14 thoughts on “Giving conference participants just what they want

  1. Adrian,

    As I’ve said before, I LOVE this idea and can’t wait to experience it myself. The difficulty I see is that event planners see safety in the kitchen sink approach. And even when they value the methods you espouse, they are afraid to take the plunge and offer a purely or even mainly unconference event, because to them it is the “unknown.”

    It seems to me that at some point, our industry leaders HAVE to take such risks, if they want their events to improve. Just dipping their toes in by offering one or two unconference-style sessions at a mostly traditional-style conference, is bound to lead to mixed or disappointing results. When faced with a choice, attendees will choose the known over the unknown, particularly when the known asks nothing of them.

    And until event-planners themselves experience the benefits of an unconference, they will continue to choose the known, no matter how good the unknown may sound.

    1. Jenise,

      One of the secrets of Open Space / participant-driven and decided events is that the overall costs are lower across the board. The planning costs are lower, because planners aren’t spending large chunks of time identifying, qualifying, and choosing presenters/speakers. The logistics costs are lower because there’s no call to pay travel for speakers / presenters / celebrities, nor lodging, nor… The overall costs are lower, because there’s little or no requirement for projection equipment and other such.

      I just facilitated an Open Space event in Boston for 250 people. There were about 150 or more folks who’d never attended an Open Space before. There were a fair ration of skeptics, needless to say. And it was HUGE success (no surprise to me 😉 ). One of my favorite participant comments was “I found my tribe!”

      It’s still frustrating to me that it’s so hard to convince people of the value and benefit and success of these things, even though tens of thousands of them have been held.


      1. We share the frustration, Doc, but as more and more people experience attendee-driven events I think it’s slowly becoming easier to successfully pitch the format. It’s interesting that, in my experience, most people who haven’t experienced an Open Space/World Cafe/Conferences That Work/Unconference styled event are skeptics, while those who have are usually enthusiastic converts.

        I believe that the resistance you and I have seen arises (like most resistance) from fear of an event format where something unknown might happen, despite the reality that most of what happens, when we let it and support it, is wonderful.

  2. Jenise, you eloquently express what I describe in my book as the “program trap” – event organizers won’t risk creating a program at the event because they worry it won’t work, and so attendees don’t get offered this opportunity and continue to expect events to have predetermined sessions.

    If we event planners won’t take this “risk”, who will? It’s frustrating for me, because I’ve been running participant-driven event for eighteen years, and I (and thousands of attendees!) know they work.

    It looks as though some of us #eventprofs will be organizing regional EventCamps in the near future. The original Event Camp 2010 had predetermined content scheduled for every time-slot, which guaranteed the failure of attempts at the event to offer ad hoc attendee suggested sessions. Hopefully we will be courageous enough to use a true participant-driven conference model at future regional events, so attendees can judge for themselves.

    1. Keeping my fingers crossed that it happens. That would be a major step forward. Let me know if there’s going to be one in Central Texas.

  3. Hi Adrian,
    First off, thanks for this article, as there is a lot of good information in here!
    That being said, I respectfully disagree with a couple of things you said in it. Being one of the EventCamp 2010 coordinating team, I must correct you, we did have one track of sessions that were “unconference-style.” The truth is attendees were so interested in the other pre-determined sessions, and networking with each other, that there was little interest in that Unconference session track.

    In my opinion it’s less about risk, and more about who your audience is, in choosing to hold a completely “unconference” style event. Reality is, some business people must sell their bosses on the value a conference holds in order to be reimbursed for their expenses, or at the time off approved.

    Not everyone has the financial means to pay their own way for a conference. If the company does not see the ROI of an event, for their employee, that individual must take vacation time, and pay their own way, or bypass the event.

    I personally embrace the spirit and concept of a “participant-driven” conference model, but can’t resolve the challenge I called out in the previous paragraph. Since we are interested, at EventCamp in getting as many of our Eventprofs community members involved, we hesitate to walk down the Unconference road. I Would love to hear about how you, as an experienced organizer of these events, would advise potential participants having this ROI issue with their companies/bosses.

    Thanks for the article, it was very thought provoking.

    2011 EventCamp Annual Meeting Co-Chair
    EventCamp Headquarters

    1. I’ve facilitated a number of events where they did a hybrid. When I say “hybrid” I do NOT mean an unconference-style track. That’s generally a non-starter, because the unknown-what-the-heck-is-this-thing unconference-style track is competing with the programmed sessions, and attendees have a mindset that they’ve paid for the programmed sessions.

      The hybrids that I’ve seen work quite nicely have programmed sessions for some part of the time, and Open Space for some part of the time. One model is programmed in the morning, Open Space in the afternoon. Another is programmed sessions/workshops for a day or two, followed by Open Space for a day or two. One of each is occurring this week: the former in Boston (Agile Boston Open 2010 this past Wednesday); the latter going on as I write this (Alt.Net Houston 2010).

      I’d suggest exploring ways that don’t put the two models (programmed, self-organized) into conflict with each other.

      1. Doc, you use the term “hybrid” as I do in the book—describing a conference that has a mixture of programmed and attendee-driven sessions which are not scheduled at the same time. Be aware that the term “hybrid” can also mean events that combine face-to-face and remote “virtual” audiences. Many event planners have adopted this usage recently, so our terminology could be misunderstood.

        I’ve been meaning for some time to post about the differences between Open Space and Conferences that Work methodologies, including my thoughts about the strengths and limitations of these two approaches. There’s a short section in my book but there’s more to be said, some of which touches on what can work at a hybrid event.

  4. Hey Mike, good to hear from you! I’m really glad you wrote, because you bring up a common concern expressed when people are exposed to participant-driven formats for the first time, and you’ve given me a great opening to address them.

    But first, I must respectfully disagree with your correction. Offering an “unconference-style” track in the same time slots with prescheduled sessions, as was done at EventCamp 2010, is like asking thirsty airline passengers whether they’d like a Coke or a Bogart Juice (I just made that name up, in case you were wondering.) Even if Bogart Juice might be delicious, if you’ve never heard of it why take the chance when a safe, well-known beverage is being offered simultaneously.

    The prescheduled sessions were advertised weeks in advance with long session descriptions and detailed speaker bios on the official conference website. Attendee suggestions for sessions had to be written on a flip chart sheet posted on the wall of a hotel hallway on the day of the event. No other opportunity for publicity was made available. Under these circumstances, that “there was little interest in that Unconference session track” is hardly surprising. Many people who were at EventCamp 2010 told me later that they would have loved to have heard a presentation about Conferences That Work, but they had no way of knowing about my work before or during the event. In contrast, at my events everyone has an opportunity during the first session (the roundtable) to share why they came, what they want to have happen, and what experience or expertise that have that others might find useful. Attendees then possess a remarkable amount of information from which optimal choices can be made.

    Anyway, let’s get to your main point – “some people must sell their bosses on the value a conference holds in order to be reimbursed for their expenses, or at the time off approved.”

    Yes, if your boss believes that conferences are places for you to receive predetermined content, with perhaps a little networking on the side, s/he is going to have a hard time signing off on you attending a pure attendee-driven event that has no pre-published conference program.

    But not all bosses are like that. There are many different definitions of leadership. My favorite is Leadership is the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered. Bosses who subscribe to this kind of leadership are not leaders of people but leaders of process. When you lead this way you treat people as responsible adults, giving them choices and leaving them in control. By default, such bosses trust their people to make responsible, accountable choices. Such bosses will be open to a request to attend an attendee-driven conference, and they will also expect critical feedback on and information about an employee’s experience and learning at the event.

    In addition, many employees have a discretionary budget for their own professional development, as do numerous self-employed workers.

    So what do we say to the boss in the middle, the boss who might be convincible? Here are three options:

    First, many Conferences That Work combine participant-chosen and traditional sessions. This is normal for conferences lasting two days or more. The publicity for these events lists the traditional sessions, which can help to convince the skeptical boss: “well, at least I can see some sessions that will be useful.” Interestingly, attendees invariably rate the participant-created sessions more highly than the prescheduled sessions.

    Second, attendee-driven events are nothing new; they have been around for twenty-five years, with the most popular format being Open Space. Harrison Owen, the self-described “discoverer” of this format, estimates that over 100,000 open space meetings have taken place in more than 160 countries. (There are some common criticisms of the Open Space process that are addressed by the Conferences That Work event model.) Most seasoned conference goers have experienced open space events or sessions these days, and I think resistance to this format is slowly decreasing.

    Third, once you’ve attended a Conference That Works, you’re very likely to want to return or seek other events that use this format. I am seeing more and more multiple attendees from organizations where one person’s initial participation created an evangelist inside the company. Now that I’ve written the book and am actively marketing this approach it should become easier in the future to find or know someone who has experienced, gained significant value, and enjoyed these conferences.

    These reasons are not going to work for everyone. That’s O.K. with me. Enough people are embracing participant-driven event models that I’m certain this format is here to stay and will only grow in importance over time.

    In “The Purple Cow” Seth Godin says, “Find things that are just not done in your industry, and do them.” Because I’ve seen (and love) what happens at my events, I’m driven to promote them to the best of my ability. Since my book was published a few months ago, I’ve been amazed at the enthusiasm and support from people all over the world who are excited about Conferences That Work and are now planning conferences without my presence (the first one was held in Paris last week). As I’ve written elsewhere, I think that event professionals have a special duty to investigate and test such event models. Mike, I hope seasoned event professionals like you will give them a fair trial.

  5. I’m going to agree with Jenise here. Someone who is in the event business needs to step up and jump in with both feet and give this style a chance. But it needs to be someone who is passionate about the value a well run event can add for the participants. Not just someone who is a cog in the wheel and has a checklist of tasks they need to complete and call it a conference.

    I plan on giving it a try very soon here in Philadelphia. Thanks to your book Adrian I think I am well prepared to give it a shot.

    But I also think that this is not the only way to do an event and Adrian I don’t think you are saying that either. This style is not going to work in its purest form for a 3000 person conference. EventCamp 2010 exposed us to some great learning methods and session styles that are far from the norm. Samuel Smith’s Fishbowl and Jeff Hurt’s moderated discussions to me were revolutionary. Like your methods, here we were learning from our peers and everyone was participating. Sam and Jeff were simply moderating the discussion and I think that is key…good moderators. But I also think your method can be worked into a large conference…but as many have said, not when competing with traditional sessions. Why not set aside a morning or afternoon to be purely participant driven? This way you can have the best of both worlds.

    I would pay whatever was asked to be a participant at an annual meeting that included both peer-to-peer sessions like we experienced at EventCamp and Adrian’s model and very little or no talking heads presentations. And if you want to talk about justification of attending. I own my company and the buck stops with me. After experiencing EventCamp and reading Adrian’s book I canceled my attendance at one of my big industry conferences. I can no longer justify spending money to attend three or four days of talking head sessions and panel discussions. How do you justify hearing from a handful of “experts” when you have over 1000 peers with hands-on experience and a vast and diverse degree of experience at that.

    1. Thank you for the vote of support, Traci! If there’s anything I can do to assist with your Philadelphia event, let me know.

      You’re right, Conferences That Work is not the only or “best” way to run an event, for a host of reasons. The design doesn’t scale for large conferences, though I think it can be extended and would love opportunities to test some ideas I have. And event goals are a key factor—there are many meetings that are focused around business agendas, calls to action, or solving problems where other formats are more appropriate.

      You allude to a topic that I’ll probably write about soon: adding participant-driven sessions into a traditional conference. This has to be done carefully to be successful. Using the roundtable and peer session sign-up process of Conferences That Work takes a few hours, but ensures that attendees have good information about what they want to learn/discuss and know what resources are available to them. Without these sessions, it’s possible for Open Space-like sessions to be somewhat chaotic and dominated by extroverts.

  6. Adrian:

    You know we are both in agreement about the kitchen sink, all encompassing traditional conference.

    I am a “both, and” kind of guy. Organizations could always add the peer conference or OpenSpace to their mix of meetings that they offer each year. Pilot that program and see what happens. Then members have a choice of attending both the traditional and peer conference or one of the two. Instead of forcing the entire membership into a new format, it is a “both, and” situation and everyone wins. If more of the membership chooses the peer conference, the organization’s leadership gets the message and can make necessary changes in coming years.

    On the other hand, here are some of the barriers that keep associations from moving from the traditional to a peer conference:

    1) The traditional conference is typically the largest non-dues source of revenue, up to 40% -60% of an organization’s annual budget. The largest part of the revenue comes from exhibitors and sponsors, not attendee registration.

    2) For many associations, the traditional conference is their annual meeting which is required by their bylaws. That annual meeting has a specific set of requirements such as the annual report, fiscal updates and voting as stated in their bylaws. So it’s more than just the education & networking factor that takes place.

    3) Shifting to the type of OpenSpace or Peer Conference is not easy for many nonprofit associations and takes a lot of education. Some attendees don’t get it and it’s not for everyone.

    4) Often traditional conferences are used to unveil new organization directions, programs and services decided by the membership.

    5) Many traditional association conferences are run and planned by nonprofit governing structures such as committees, task forces and Boards of Directors. The peer conferences often require a change in governing structure missions, policies and sometimes bylaws. That doesn’t mean that change is not warranted, it just means change can be up to a year or more in occurring. Nonprofit associations are notorious for being slow to change.

    1. Hi Jeff!

      I like your “both, and” approach a lot. A pilot is a great idea for organizations wanting to prudently test new conference models. And it needn’t be a national pilot—regional events can offer a perfect test bed.

      Comments about the barriers you list:

      1) I’m not sure of your point here. It’s perfectly possible to have exhibitors and sponsors at attendee-driven events. edACCESS, a small IT staff association, has been running a successful exhibit day at its annual peer conference for the last eighteen years, and the revenues from exhibitors provide most of the funding for the organization. Exhibitors have the opportunity to give non-pitch related presentations during exhibit hours, and most of them appreciate the opportunity and take advantage of it.

      2) I’ve not had any problem integrating an association’s AGM into a participant-driven event. It’s just scheduled into the conference program in advance, as are any traditional sessions or keynotes that have been chosen by the conference organizing committee.

      3) Amen! Education, and most crucially, experience of an attendee-driven event is essential. And you’re right, not every attendee who is comfortable with traditional events is going to want a more participatory-based and more unpredictable experience.

      4) Again, there’s no problem with blending association business and new initiatives into a peer conference program—they’re just scheduled in advance. As long as a significant portion of conference time, typically 50%+, is reserved for peer conference activities, the event will still benefit from the advantages of being attendee-driven.

      5) Yes, change is tough and usually takes longer than we’d like or expect (if indeed it even happens at all). But the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and I encourage all of us to start walking the walk!

      Always good to hear from you. If you’re ever out this way, let me know!

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