Re-imagining the Conference Experience

 I speak at a lot of HR-related conferences.  I started this as part of my job responsibilities when I was Chief Operating Officer of SHRM (the Society for Human Resource Management).  Supporting SHRM state conferences by being a keynote speaker was a great part of my job.  It got me (and by extension, SHRM) close to our members in a very personal way and was useful to create stronger relationships and to know what was on the minds of our members. 

 And through my SHRM experience where the very talented Meetings & Conferences department was part of my responsibility, I know a lot about the mechanics of putting on successful conferences for as few as 200 and as many as 20,000 attendees.  While the execution is extremely challenging, the formula for success has been pretty simple:

  1. Contract outstanding and well known keynote speakers that motivate people to attend.  (Typically these folks fly in to speak and fly out after their book signing.  They have almost no personal interaction with the participants.)
  2. Offer a wide range of breakout/concurrent sessions focused on knowledge development and skill building.  (These sessions are led by content experts and experienced practitioners who focus on practical applications in traditional classroom style.  PowerPoint presentations abound.)
  3. Engage a set of high profile corporate sponsors to underwrite the conference so attendee registration fees can be kept low and sponsors’ visibility is high.  (The sponsors are kept at arm’s length so the programmatic content isn’t “tainted” by the commercial nature of that relationship.)
  4. Create multiple networking activities so that people can connect in person and carry those relationships forward.
  5. Select an attractive and affordable city and conference/convention venue.  (The focus is on making the participants comfortable in the physical surroundings.)
  6. Execute a strong plan to market the conference to the universe of potential participants.  (Most conference organizers use traditional marketing methods.  Some have stuck a toe into the social media marketing world; most haven’t figured out how to do that yet.)

 I had the privilege of participating in last week’s RecruitFest! in Boston organized by RecruitingBlogs.com and Monster.  And it’s clear that the effectiveness of this conference has the potential to change how conferences are conceptualized and experienced going forward.  In fact, I might go so far as to say if other conference organizers in the HR space aren’t paying attention to what these folks accomplished, they may well be selling buggy whips next year when they go to market. 

 I have to hand it to Eric Winegardner at Monster and Jason Davis, Miles Jennings and Ashley Saddul at RecruitingBlogs.com for having a startlingly new vision and risking it all to try something substantially different in the world of conferences.  These folks went way beyond “thinking outside the box” and “pushing the edge of the envelope.”  They re-imagined the experience from top to bottom.  Let me give you some examples.

  • There were no keynote presentations or concurrent sessions.  It was a series of important conversations between thought leaders.  Unrehearsed, substantive, sometimes controversial, sometimes argumentative, and always informed and thoughtful, these discussions between two, three, four and five experts explored issues and practices that matter to business leaders and talent management professionals.
  • The thought leaders were asked to participate in the entire day – in fact the day started with each of the 12 of us giving a brief overview of the reasons we were participating and our particular point of view; the day ended with each of the 12 of us sharing what was the most impactful learning we experienced during the conference.  Additionally, each of us participated in one or two of the live discussions and asked questions of our colleagues in the other discussions.  We also were part of the studio audience so we were seated side by side with the live audience throughout the day.
  • There were almost no PowerPoint slides.  Really.  The focus was on having real discussions and exploring different points of view.
  • Participants were encouraged to weigh in and agree/disagree or ask questions.  The comments came from the studio audience where a microphone was available as well as from the remote participants via telephone, Twitter and a chat box on the RecruitFest! Live web site.
  • The focus on the “participant experience” covered both the live attendees and the remote attendees – with an emphasis on the experience of the 3,800+ remote attendees.  The technology employed to ensure a rich remote experience included a 3-camera video team, a web site that offered the live stream, a chat box and question box, and the call in telephone number.
  • The sponsors were all involved in creating the experience.  They suggested speakers, they participated in crafting the discussion agenda, they were in the audience and participated in the Twitter stream and through their blogs.
  • The marketing was almost exclusively conducted through social media:  Twitter, blog posts, FaceBook pages and LinkedIn updates.  In a matter of 2 weeks the number of registered attendees grew from just over 100 to the nearly 3,900 participants (from 38 countries).
  • The venue was more TV studio than conference classroom venue.  The newly re-constructed Paramount Theatre (part of Emerson College) and stage gave the conference a look and feel that felt contemporary and useful and made the live streaming feel natural. 
  • The entire day was recorded and will be shared with anyone who would like to experience this next step in the evolution of conferences.  (Click here to enter your email address so you may receive the url.)

 Although it was a tremendous and exciting experience, it wasn’t a perfect experience.  Clearly the financial model needs some more thought.  And the studio audience could have been engaged even more.  But I have to tell you, after managing conferences, attending conferences, and being a keynote speaker at conferences, this was more fun, more engaging, more interesting, more exciting and more impactful from a learning perspective than any other conference in which I’ve played a part.  And I’ve been involved in a lot of conferences. 

 So again.  Kudos to the Monster and RecruitingBlogs.com organizations for stepping off the precipice into the future.  They’ve created something remarkable.  I can’t wait till the next RecruitFest!

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12 Comments

Filed under China Gorman, Conferences, HR Conferences, Social Media, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Re-imagining the Conference Experience

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  7. China – We’re very humbled by such a post. It means a lot to us, and we thank you.

    RecruitFest! has always been about the conversation – this will never change. What makes RecruitFest! special is that we never stop to innovate. We try not to let business models get in the way. 😉

    People shouldn’t forget that we have never done a virtual event before. We had zero experience in it – and yet, look at the results! I think the stats speak for themselves. 3,000 tweets in one day is not too shabby. Yes, we absolutely need to fine tune certain things, but that’s all part of the learning experience. Quirks and glitches are part of the game – which is why we had no less than 4 channels for the virtual audience to interact.

    Imagine what type of virtual conference we’ll throw if you gave us 4 years to experiment! I’m already looking forward to RecruitFest! 2014.

  8. China, great post and thank you for your absolutely wonderful contributions to the event! Great point about the studio audience, because we would like to plan more networking and involvement for them in the future. It was alright, but in general not enough participation.

    For the “remote” folks, it seems like the participation could not have been better. Thousands of tweets, an active chat, and most seemed to think the technical experience was unparalleled.

    I can’t wait to see the videos from the event, because, like at your own wedding, it’s hard to take it all in while you’re there.

  9. China we have been doing virtual events for 4 years now. Attendance is high, sponsorship is low. So yes the model is broken for now. It is the wave of the future and the conference you did last week was great. I can never attend all the conferences but when they are virtual and archived I can get what I need when I need it. This show was like a tv program. Very high quality but not much remote interaction. I wonder if others had problems with the chat like i did.

    • Good to get positive feedback from a pro like you. Thanks, Deb. The tv show analogy is apt. We really treated it that way. One of the things to work on for the next RecruitFest! is how to have a larger studio audience and how to engage them more. Having the “speakers” sitting in the studio audience when not on the “stage” was very cool. And the challenges looping in the remote attendees needs to be strengthened. But all in all, I thought it was an amazing next step in the evolution of the conference experience.

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