15 Predictions About Future Conferences And Shifting Attendance Part 1

Crystal Ball / Glaskugel

Every conference experiences change.

Well, at least is should experience some change. Especially if it’s a healthy and growing conference.

Yet some conference organizers—those that keep their finger on the intersection of society, their profession and their customers’ industry—sense that they are in the midst of radical change. It’s the kind that only happens every few decades.

Seismic Conference Shift Predictions: The First Eight

While no one is really sure of what’s ahead, talking about it allows us to position our conferences for a changing world. Here are my thoughts…in pencil, not ink.

1. The Opportunity To Gain Is Greater Than The Chance To Lose

Every time we face a societal change, we face the possibility to gain or lose. I believe that your conference opportunity to expand is greater than your potential to lose. I believe that conferences will survive our missteps and cultural trends. Some will get it. Some won’t. And conferences will continue.

2. Conferences That Love Their Model More Than Their Mission Will Suffer

Some conferences and their organizational hosts won’t make it. The difference will be those that cling to their mission versus those that cling to their models. Consider the first automobile and the horse and buggy. The mission was faster and more comfortable transportation. The model was a horse and buggy. Consider the changes in media and publishing. The mission was entertainment, reading, and news. The model always shifts. Conferences organizers need to stay focused on their mission—leading, guiding and helping customers, gathering together to share experiences, connexity and NetWORTHing®, learning together, connecting vendors and customers—and be exceptionally innovative in their models—passive lectures versus peer learning and content versus engagement. Deal-making versus window shopping.

3. The Face To Face Conference Is Here To Stay

Read some blogger posts and comments and you’d think that we should give up on conferences. This is naïve. Sure some attendees will leave. Yet the face to face conference will continue. However, the successful conferences will shift and look different than they have in the past. People will always gather to do more than they could on their own. If the organization’s conference is not meeting the audience’s need, they’ll create their own meetup or participate on the fringes!

4. Conference Content Is Not King! Conference Peer Engagement Is!

Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric that content is king! Content, knowledge and information are now commodities. They are really inexpensive and easy to get. Who’s going to pay $1,500-$2,000 to attend a conference (registration, travel, lodging, expenses) for content when it’s everywhere? Conferences have to change their model so that they curate the right content for the right audience at the right time. And that curation must include audience participation, active peer learning and not consumption and passive listening.

5. Engagement Will Drive Conference Attendance Not The Other Way Around!

Conference organizers try to get people to attend, hoping that their attendance will drive engagement. This model is flipping. Attendees will attend conferences that create experiences where they can participate, interact and engage. Audiences are looking for physical and mental engagement over passive consumption. Engagement driving attendance is what connexity—community and connections—is really about. This is an exciting shift and meeting professionals must learn how to plan experiences that foster engagement. Scheduling speakers and networking will no longer be enough.

6. Conference Investments In Active Attendee Participation Experiences Out Weigh Spending On Passive Production Performances

Many conference organizers invest heavily in program productions, pageantry and passive performances. University of Northern Colorado Sociologist Dr. Josh Packard says that today’s society is done with performance, production and pageantry. Attendees prefer active participation to passive consumption. They want to talk and share with others. They want to bring their questions, their doubts, their fears, their experience and their successes to the table. They are tired of being told what to do and consuming a passive experience.

7. Conferences Will Adopt And Nurture Radical Hospitality That Builds Authentic Community

Conference organizers will focus on creating spaces that create a comfortable third place that is conducive to relationship building. As Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says, a third place is a place that fosters human connections like coffee shops. The medium is the message and conferences will intentionally build comfortable spaces for mingling, deal making, connecting, conversations and reflections.

Conferences will also intentionally schedule time for befriending; the opposite of speed networking. Relationships don’t just happen. Just because people are meeting in the same location doesn’t mean relationship are developing. They take deliberate thought, leadership and facilitations. We have diluted networking into the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationships. Genuine, fully engaged, face to face time is what really counts and conferences will build befriending experiences into their gatherings.

8. Conferences Will Adopt Fearless Conversations About Delicate And Controversial Topics Instead Of Avoiding The Obvious

Attendees want to discuss, deliberate and contemplate delicate, controversial real-world topics. They don’t want to hide their heads in the sand avoiding the obvious. They are looking for and attracted to safe conference experiences that develop strategic conversations that matter. Designing these type of experiences requires a new breed of conference organizers that understand how to foster authentic adult conversations that are invitational, safe and not polarizing.

The next seven predictions.

Hat Tips to author and leadership guru Carey Nieuwhof who wrote a series about shifting attendance patterns in society and faith institutions.

Which of these eight surprised you the most and why? Before reading the next seven, what predictions would you add to this list?

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  1. Oh, what a relief to read your presentation on Slideshare and the find your website. Although I am not a conference organiser, I attend conferences because I write about them. You may find some similar thoughts in my blog: http://www.asianfoodreg.com/blog/?p=129#more-129 and the need for conferences to be more innovative and engaging.

    I’m going to forward your details onto as many conference organisers I know in the hope to improve how conferences are delivered in our region.


    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for finding us, reading, sharing and commenting. We appreciate it.

  2. I think I’m on the same page with you, so I wasn’t surprised by any of the predictions. But I think although it seems obvious that things have to move in this direction, the greatest problem organizers will face is convincing their key stakeholders that investing in this kind of change has value.

    So, bearing that in mind, my prediction is that data collection and analysis will be a key component of event design and marketing strategy because you’ll have to identify the metrics that are important not only to stakeholders but that prove that you’re moving in the right direction by creating the changes you want to make.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for commenting and reading. I’m with you that data collection and analysis will be a critical factor in decision making. The challenge is finding that right mix of metrics to see if our conference is healthy and growing or not.

  3. Great insight with the first 8.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks Kathie for reading and commenting.

      Which of these eight have you experienced in your own meeting planning? Any others to add to this list?

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this slideshare!
    The International Association of Facilitators recently cooperated with IMEX, who does trade shows for event profs. Together with fellow facilitators we designed & navigated the group through one of the pre-show formats (see impressions here: https://twitter.com/kantafiore/timelines/605306905544794112

    It was an eye operer to me that many in the event industry are not aware that there is a whole profession around who can assist in dreaming up engaging formats that help to use the collective wisdom of the crowd to really make an impact. So I will use your slideshare as a piece in a collection I’ll use to make this wider known: http://www.scoop.it/t/facilitation-anyone

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