Conference size and “success”

audience at big conference 2805860205_18b3dd9dc3_oHere’s the beginning of a blog post by Seth Godin with every occurrence of the word “organization” replaced by the word “conference” and the word “traditional” added to the first sentence. I think it still works, don’t you?

As a [traditional] conference succeeds, it gets bigger.

As it gets bigger, the average amount of passion and initiative of the conference goes down (more people gets you closer to average, which is another word for mediocre).

More people requires more formal communication, simple instructions to ensure consistent execution. It gets more and more difficult to say, “use your best judgment” and be able to count on the outcome.

Larger still means more bureaucracy, more people who manage and push for conformity, as opposed to do something new.

Success brings with it the fear of blowing it. With more to lose, there’s more pressure not to lose it.

Mix all these things together and you discover that going forward, each decision pushes the conference toward do-ability, reliability, risk-proofing and safety.
—Seth Godin, Entropy, bureaucracy and the fight for great

Judging by their favorable evaluations, conferences that use the Conferences That Work format are highly successful. Yet they don’t grow significantly bigger, even though some of them have been held for years. Participants discover that effective intimate learning and connection that occurs requires a small event, and the maximum number of attendees is capped to ensure that the attractive conference environment isn’t lost by the consequences Seth describes.

Last week I spoke to a veteran of large medical conferences who bemoaned the time she had wasted attending such events. She told me that the talks were invariably on already-published work, with people presenting for status or tenure reasons. Apart from the schwag and meeting a few old friends, she did not enjoy or find her attendance productive and was looking forward to a much more rewarding experience from the small conference I was planning for her group.

Her comments are typical, in my experience. Unfortunately, the size of a conference is usually assumed to be a metric of its “success”. From the point of view of organizers and presenters this is true: the bigger the conference, the more status you receive. But from the point of view of the customers of the conference—the attendees—after 30+ years of attending and organizing conferences it’s clear to me, both from my own experience and from that of hundreds of attendees I’ve spoken to, that, all other things being equal, smaller well-designed conferences beat the pants off huge events in terms of usefulness and relevance.

What do you think? What redeeming factors make larger conferences better? Are these factors more important than the learning and connection successes that smaller conferences provide?

Photo attribution: Flickr user markizay