The Wal-Mart Conference Experience: Why It Doesn’t Scale

We’re not in Manhattan anymore.

That’s the tagline for the Sarah Jessica Parker, Hugh Grant movie Did You Hear About The Morgans?

The plot: An estranged New York couple observes a murder and is relocated to a small town in Wyoming as part of a witness-protection program.

In the movie, Parker’s character did not pack the right clothing for a cold, small out-in-the-boonies town. So, she visits the nearest clothing store, the Bargain Barn which 45 miles away, and is a nod to the large department stores like Costco, IKEA, Sams and Wal-mart. She is awestruck at the inexpensive costs of many of the store’s products and buys several sweaters of different colors in bulk. Consume more, faster, quicker as the store has a lot to offer is the message being sent.

Her emotional bargain-basement coup is short-lived, fleeting. It lacks her usual boutique, one-on-one, Neiman Marcus personal shopper experience and smacks of one-size fits all mentality. She misses her unique Manhattan shopping relationships.

Instead of unique, one-of-a-kind or exclusive products, the discount store stocks large quantities of specific or generic store brands. These large department stores offer a quick convenience experience, get in and get out, as fast as you can, as cheap as you can. And by all means, they are not designed for you to talk to other shoppers or participants. But you sure can find some interesting photo opportunities.

Today, many traditional large conferences have become similar to discount department store shopping experiences.

Attendees are greeted at the registration areas by uniformed, low paid attendants that welcome them and point them in the right direction. Unfortunately, that’s usually the only and last time the attendee has a person-to-person encounter at the conference.

The attendees face large convention center mazes with long hallways, fast talking sales people and super-sized ballrooms of presenter educational experiences. Often, the attendees feel like salmon swimming upstream as throngs of people walk in opposite directions at record pace. People are hurrying to get to their next anchovies-in-a-can crammed into a ballroom experience.

The larger the show, the more the organizers try to be a massive Wal-Mart-styled experience. Something for everyone at the least amount of cost possible to the organizers and attendees. They try to offer a variety of generic introductory and intermediate (well-somewhat intermediate) sessions, claiming to be everything for everybody. They provide a large discount department store education and networking experience for the masses. Quality is an afterthought.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as most of the sessions feel exactly like they are designed–greatly discounted and cheaply made generic offerings–with little thought or attention given to the attendee’s experience and outcome. They lack depth, protein and the ability to talk with your fellow neighbors as you consume the content.

If a smaller conference is successful, it leads to increased attendance which leads to large discount-store experiences. Yet often the past successful conference experience does not scale well. Instead, more attendees means the experience is overtaken by the masses. Unfortunately, it’s not designed for mass consumption.

This conference design doesn’t scale well as attendance grows. The larger the event, the more the need for the conference organizers to use larger column-less warehouse-like rooms to seat the masses. The conference loses its charm. And the new, exciting and forward pushing thoughts get lost in the massive amount of messages vying for your attention. It feels like a big Bargain Barn discount experience.

Conference organizers have yet to figure out how to do the opposite of large discount department store bulk experiences. They must figure out how to become the catalysts of person-to-person relationships and connections.

As Chris Anderson says in his book, The Long Tail, “The mass market has turned into a mass of niches.”

Conference organizers must figure out how to make the conference experience more individualized with a feeling of belonging and acceptance by a larger social set. They must begin to think about taking two or three big picture messages, relevant to the conference attendees, and creating niche educational experiences around those messages. They must stop trying to be all things to all people and focus their energy on specific content that is distributed in a variety of ways.

So what do you think? Is it possible to provide face-to-face instruction to a mass of niches where every attendee feels as if the content was designed just for them? Or is this only something that can be provided electronically? Which type of conference would you prefer to attend a big box discount department store style event or a large conference with a lot of boutique experiences?

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  1. Adrian Segar says:

    Jeff, I love the metaphors you dream up. I laughed reading your comparison of attendee registration experience with that of entering a Wal-Mart. Funny—and yet, sadly, so often true.

    Because first impressions are so important, I ask a conference committee members to be present throughout registration to welcome arriving attendees. We pay special attention to first-time attendees (known via badge coding with colored dots.) When possible, I also like to hold registration in an attractive space with sofas around, so people can chat or hang out comfortably if there’s a short line.

    You ask if it’s “possible to provide face-to-face instruction to a mass of niches where every attendee feels as if the content was designed just for them”. I wouldn’t use the word “instruction”, because most Conferences That Work sessions have significant intragroup interaction, but my core goal has always been to create conferences that are maximally useful and meaningful for each individual participant, and, from the evaluations, my attendees are pretty happy with the results.

    That brings us to the size issue. I agree that most aspects of conference experience don’t scale very well, (and both of us are interested in seeing what can be done to improve this state of affairs.) I think it’s good to be explicit about this, and I’d rather limit conference size than enlarge an event without a clear plan on how to maintain intimacy, engagement, and relevance.

  2. chris uschan says:

    Jeff – let’s continue with the analogies…

    If a person eats lunch or dinner at a small family restaurant, they get this sense of genuine service. The owner greets them, the cook comes out and checks in on the food, the server is around, friendly and you (and your date) feel connected with the establishment. Your experience is grand, you talk about it and you definitely return. (for those who can’t comprehend analogies… this is the small event).

    So how can you get the same (or similar) experience at a big time restaurant?

    I used to work in the food service industry at a few larger restaurants that were into the experience. First, you need passionate people working in the restaurant, not hired out greeters that don’t really care and are there just collecting a paycheck. Imagine John Graham, Robin Lokerman, and other leaders greeting you at ASAE’s Annual Meeting? Wow! Then having them join you in a session or interacting with you outside the session rooms. Does it make a different. YES!. Little ‘ol me had the opportunity to hang out with Robin Lokerman and his friends at ASAE in Toronto. It totally made for a positive experience. Read my story on my blog about this.

    Now back to the restaurant, as a server, we tasted all the food, the daily soups, we were instructed to sit at the tables and make a connection with the guests, not just take orders. Imagine show staff mingling with attendees as their job, sitting in sessions… being that attendee, then having conversations with you as opposed to “working.” And the same goes with the speakers. As part of their gig, they are to hang out and connect with attendees in the hallways.

    At our restaurant, this created an experience that was unique and memorable. It started with a philosophy and was energized with passionate leaders who hired passionate staff (who fit the family, small venue qualities). The owners and cooks still interacted with the patrons. They took time out of their job to meet, talk and connect.

    With larger events, it takes larger efforts and you can still maintain a similar level of strategy. Maybe it starts with finding VIPs, advocates and other volunteers in your industry who represent the brand of your association and lean on them to help on the larger events as opposed to hiring models or entertainers.

    It’s not the frills at the small events which makes it feel genuine, it’s the people, commitment to make it work, the interactions that are meaningful that make the difference.

    I want to feel important at a larger event, and not just feel like another attendee.

    Got to run Jeff… Good article (and by the way, I avoid Wal-Mart if I can).


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Great comments. Thank you for reading and adding to the dicussion. Here’s to more events with high level engagement experiences.

      I love your restaurant analogy. It has a lot of insight and depth for me. Taking it a little further, here’s what makes or breaks any restaurant experience good–the wait service. What’s interesting is that each server has a limited number of customers that they serve. If that number is too high, the server feels stretched and ultimately most get mediocre service. It’s very similar to public education where one adult to a specific number of students. I think there is some strong implications there for the number of speakers and conference staff to attendees and what type of experience they are going to have.

      I agree that finding VIPs, advocates and volunteers to help bring the a personal touch helps.

  3. Erica Driver says:

    A great conference that has managed to stay small, and is all about networking, is the Business Innovation Factory’s BIF Summit series, which is held in Providence RI each fall. It’s a TED-style event that leaves participants inspired and rarin’ to go.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for sharing about BIF Summit. I’ll have to check into that one. What do you think are some of the keys to BIF’s success?

  4. Erica Driver says:

    Jeff: Thanks for your question. I think the keys to the Business Innovation Factory’s BIF Summit series (info here: are:

    * Small group in a small space. The event is held in a theater in Providence. I think it holds no more than 300is people (don’t hold me to that). Every seat is full. The lobby and halls are buzzing during breaks.
    * Short presentations. It’s a TED-style conference, where speakers talk for about 15 minutes about innovative things they are doing in their field of work. This keeps the room and its occupants highly energized.
    * Speakers are not paid to present at the summit. And still, the BIF team has been able to attract high-quality talent (last year I heard Don Tapscott speak there, and a couple of years before Mark Cuban).


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