As technology continues to disrupt the face-to-face industry, many meeting and event professionals may feel like they have a voice whispering in their ears. Reinvent your conference, it says. Change everything.
There are indeed many elements of the traditional annual meeting or convention that may no longer work — talking heads, 100-page physical programs and Excel spreadsheets, to name a few — but that voice isn’t entirely correct. Rachel Botsman, author and visiting academic at the University of Oxford, offered a new perspective on change in her opening keynote address at Convening Leaders 2017. “People don’t want something entirely new,” Botsman told a crowd of meeting professionals and suppliers at the Austin Convention Center on January 9. “They want the familiar done differently.”
Botsman’s speech focused on the fact that some of the biggest big B-to-C success stories haven’t started over from square one. Instead, they’ve embraced the “familiar done differently” model. Uber and Airbnb both deliver services that customers are used to — sitting in a car and staying in a temporary home — but they’ve both transformed those familiar experiences. BlaBlaCar, a UK-based site that pairs long-distance travelers for carpooling journeys, uses a platform that verifies the security of drivers and passengers and helps each party understand their traveling companions and how much they’ll talk during the trip. All the companies share one unique trait: the ability to establish a sense of trust before their customers explore the different side. “To build trust, you need to reduce the unknown for people,” Botsman said.
This lesson is particularly valuable to events organizers who are working to please a segment of loyal veteran attendees while appealing to a new generation of professionals who need learning and networking opportunities. Creating a program that crosses this generational gap may seem impossible, so organizers may want to listen to that voice: Change everything. Start over. However, the most innovative conferences aren’t throwing every element of the traditional attendee experience out the window. Instead, they’re taking some tried and true components of conference design and giving them an update for a better experience.
Consider C2 in Montréal. Alison Beard at the Harvard Business Review called it “a conference unlike any other I’d ever attended.” After attending C2 last year, I agree with Beard, but it’s not because C2 felt like a complete overhaul of the conference model. It’s because C2 took what I expect in a conference and repackaged it in a cooler, more creative way. Like most conferences, the program was full of educational sessions, but the learning environments traded ballrooms for circus tents and meditative gardens. And on the networking front, I made plenty of casual connections with other attendees, but they didn’t happen in the usual trade-business-cards-over-cocktails format. They happened while standing under umbrellas and relaxing in a kid-style ball pit playground.
Are you aiming to change your conference? What are some small tweaks you might be able to make in order to make the familiar feel different? Go to Catalyst to share your thoughts with your colleagues.
This post was written by David McMillin and originally appeared on the PCMA blog; it is republished here with permission.