Old Guard Conferences Vs. Cutting Edge Conferences

Windmill, Strangnas

When the winds of change blow, some people build walls. Others build windmills. ~Chinese Proverb

Conferences are divided today between Old Guard and Cutting Edge Conferences.

Old guard conferences build walls when the winds of change blow. Cutting edge conferences build windmills to capture and leverage the winds of change.

Old Guard And Cutting Edge Conferences

These two types of conferences move at different speeds. They value different things. They measure success differently.

They think differently. One thinks in terms of big and small. The other thinks in terms of fast and slow.

One is tradition-centric. The focus is on the speakers as experts. Everything is repeated from year to year with little change.

The other is innovation-centric. The focus is on the audience as learners. Innovation and change are the foundation of everything they do.

No matter how you spin it, you can’t avoid the stench of stagnate disintegration (old guard) or the sweet aroma of new growth (cutting edge).

Old Guard Traditional Conferences

The old guard conferences refuse to change their culture to become more accessible. Its leaders refuse to believe that anything much has changed in the culture or wants of today’s attendees. Their belief is “Stop the world. Our conference wants to get on.”

But the world refused to stop. And there is no hiding place for these traditional conferences.

Old guard conferences profoundly misunderstand the world we live in. More than trying to adapt to new times, they are paralyzed by thoughts of what it means to become an EPIC conference.

Cutting Edge Conferences

Today’s ongoing new realities fundamentally change the way cutting edge conferences operate. These conferences not only change how they function, they also change how a conference community operates.

Cutting edge conferences are agnostic about the medium used for its learners. They have shifted from a focus on being the biggest and largest conference to one on speed, which is able to adapt quickly. They realize that true conference experiences reside in attendees participating in their own learning as much as they used to rely in attendees passively consuming lectures.

They deliver education and information in participatory experiences through images that connect. They embrace the engagement economy.

Defining Beautiful Cutting Edge Conferences

In many Mediterranean cultures, beauty is more than a physical aesthetic. It is an aesthetic of experience, participation, images and communal celebration. It is EPIC.

For them, beauty is not the defined by artistry or the perfection of lines. It is the fullness of being present and the perfection of connecting with others. Beauty includes experience and the ability to participate.

When a conference is more experiential, participatory, image-based and connected, it will likely be classified as cutting edge and beautiful.

Why are so many conference organizers and hosts unable to create attendee experiences grounded in today’s real world? Is it a symptom of a larger issue?

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  1. thom singer says:


    I do not believe it has to be either / or. I think that those who are not ready to go “all the way” can have some great results by putting in some cutting edge pieces.

    The thing is they cannot just put a toe in the water. They cannot stick an alternative learning lounge on the side against traditional famous-speaker-lead breakouts. While attendees say they want new things…. many are scared to try the unique elements. If tossed in a corner your exciting and unique options will linger with few attendees.

    To mix it up the cutting edge must be given the spotlight for their time. People will participate and enjoy the unique program if the conference agenda clearly shows it is not “the kids table”.

    It was true at Thanksgiving at grandmas house, and it is true at a conference. People want to be at the grown-up table… so make take the risk and put your cutting edge activities up front.

    Then you have traditional elements at a different time. But once people go to the unique, the other parts may look dull. But I have seen both work well when the cutting edge parts are not just “lip service”


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      I can appreciate your perspective. I think it depends if the conference organizer is trying to grow the conference and attract a new audience. We’ve seen too many conferences that needed to totally reinvent themselves in order to attract a growing market again. Otherwise, they only attract the loyal few that want things to stay the same. Since people pay for conferences, adding one new element may not be enough to attract new registrants. Of course old-timers will complain…and the question to ask is are they the customer that will sustain your conference for the next ten years. (Probably not!)

  2. When the winds of change blow, some people build walls. Others build windmills. ~Chinese Proverb

    Hello Jeff, this proverb is very beautiful. It’ll help me change according to situation and condition. Similar quote from Bruce Lee:

    “Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” ~ Bruce Lee.

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