Some tourists make a point of seeing the sights. Others prefer to immerse themselves in the ambiance of a new country/culture. And some want simply to switch off and relax in a place far from the trials and tribulations of work. Let’s talk about event tourists.
I’m an immerser myself. During our three-week vacation in Europe last year I especially remember:
The manic delight and amusement of the village elder who guided our car around the trucks that blocked the exit from the tiny hill-town of Monticchiello.
All the tiny Tuscan cafés we lazed in so we could hang out and watch Italians go by.
The Lake Como fish-seller who took twenty minutes to successfully seduce me into buying the last of his fried calamari.
Noticing some of the tens of thousands of little things—timings of traffic lights, scarves, houseplants, drinks, and climate—that shape and define a country’s culture.
The young hotel receptionist, bless her, who sympathetically soothed us when we arrived exhausted after dragging our suitcases from the Zurich train station.
A perfect day in the heart of the thousand-year old New Forest with our good friends Bruce and Elizabeth, at whose wedding my wife and I met.
Event attendees are tourists too.
One event tourists might be there for the content. They gravitate to the event’s museums and art galleries, concrete accomplishments of the far and recent past. They want to know the established order.
Another event tourist is there for the connections. They are stimulated by the ambiance, and excited by the opportunities of meeting new people. They are open to learn important things, little or big, from their peers.
And some event tourists are there for a break from a job that may have become too much for them, that has exhausted them to the point where they need an official excuse to disappear from the office.
What kind of event tourist are you?
And what kind of event tourists do you cater to at your events?
As 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 is like a island vacation; it 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…
What do my observations about Anguilla supermarkets have in common with the future of conferences? Read on to find out!
This is the third of my blog posts I wrote while vacationing in Anguilla.
A little about Anguilla and its supermarkets
Anguilla is a country of 14,000 people and four supermarkets. I like Anguillan supermarkets. None of them are chains and each has its own character, which makes shopping interesting, rather than the typically predictable American experience.
Nearly everything is imported. When we first started vacationing here, food arrived by ship once a week, usually making Thursday night peak shopping time. As the days passed, popular items like milk and vegetables vanished, only to reappear shortly after the container ships steamed into the harbor at Sandy Ground. Nowadays the shelves are stocked more regularly, but you still never quite know what you may find when you venture inside one of these idiosyncratic stores.
Not all Anguilla supermarkets are the same
Each store has different strengths and weaknesses. One boasts an extensive liquor department, but seems to have something against vegetables. Another targets expats, with a fine display of British brand name staples and household knickknacks, while everyday staples are shortchanged. And a third provides the best assortment of local foods, but little in the way of candy for the kids.
What’s interesting is the evolution of these establishments over time. The older supermarkets used to have a monopoly on certain goods; if you wanted cream you had to go to Supermarket A, while Supermarket B was the sole supplier of Pampers. With more sources of supply, the possibilities have multiplied—and the stores have responded in very different ways.
Six years ago, Supermarket C was the most haphazardly stocked of the three we patronized. Its marketing philosophy seemed to be we’ll take anything we can get out hands on, stack it in an aisle, and see if it sells. Their stock gyrated so widely from visit to visit that we avoided shopping there unless we wanted surprises. Not surprisingly, it was rare to see more than a few cars in the parking lot. Meanwhile Supermarkets A & B relied on their exclusive arrangements to offer, between them, a fairly comprehensive, if somewhat unreliable, selection of useful food and household products.
Fast forward to today
Supermarket C has been transformed. The premises are the same, but the shelves now include a comprehensive range of useful goods. And in addition, unlike competitors A & B, the store is open every day until late. As a result, it’s hard to find a space in the parking lot.
Meanwhile, Supermarkets A & B have rested on their laurels. We don’t have to shop in both places to get what we want any more. C is now our go-to store. And yet, though their traffic is down, we still notice customers shopping at A & B.
These days, those of us who don’t live on a small island know that failure to keep up with competitors in a commodity-driven retail market invariably leads to swift economic extinction. In Anguilla’s laid back environment, such change will probably occur more slowly, but eventually, unless they make significant changes, Supermarkets A & B will not survive.
The future of conferences
You’ve probably guessed how this relates to the future of conferences. Think of Supermarkets A & B as set-in-their-ways organizers of traditional conferences. Think of C as progressive event planners who realize that people prefer to attend events that give them what they want rather than going to multiple events to get a piece here and a piece there.
In Anguilla, people’s needs for supermarket goods didn’t change, but improvements in the supply of imported goods into Anguilla allowed Supermarket C to change what it offered to better match what people wanted. Likewise, people’s professional needs for relevant content, meaningful engagement and networking haven’t changed. But we now have a host of new ways to supply content outside the traditional conference, and a host of new ways to find out what conference attendees actually want to do while they’re together. Ignore the future of conferences at your peril. See you in the aisles at Supermarket C!
This morning, the waves in front of Tropical Sunset at Shoal Bay East, Anguilla were just right.
In the water I was hypnotized by the unceasing movement of my body, rising and falling as the blue water swells ran towards me. Their energy rushed at and around me over and over again, and I floated through them, buoyant.
An unknown amount of time passed. Finally, I became aware that I was hungry. Lunch beckoned.
When I turned back to shore, the waves, breaking on the white sand, crashed at my legs and sucked me back towards the sea, saying please, don’t go.
Leaving a good conference is like leaving those waves. You don’t want to go. You don’t want to leave the friends you’ve made, the energy that you felt while you were together.
But it’s time.
The only consolation is that you’ll be back next year.
This is the first of my blog posts written while vacationing in Anguilla.
I’m in the middle of a three-week idyllic vacation in Anguilla, a tiny Caribbean island. Colonized by the British in the 17th century, Anguilla today is an internally self-governing overseas territory (Google it!) that still retains charming traces of its colonial past: driving on the left, Cadbury’s chocolate, the ubiquitous use of “Good morning”, etc.
It’s getting harder to think of topics for blog posts as Celia & I are plied with fiendish rum drinks concocted by Susan, one of the three women doctor friends who are visiting us this week. (Yes, I know I’m on vacation, but, after lying for hours on a stunning powder-sand beach in the shade of a coconut palm, watching the hypnotic ebb and flow of perfect blue translucent waves, I begin to worry that I will never be able to think a coherent thought again – and, alarmingly, this is starting to seem O.K.)
This is our fifth vacation in Anguilla. And besides some of the most beautiful beaches in the world (with almost no one on them), goats that ramble all over the place, excellent restaurants, and plentiful mango coladas, there are about 14,000 other reasons why we keep coming back.
Just about everyone I’ve met who lives here has been friendly and engaging. Once in a while, all of us have a bad day, but Anguillans seem to stay upbeat regardless. There is a sense of acceptance of life’s realities here, and a tendency to look on the bright side of everyday trials and tribulations.
Anguilla’s economy is almost totally dependent on tourism. So how locals respond and interact with tourists like me is critical to their livelihood. In my experience, Anguillans are uniformly pleasant without being obsequious. From my outsider’s point of view, they are running a 24/7 event which I’m attending. And they do it with style and an open heart, just being themselves.