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?