How Not to Run a Conference

Submitted by Kevin on Mon, 09/23/2019 - 14:03

I normally blog about technical topics here, but I'd like to step aside from that for a moment to speak my mind on conference planning.  

I recently attended an IT conference - I'll refrain from giving its name, though some of my readers will be likely to guess - and felt decidedly underwhelmed by it.  I've planned large group events in the past and thus have experience with the process from multiple angles.  Because of that, it really frustrates me to see a conference make easily avoidable mistakes.

I'll also confess that I am an introvert and quietly proud of it, so traditional networking techniques have never worked that well for me, though some definitely work better than others.  A lot of the following relates to how a series of mistakes can lead to an event that is very unwelcoming for introverts like myself.

The first mistake I noticed with the conference in question was the design of the name badges.  The only information on the name badge was your name and the organization where you work.  They did not show your job title, and worse offered nothing to indicate your role with the conference (e.g. staff, presenter, vendor, etc.) - not even colored ribbons to attach to your badge if you had a special role.  It is especially frustrating when you cannot figure out who the staff members are when you need help or information.

While less critical, it is very beneficial to have job titles on badges and identification of presenters, as both are quite helpful in breaking the ice.  That is, in a sea of people around me, if I see someone whose title relates to web design or development, I can focus on trying to say hello to that person and ask what kind of web work they do.  When I have no idea what anyone around me does, I'm much more likely to just stay in my figurative shell.  Conversely, I've had people come up and talk with me at other conferences when I have a badge that indicates I'm a presenter (I like to present and try to do so whenever I can get accepted to present, which is actually not uncommon among introverts: we're better in front a group than within one).  At this conference, with no ribbons or other indicators, no one passing by me had any clue that I was a presenter, nor did anyone even know what kind of IT work I do.

For social networking, keynotes, and lunches, this conference put us into a 96,000 square foot exhibit hall that could have been split into two spaces.  Instead, they used the entire space, which was far too much for the number of people attending.  Besides making us walk long distances when meals were served, there were too many tables for dining in that exhibit hall, so it was much too easy for people who already knew each other to group together while loners like myself would end up at a table alone, or with a couple other people on the far side of the round table.  That's just not conducive to getting people who don't know each other to meet and talk.  By my estimate, at least ten round tables could have been removed and there would still have been plenty of seating for everyone - we'd just have had to sit more to a table, fostering more socialization.

The entire convention center felt too big for the event, which might surprise a few of you out there.  Oftentimes, events have the opposite problem: not enough space, resulting in crowding.  However, having too much space can be just as bad, because it encourages both loners and existing groups of friends to go find a corner to hide out between sessions.  A smaller space (as long as it isn't too small) encourages people to have to mingle with each other, whether they want to or not.

Equally disappointing was the lack of real social activities to foster networking.  For the most part, we were just given free time and snacks, with nothing to entertain or engage us during social periods.  For dinner and the evenings, we were simply turned loose in the host city's downtown without any organization by the event planners.  Once again, this encourages people who know each other to go out together, and those who don't know anyone to wander about on their own and possibly never run into another convention attendee.

I've been to other conferences that make use of a city's downtown as an evening attraction, but they try to provide some organized activities that keep attendees together.  For example, the organizers might buy tickets to a ghost walk tour, a wine / cheese tasting, an art gallery tour, and a music jam session in a local venue, then offer those tickets to attendees.  Alternatively, several restaurants could have been reserved for dinners, letting people enjoy the local cuisine while being among other attendees.  Not everyone may want to participate in either type of activity, but those who do will be mingling with other attendees and inevitably get to know a few of them a little better.  An introvert especially will gravitate to activities like this, as they provide a structure in which they can feel comfortable, and then might feel like talking more openly with the other participants.

Now, social networking is arguably the lesser part of a conference - in theory you're supposed to be going primarily for the instructional content.  This one had twelve time slots across three days, which isn't too bad, but they were split 5 - 5 - 2, and quite frankly I can't see any value in running a conference day with only two sessions (particularly ones at 8:30 and 9:30 AM) and no other activities - it just doesn't seem worth the effort.  I didn't even return for that last day, as there was nothing for my primary track (Web Design/Development) scheduled in either time slot, nor anything else of any interest to me.

For the other two days, they ran programming from 8:30 to about 4 PM each day, which is fine if you're an early morning person, but not all of us are.  While I don't expect conferences to stop holding sessions at 9 AM, I wish they'd make that the earliest time, and I wish they'd run their full-day schedules all the way to 6 PM.  That would provide at least one if not two more time slots in the afternoon than what the conference in question offered.

The quality of the content was okay, but there wasn't enough of it in my opinion, which may have led to a few presentations being accepted that were not of as high a quality as attendees might would prefer.  Even though it was billed as a multifaceted IT conference, I did not feel that very many people were attending on the Web Design/Development track, and the schedule of programming for the track seemed to reflect that observation.  I'll admit, figuring out how to attract more presenters is a tricky problem, especially when they were already offering one of the most useful incentives: free admission for presenters.

One thing that could help would be better attention to the scheduling process.  A good strategy that too many conferences fail to utilize is sharing the schedule with the presenters before it's made available to the public.  This lets presenters give feedback on the time slot(s) they've been given, making it much easier to shuffle people around before the general attendees get to see the schedule.  Even more helpful is having a "Notes" field in the presentation submission form, so presenters can indicate if they have time-of-day preferences or other special needs.  None of that happened with the submission and scheduling processes of this particular convention.

As I hate to be completely negative, I'll try to offer a few positive remarks:  the projectors in both of my rooms worked flawlessly, which as a long-time presenter, I consider to be a small miracle :-)  The convention center did offer a pleasant environment with a lot of nice local artwork on display, and the staff I talked with were polite, friendly, and as helpful as they could be, though a little more sharing of knowledge among the staff would have been helpful (e.g. knowledge of where the hotel shuttles pick up and drop off).

So, in closing, I really couldn't recommend this conference to anyone in the web design/development field, which is a shame because the previous incarnation of this conference used to be a pretty good source of information on web in higher education.  I have a feeling that the new incarnation with its more mainstream design has caused a number of long-time attendees to not come back - at least, there were not that many faces in the web sessions that I recognized.

I hope these thoughts, which are meant to be constructive, might help someone out there who someday works on a group event to plan a more successful event.  And, if anyone with the event in question should read this blog post, I hope they'll consider my thoughts and try to make their event better in future years.  A lot these ideas would not take much effort or money, but could make a big difference in the attendee experience.