Re-imagining The Business Conference

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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.


  1. Interesting ideas. Last year I went to ZendCon (an annual conference for PHP developers). At the beginning of the conference, they had a “folksonomy” slide with suggested tags to use on various social media sites. This was quite successful with lots of attendees tweeting, posting photos, blogging, etc. This lead me to the idea of using a shared tag around other events. Every year here in Vermont we have a Town Meeting Day. Someone suggested a tag for people to use during this year’s Town Meeting Day (tmdvt09) and we created a site to aggregate these tags in one place: This worked out well, and we were approached about doing a similar site for a conference happening locally: After that conference, we decided to expand the idea and create a site that allowed anyone to aggregate tags across sites for any tag, opening up the idea to any event or conference that wants to use it. The site is We’re hoping it can be a useful tool in helping conference organizers encourage audience engagement.

  2. One of the huge benefits of online conferences is their accessibility. This accessibility not only opens up participation to a greater audience, but it also allows us to participate without the massive carbon footprint of air travel, and the expenses of a traditional conference.
    And its not just restricted to the business world. Universities are now beginning to leverage the accessibility factor through initiatives such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare ( and online conferences such as focused on opening up the doors to the issues and potential of online research.

  3. I also get paid to speak in front of some of these audiences and I see lots of problems with the meeting/conference industry as it stands. In fact, I wrote an extensive blog post back in Jan
    You’ve hit the nail on the head with two of your points in this post.
    1) The “townhall” atmosphere that was looked forward to in the past is no longer an annual occurence. The town hall is constant with the web.
    2) The attendees (and speakers/organzizers should help) need to learn how to leverage the event. Most are still stuck in the old mode of just showing up and thinking that the event is it with maybe a little post event followup. As I said in my post, attendees should use the technology to connect before, during, and after the events.

  4. And I should clarify on my previous comment:
    You do see this new paradigm of “trancendental event connectivity” emerging at new media / tech conferences. It’s the offline more traditional industries that are struggling.

  5. Cora raised a good point that you mentioned briefly in your post. For some conference organizers, holding a virtual event alongside a physical one is an innovation that came about partially due to the economy and budget restrictions. With that said, online conferences enable more people to participate in the event. I do agree that the conference, regardless of format, must provide good education and ways for people to connect/network with one another.
    Furthermore, I believe that innovative show organizers will cease to replicate a physical event online. The opportunity is taking the best out of a physical conference (such as face-to-face contact) and combining that with the best of virtual (such as no geographical limitations) to create an enhanced experience for everyone.

  6. As Chris mentioned in his comment, it is a slow evolution evolving the conference model outside the tech/new media space with many still failing to use technology, video and other apps to move retention, reach and networking forward.
    Tony Robbins, who I had the pleasure of producing an event for in 2003, figured out this out long ago – Use events to spike and convert business objectives and prospects nurtured in digital media and online. Live events that end without archive are wasted assets.
    A cool innovation we have observed recently is the move by TED, to license it’s brand to local events. They have got a lot of things right in terms of their model – max 18 minutes online, great interface, killer live events. We have adopted their 18 minute max for everything we produce for clients and we are continually saying to these clients, “less is more!” (At least in online video…)
    Huge missed opportunities to long tail the conference content and networks happen daily.
    Crowd sourcing the content is one of other the interesting developments – we are doing this for a big Internet Marketing conference upcoming – but it needs to be married with a model that incents the videographers and the delivery channel with residual income.
    We have done extensive research that really points to the appetite for more learning stream access online and we are hard at work at delivery on this with our platform Riiplay.
    We have several web casts live – both free an pay per view for progressive clients like BC Innovation Council and Angel Forum and many more queued but still early days as an Alpha app.
    You can view the unconference for Angel Forum’s Exit Strategy Workshop here and the BC Science Outreach Workshop here. More on this in our post Creating a Longtail for your event.
    One of the key problems is that the knowledge is distributed across hundreds of event, association or corporate sites. The problem – no easy way to aggregate my events and knowledge as a user/viewer .
    One recent event locally spearheaded by Danny Robinson and Boris Mann that harnessed this interactivity well was Launch Party by Boot Up Labs – they used the Crowdvine app to create some connectivity around their start-up launches and in-person co-founder speed -dating. It was well done as an example of marrying live and tech.
    For more on this subject, you can subscribe to our blog on the subject of long tails for events at Events worth Sharing
    As Cece suggests, a new model is emerging to revolutionize conferences. Vive le revolution.
    Bret Conkin, riiPlay Evangelist and Revolutionary

  7. Trade shows and conferences are rarely enticing anymore. If you’re attending for the sessions, the vendor booths are a distraction. If the vendors are also presenters, their authenticity comes into question.
    BookCamp was my first unconference. I didn’t expect much from a free volunteer-run event. What a shock. The atmosphere was electric. The moderators were well-prepared and they engaged the attendees. There was plenty of participation and thoughtful points of view. This was much better than getting talked at by presenters repeating a canned presentation for the nth time.
    At an unconference, you feel like part of the event. I’d gladly attend more. There were definite benefits for being physically present. The experience was much better than regular conferences and trade shows.
    As Bret points out, the rules of TED impose discipline the way Twitter does: the need to communicate in a finite time. I’m intrigued by the possibilities of TEDx Toronto in the fall (

  8. We live in Colorado and just saw a local TV news report about how city officials from around the state were wasting taxpayers money at a conference in Vail (omigod, not Vail!).
    Imagine, some of them even skipped workshops and were seen relaxing at the pool (at taxpayer’s expense). Actually the video provided as background showed one fully clothed man at the pool (you know how cold it is in Vail this time of year?) In contrast, the workshop video they showed was of a room packed with attendees.
    Yes, I have to tell you, if the press is hounding the good folks of Brush and Greeley, Colorado about their posh conferences, then it’s understandable why we’re all so worried about the perception that we’re goofing off at these events.
    So, I guess all the wait-staff, hotel employees, food servers, cab drivers, luggage handlers and the rest of the good folks who make their living supporting the conventions at luxury destinations should just look for work elsewhere, huh.
    Buy stock in La Quinta, ’cause that’s where the next round of big business conferences will be hanging out. But, put a cover over the pool, please.
    Great article. There simply will never be a digital replacement for face-to-face.

  9. What a refreshing blog . . . Where’s the value in conferences? Right where it’s always been, in the people!
    And NOW is the time that the events industry, and those that are tired of the traditional and inefficient ways of doing things, have been waiting for.
    Gone are the days (and good riddance) when an event was about cocktails and entertainment. They’re about getting down to and doing business.
    Event managers that ‘get that’, will thrive and the tools they use to put on a better, more information rich, more ROI-focused events are critical to this evolution and their success.
    Based on our experience, here’s what our clients are asking for:
    – Create an event where the attendees, vendors, sponsors get out of it more than they have to put into it, and you’ll be successful.
    – Traditional lead management is dead. It’s a list of a list, and an unqualified one at that. Foster the development of relationships and the distribution of meaningful information.
    – Foster networking and by that we DO NOT mean ‘business card exchanges’. Help your attendees bring their virtual network to the event, communicate with them while they’re on site and grow their network while attending the event. Make it easy and non-intrusive and useful once your attendees / vendors / sponsors leave the venue.
    – Data or information? A thousand business cards, which one’s to call? Thousands of dollars in brochures, which one’s were looked at? Dozens of conversations, which one’s were of any value? Oversubscribed, underutilized, wasted or efficient?
    – Green . . . aren’t we all tired of ‘talking’ about that? How about doing something about it (
    – Cut back on all the fluff – The coffee breaks, the luncheons, banquets, the gobos, etc and take those sponsor dollars to the education side of event.
    Let’s see who has the guts to make it happen.
    – Sponsorship isn’t bad . . . it’s just misaligned. So, align sponsorship with education and make the sessions themselves sponsor opportunities. This way, sponsors could be associated with the lasting value of education versus the coffee and pastry.
    – Build Better Programs – Put money into developing killer programs using the latest social networking tools that will engage attendees before the event. (NOTE: We are partnered with the premier Event Social Networking system that addresses this exact issue:
    – Deliver Education! – Provide tools that facilitate learning in the best format possible for the learning styles present via links, flash sticks, or (gasp) printouts. Then offer links or options to get additional content if work products were produced at the event.
    The core missions of most events are education and networking right!?!
    Let’s get back to the mission and improve meetings today — Then sponsors and attendees will see the value.

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