Lessons from Anguilla: A good conference is like a island vacation

AnguillaAs I write this, I’m about to return from a two week vacation on Anguilla, a tiny rural British West Indies island with some of the most beautiful beaches in the world (you may hate me now). My home is a tiny rural town in Vermont, but although the population of the surrounding area is similar to that of Anguilla’s there’s a interesting difference between my home and island destinations—and I’m not talking about the weather.

At home, there’s no way to know whether someone has a connection to the area. The occupant of a car I see driving on Route 9 near my house might be a businesswoman from upstate New York traveling through Vermont to Maine—or someone who’s been living a mile further down my road for three years who I haven’t yet met.

But in Anguilla, anyone I see has something in common: we are, even temporary visitors like me, residents of an island fifteen miles long and three miles wide. Our individual life stories, no matter how different, all include that we are, at this moment, living on one small island with a unique history and culture. Some of the people I met: the woman who, five years ago, came to work here for a week and decided to stay, the barbecue guy telling us about the tiny mosquitoes that appear at night when there’s no wind, the Danish tourist who collects shells on the beach so the hermit crabs can find new homes—we all have Anguilla to start from, and this gives us a way to connect.

A good conference provides the same opportunities to its attendees. While we are together, we share; not just the conference location, but also the commonality that each of us chose to attend and all this implies, as well as our experiences together. Creating a conference environment where it’s easy for us to share these things makes the event richer, interesting, and memorable. Perhaps, even, as enjoyable as an island vacation…