Look, no one has time for a bad conference. I personally attend many and miss even more. On most occasions, I’m coming off a busy day in the office during which I only accomplished about half of my to-do list, and I find myself watching with increasing anxiety as the number in that little red dot hovering angrily over my mail app climbs higher. More often than not, after a couple hours, I’m sneaking out to take a call or crouched over my laptop at the bottom of the most hidden flight of stairs.
The entire point of a conference is to engage a broad and interested audience around a specific issue or set of issues. And the quality of our local conferences plays an important role as Sacramento seeks to establish itself as a city boasting unprecedented growth and relevance. We want spaces where creative thinkers can gather, learn and exchange ideas that they then build upon in their respective jobs. To that end, let’s consider the following:
Deliver what you bill: When sending out those invites, make sure your language accurately reflects what you plan to deliver. Last fall, Region Rising gathered over 1,000 people for a conference that was billed as collaborative and interactive. The event was beautifully produced, with vibrant colors and a variety of vendors. But the interaction promised came merely in the form of polls that attendees took on their phones to gauge thought on local issues. And as the day progressed, pods of people began to form in the corners of the room and out in the lobby, as attendees sought out on their own the collaboration they found lacking.
Consider your structure: I recently attended SustyBiz16, the American Sustainable Business Council’s 5th annual summit in Washington, D.C., to discuss what a sustainable business is and a sustainable economy entails. High-ranked representatives from companies including Dr. Bronner’s, Whole Foods and Earth Friendly Products discussed issues like increasing the minimum wage and incorporating environmentally-friendly business practices. But the back-to-back programming ran from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (including lunch) with only one 10-minute break during the day. There was no time to discuss with my local cohort the ideas being presented. If your conference is large, and you don’t mind if attendees come and go without disrupting others, perhaps free time isn’t as important to your structure. But if you’re running a smaller game, you’ll want to build in short breaks every hour or two for people to tour vendor booths, network and discuss ideas.
Get the right talent: At Region Rising, only four of 13 speakers were either women or people of color. Attendees noticed the oversight immediately, and it made for a poor first impression. A good conference has an array of speakers that reflect not just gender and ethnic diversity, but also a variety of perspectives and industries. The Sacramento Metro Chamber’s Perspectives on Leadership, held in October, featured a solid mix: Outside talent included a classical pianist (who raps), an author who climbed Mt. Everest (twice) and a fighter pilot (and first female to fly an F-14 Tomcat for the U.S. Navy); local talent included the Folsom police chief, the president of the University of Pacific and an investigative journalist. Individual speeches were interspersed with topical panels, and the size of the event combined with a lunch hour free of programming allowed for ample time to engage with other attendees.
Solicit feedback: This is important. Both Region Rising and the ASBC did this, and that alone would be enough for me to consider attending again. If your attendees find themselves piecing together for themselves the conference they wanted but isn’t being delivered, it will be a struggle to convince them to return. But if your organization shows legitimate interest in improving offerings from year to year, those supplying the feedback will likely show up again to see if they were heard. Make sure you listen — they might give you a second chance, but there won’t be a third.