Will Conferences Of The Future Get Unstuck?

Gum Shoe

The question isn’t whether most annual meetings and conferences are stuck.

Just look at the data from some annual meetings. These conferences have declines in registration, participation in general sessions and education breakouts, sponsorship and exhibitors. Their growth in new attendees wanes. Their customer loyalty is steadily decreasing.

The question is what it will take for conferences to get unstuck. And even more to the point, how many conference organizers and hosts have the will and courage to change direction?

What Getting Unstuck Will Require

Here’s what I think conference organizers will need to do in order to get their annual meetings unstuck.

1. First, stop pretending there isn’t a problem.

Stop believing that it’s better to stay the course, especially if the course is self-defeating. Stop buying into “But we’ve always done it that way.” Stop the delusion that to keep on as you’ve always done for the loyal remnant is sufficient purpose. Or even deluding yourself into thinking that it is necessary and adequate. Keeping the conference going for another year or two while guaranteeing death in five to ten years is simply irresponsible.

2. Look beyond what your current customers tell you they want.

Start looking at what your future customers will find attractive. Going to the same cities every year will only continue to attract the current crowd. Get out of the mindset that going to top tier cities will only distract your attendees from your event. If your conference provides a stellar experience, nothing will drag them away from it. Your admission that a city like Las Vegas or Chicago has too much to do is an admission that you’re annual meeting is not good enough to keep the attention of your attendees.

3. Move past the traditional corporate general session.

The traditional general session with the parade of business information, awards and board recognition isn’t a draw! It’s passive, hierarchical, predictive, repetitive and dull. It’s self-serving. At many conferences its stiff, older-than-average people doing stiff things that don’t appeal to anyone else.

People want relationships, not seats in an audience! They want to explore with each other and not have organizational authorities tell them what to do.

4. Make education breakouts different than the traditional monologue lecture.

There is ample evidence that the traditional lecture does not result in attitude, behavior and skill change. The multi-person panel is nothing more than a lecture on steroids with the same results as a solo lecturer. The lecture is actually a barrier to learning. Conference organizers need to have the courage to demand that breakouts be done differently with a focus on the attendee as the learner. We need more peer discussions and less one-way lectures.

5. Stop fighting change.

Stop fighting it. Stop fighting newness. Stop fighting to preserve the beloved franchise. Stop fighting to be right. Stop fighting change. Embrace it and all it has to offer.

6. Look outward!

See the world outside the precious conference traditional preserve. See needs other than your traditional audience. Look outward with respectful curiosity and enthusiasm, not with the disdain that is often displayed.

7. Get to work!

It’s been too easy to repeat what we’ve always done from year to year. Organizing an annual meeting that has real stakeholder value was never easy. We need to get out from behind our excel spreadsheets, BEO forms, room layouts, speaker management systems and Word tables and get into the real world. We need to observe our attendees in action and watch what is or isn’t working.

Will And Courage Needed

Do conference organizers and leadership have the will and courage to allow change? It will require the courage to take risks, try new formats, to let the treasured past go, to engage with people whose yearnings and journeys are quite different from our own.

It will require the courage to be in love with creating unique attendee experiences of value. It will require unlearning old ways to adopt new ways. It will require bravery to embrace change and newness.

Are you ready for the journey to get unstuck?

What other traditional conference items need to be reinvented or get unstuck? What are some new things that you’ve seen done at conferences lately that were different and unique from the traditional conference?

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  1. Other conference items that need to be reinvented are a stronger continuing thread between the ideas shared in each “session” and more cross-referencing… not only in the session programs yet what we see and hear in the hallways and elsewhere….
    More ways people can participate, such as hashtags for each session, encouraging participants to add related resources
    + Varied formats of sessions that can tap the wisdom of the crowd such as a combo of “meet the pros” tables for 8 in a ballroom where subject matter experts can lead 30-minute discussions on specific interests, then participants can go to a next table and a next for 3 back-to-back session they sign up for in advance (sign up for a seat on an online diagram for each session, spurring early sign-ups to get a seat + tall dowel-held signs on each table with number related to topic)… follow such 3-part sessions with a meal time or
    cocktail mixer
    Create a visual mosaic of the conference tweets, starting in advance of the conference with other social media from meeting stakeholders, using the free services of RebelMouse and/or Twylah
    Create a daily paper of the meeting and continue the conversation all year long, using Paper.li

  2. Frank Kenny says:

    Hard hitting piece Jeff. Just what some conferences need to hear. Only thing is I have found the organizers are generally very sensitive to any kind of input from outsiders (speakers, people paying to attend). Most of this change has to come from top staff or volunteers (boards) and, you are right, it is risky.


  3. Great article Jeff, and thoughtful comments from Kare and Frank. I agree that there is no substitute for the value of face-to-face interaction among conference attendees in our isolated, high-tech cyber culture. Exciting presenters and relevant, beefed-up agendas must be the draw. The hallway and after-hour gatherings bring the long term, relationship value you can’t get in cyberspace. There’s no substitute for a personal connection. It’s the bottom-line icing on the cake.

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