The conference post

After I came back from the Web2.0 Expo in Berlin I thought about writing a post on what I like and don’t like about conferences. A recent post from Laurent Haug (who organizes LIFT) reminded me of that idea so here we go. I wanted to start with highlighting Laurent’s presentation as it’s actually a good introduction for the post I wanted to write anyway. Here it is:

If there’s one conference done right than that’s probably LIFT, hence why it’s such a good introduction. I think it’s fair to say that I am a ‘conference regular’ and on many occasions I see things I would like to see done differently… and for a reason. To be complete I’ve never organized a conference myself so my view is purely based on my own experience.

Location

With the increasing availability of real-time video, twitter, etc it has never been so easy as today to follow a conference online. Hence why it matters more than ever where your event takes place, especially in times of recession. How long to travel, where to stay, what about local transportation to the venue,… . Luckily we have some amazing conferences in Europe and don’t necessarily have to go the US for that (on the contrary) and travel within Europe doesn’t have to be expensive. Still it’s a key part of the choice.

Venue

I think too often the choice of the venue is purely based on budget rather than anything else, which is not how it should be. Personally I like venues that are somewhat unique because they give extra flavor to the event. I also prefer to have a limited number of rooms/areas to be used. At an event like LIFT you have the main room and right next to it an open space where you can network, at Web2.0 Expo there where god knows how many areas (although the venue wasn’t that big) which made it sometimes difficult to find people. Also the venue has got to be big enough, it’s never nice to sit on the ground in the plenary room because it lacks capacity (like at Web2.0 Expo). Is it that much to ask for that when you sell 1000 tickets you can actually seat 1000 people?!

Theme

This is something I miss at most conferences: LeWeb this year is themed around ‘Love’, LIFT in February around “Where did the future go?”, etc but most of the times it’s just ‘Web2.0’ or so which you can hardly call a theme. What is the story they want to convey with their conference? What is it that connects all presentations to each other? What was the motivation to go after those speakers to begin with? What’s the take-away attendees should go home with? During the keynotes at Web2.0 Expo in Berlin this lack of a common theme became clear all too quickly. If I remember well there were 5 short presentations in the keynote: 2 about startups and VC’s, a presentation about open source hardware, another one about the Drupal.org redesign, … It doesn’t matter at this point if those were good presentations or not, the questions is what links them to each other. I sure couldn’t tell. It really isn’t good enough to line up a bunch of speakers on a stage to build a great conference.

Audience

We know from traditional mass media that you cannot target everyone, still that’s what a lot of conference organizers seem to want to do. Organizers have to choose whether they want the geeks or the newbies, the digital media strategists or the traditional advertisers, … All for one very simple reason, you’ll always disappoint half the audience if you don’t make a choice. Unless – yes there is a way – there are several tracks, but I think you should think of this as 2 conferences in 1, which means both tracks have to be rock solid for that specific audience which hardly ever is the case. Big conferences like PDC manage to do that but I think it’s a tough task. So whenever a conference sums up pretty much every possible job out there as target audience, beware.

Content

Once the theme is set – and audience defined – it’s time to go after speakers. That’s part of why I liked last year’s LeWeb so much I think. You could clearly tell that the program was built up (by Cathy Brooks) based on theme and audience. Less on ‘friends of’ or ‘same old, same old’ or sponsor contributions. As a sponsor I can regret the latter but I don’t as I want our contributions to fit in like everyone else. Too many times the content being presented is only loosely linked to each other, some of the presentations are old (as in – seen that exact presentation already a year ago) and often only the first and the last slide don’t sound like a product pitch. I know it’s hard work for a speaker to come up with new stuff all the time (and yes you can use your talk more than once) but some revision every now and then is very welcome. Same goes for organizers, follow up with your speakers and what they will present.

Networking

It’s probably half of the value of each conference, meeting with old and new ‘friends’, in many cases meeting online friends in real life for the first time. It’s part of the reason why the venue matters so much for me, make networking easy to do. And organize side events, or make it easy for people to find all ‘unofficial’ side events organized around the conference. And then I don’t only talk about the speaker/sponsor dinner but in many cases also the Barcamps, GGDs, Workshops, … etc When you visit a conference, you want to maximize your time away from work – and a big part of that is in networking.

Hotel & Transport

On many occasions people will visit the city the conference is in for the first time, or definitely not often enough to know their way around. And yes, we’ll all get around, but I always find it a good idea when a conference organizer tries to cut some deals with hotels in the neighborhood of the conference, in several price categories. It eases the search for attendees to find a good place to stay AND since there’s a better chance for networking since more people will stay in the same places. And inform about all transportation means to get there, or set up transport from the main hotels (like at PDC).

Not@Conference

Although it’s on the list for the last 2 years, I again couldn’t make it to Picnic this year. But I didn’t miss the conference really. As they do a good job at offering LIVE coverage – their own video etc combined with tweets, photos, … that people posted using the picnic tag. At SIME they didn’t offer this, but then they had their LIVE wall to which people (both at the conference and those at home) to send questions for the qna’s after each keynote or panel. For PDC there even was a #notatpdc hashtag in use. Think about this, it won’t keep people away from the conference, it just broadens reach.

I probably missed a few things that you think should be on the list (feel free to point it out to me) but these are the key elements for a good conference for me. I know price wasn’t mentioned but that was on purpose. I didn’t want to start a discussion about which price was right for which conference as I believe most are good value for money.

What aspect of a good conference is missing for you? Or what do you think  about the list?

[Update] Just spent another day at a conference today (Creativity World Forum) and it struck me I forgot to talk about 2 other times on my list: WIFI and food. WIFI because it never really works anywhere (although I must say the Microsoft Event guys do a terrific job at that). And food because it’s pretty much never any good… last’ year’s LeWeb being the exception to confirm the rule. The CWF today had foreseen food for like 200 people (unfortunately they sold 1500 tickets) so I guess that’s what must have been what triggered the reminder to add this to the list ;)

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