over. We drew a standing-room only crowd at the 4pm time slot to watch 11 presenters. The presenters went in together and had it video-recorded. Many of the presenters were not on the conference team’s radar but they are now.

    If I were to do it again, I’d work even harder at creating networking-with-results. Maybe a ‘master mind’ session with a topic focus but relatively little structure. We need to keep finding ways for those who attend to share and learn from each other in addition to whatever general and concurrent sessions we offer. There is always so much knowledge and wisdom in the room.

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Thanks for adding your commens and wondeful suggestions. I hope people read your comments as you’ve given a couple great example of how to provide some structured networking.

  5. Joan Eisenstodt says

    Fabulous as are the comments. What’s fascinating is that so much of this is what I call “the basics” — and too many seem to have a need to ‘glitz-up’ conferences thinking that makes them worthwhile.

    While we’re on it, let’s talk about seating options. Paul Radde has done some great work on this including a recent book and the saddest thing is that few are listening. Hotels certainly aren’t; sadder still is that conference centers (which have not moved very far) aren’t either. I recommend his book. Click on products at his web site: http://thrival.com/

    Midori: I’d settle for simply GOOD ambient lighting and AV cos. and facilities that understand one doesn’t need to darken rooms!

    • Jeff Hurt says

      Yes, you and I would call these the basics. Unfortunately, I don’t see many meetings conferences teaching meeting professionals these basics any more. When you look at some of the global meetings industry programs, you’ll see a lot of emphasis on contracts, negotiating, logistics, food and beverage and little about the needs of the audience or strategy.

      I also agree with you about good lighting. I would add that a decent LCD projector with adequate lumens goes far and therefore you don’t need to darken a room! (Again, something not usually taught in many meetings industry courses.)


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