Three differences between genuine and phony experiential conferences

phony experiential conferences “Experiential” is the new hot adjective used to describe events. “No more listening to speakers; you’re going to have experiences!” But there are genuine and phony experiential conferences.

Sadly, many so-called experiential events are phony. The promoters slap a novel environment (e.g., clowns walking around or chairs suspended from the ceiling) onto a conventional format (e.g., a social or a group discussion) and claim their event is now “experiential”.

So what are the differences between genuine and phony experiential conferences?

Here are three.

At a genuine experiential conference…

Participants’ experiences satisfy their actual in-the-moment wants and needs

People attend conferences to learn and connect. They arrive with specific personal challenges for which they hope to get help and support. For example,

“I’m having a hard time handling my boss’s unrealistic expectations of what I can accomplish.”

“Our security system needs an upgrade and I’m overwhelmed by the choices available.”

“Are there are other people here with whom I can explore how AR is going to impact our jobs?”

Hiring clowns to walk around and entertain attendees or immersing attendees in an elaborate themed environment does nothing to help attendees learn and connect around the issues and topics that matter to them. (Rare exception: an environment designed to dramatize and support exploration of known concerns.)

Uncovering participants’ challenges, interests, expertise, experience, and passions early at the event and then building conferences that respond directly leads to genuine experiential conferences that effectively satisfy attendee needs.

Participants’ experiences significantly impact their lives

If you go to a professional conference and nothing significant changes in your professional life as a result, what was the point of attending? Yes, you might have had a good time and been entertained, but you can get that faster and cheaper by eating out at a great restaurant, watching a good movie, or attending a show or concert. (And “I had a great time” is likely not the kind of justification for attending your boss wants to hear.)

Design genuine experiential conferences to deliver experiences that change professional lives by:

  • Effectively connecting attendees with relevant colleagues (no more lunches sitting next to strangers with whom you have little in common); and
  • Providing sessions that meet real wants and needs, and which use formats that support appropriate interaction, discovery, and active learning.

Participants enjoy group experiences that build community around conference commonalities

“Experiential” event programs today feature “experiences” like SoulCycle, axe throwing, and wine tastings. Sessions like these are, of course, experiences — as is all of life. What such sessions fail to do is build any kind of event community around the theme or constituency of the conference. So, at a phony experiential event, having a good time with colleagues qualifies the event as “experiential”.

In contrast, genuinely experiential conferences include group experiences that deepen learning and connection around pertinent material, and, in the process, build community that speaks to the wants and needs of the participants.

Examples? Hold sessions where attendees work together to solve carefully chosen topical or individual challenges. Or, include a closing session where participants share what was great about the entire event and how it could be made even better.

A genuine conclusion

Putting attendees in a novel environment does not make a meeting “experiential”. Genuine experiential meetings use active uncovered learning formats that maximize the likelihood of meaningful learning and connection for each attendee.

There’s nothing wrong with razzle-dazzle environments, except when they (all too often) divert money, energy, and focus from what’s really important. Instead, first concentrate time and resources on functional meeting design that provides genuinely useful and meaningful experiences to participants.

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