Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
June 18, 2009 8:57 AM

Re-imagining The Business Conference

In August of last year, I wrote the Blog post, Changing Business Through The Unconference, that looked at a new kind of gathering in which individuals were connecting and collaborating online to create an event in the real-world that was self-organized by the attendees.

Over the past year, these types of events have continued to flourish. About two weeks ago, I participated in (and helped organize) an "unconference" called BookCamp that was held in Toronto to discuss the future of books, writing, publishing, and the book business in the digital age. With over 300 participants, the conversations were deep, intense and spilled over into the after-party.

In contrast, the standard conferences that we're all more familiar with have been taking a huge hit. It's not just life in a post-9/11 world, where travel is more complex and time-intensive, but the economy has definitely taken its toll. Companies are sending fewer people to attend. And even if they are considering taking part in a trade show with a booth, many companies are opting for less square footage and more humble booth design. Even the geographic location of these conferences has shifted to appeal to the changing landscape: At a recent event in Florida, a conference organizer confided that they shifted the location from a well-known resort to a local hotel because many of the participants complained that, even though they had the budget and would be willing to attend, just having this brand-name resort on their expense reports would send the wrong message to their employees, executives and shareholders.

Beyond the pain of travel and the crunch of the economy, this could well be one of the best times for the conference and trade show industry to re-invent itself.

Looking back (before looking forward), an industry trade show and conference held an important role in the overall growth of the industry it served. For many, this was the one time every year when companies could see the latest products and services available from their suppliers (and competitors). It provided a "town hall" to meet with potential customers, and a place to celebrate one another's successes. The addition of keynote addresses and concurrent learning tracks empowered and educated the attendees with the latest in terms of technology, strategy and tactics to grow their business.

But, somewhere along the way, many of these events have become stale and lacklustre.

Technology and the proliferation of the Internet have not helped. People are now connected, savvy and very up-to-speed on the changes in their industry. From e-newsletters to watching great speakers on YouTube, it's not easy to wow an audience anymore. Industry leaders are following blogs, people on Twitter, and even connecting through online social networks. It's not uncommon to see digital groups forming prior, during and after an event to stay connected and to continue the sharing.

The challenges may seem insurmountable, but within this shift lies tremendous opportunities.

As amazing as technology is, there is still nothing like meeting face-to-face and connecting while being away from both home and the office. Those who block off the time to attend these events and "press the flesh" are usually much more accessible and have the time to focus on some of the more social aspects of business (lunches, networking cocktails, dinner, golf, etc. - the types of things that technology can't replicate). Even watching a speaker live is a different experience than seeing them speak on YouTube. There's a reason why people who love U2 (or watching their videos) will still shell out the big bucks to see them in concert.

The truth is that conference organizers have to turn these yearly gatherings into something much more memorable.

The focus needs to be on the more "human" aspects of why people gather: To learn, to network, to celebrate, and to grow their business. As someone who gets paid to speak in front of these audiences, it's clear that the participants are much more informed than ever before. A truly successful conference is one that leverages the many online platforms to create connections before and after the event, while leveraging the actual event by providing unique, original content, along with a place for those professionals to also share their own, personal experiences.

Make no mistake about it, the annual convention and trade show of yesteryear is changing. The ones that are worth going to are the ones that have transformed from the annual event business professionals are expected to attend, to the types of events that you would not miss for the world - both the real and virtual worlds.

How do you feel about relevance and importance of attending a business conference in this day and age?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

- Vancouver Sun - Re-imagining the business conference.
- Montreal Gazette - Real and virtual conventions go together.

By Mitch Joel