People are impressed when I tell them that on arrival, peer conference attendees are immediately given a printed face book (that’s face book: small f, two words) that includes photographs, names and contact data, and additional pertinent information about each participant.
They tell me that it’s rare to receive such a document at conferences. How sad that conference organizers don’t bother to provide this basic tool for learning about fellow attendees. (Perhaps it’s not too surprising, since an attendee face book is not mentioned in any book on conference management I’ve read.) The absence speaks volumes about the lack of support for participant interaction at traditional conferences.
Typically, conventional conference support of connections between attendees is limited to providing meals and social events where people can mingle. Attendees are left to their own devices to learn who else is at the conference, to seek out interesting people, and to introduce themselves to others. All these barriers must be surmounted before conversations and discussions can occur. Consequently, attendees who are new to a conference are disadvantaged compared to the old-timers who already know other participants, reinforcing the formation of cliques.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Actively supporting useful attendee connections is an integral part of every peer conference. When the information, openings, and opportunities needed to meet like-minded attendees are provided, not only during session breaks but also as part of the formal conference structure, it becomes attendee-centered rather than session-centered, greatly increasing the intimacy and enjoyment of the event.