This is Why Conferences Are Broken. Here’s How to Fix Them

Every year thousands of people flock to their annual industry conference. The format hasn’t changed in decades.

Gather thousands of people. Make them sit in hotel ballrooms all day. Have multiple tracks going on at the same time. Let the attendees eagerly anticipate happy hour, where they can get drunk and exchange a few business cards.

That, in a nutshell, is what the average conference for almost every industry is like.

10 years ago, I was working at a large market research company that held its annual sales meeting in Cancun. We were housed in a breath-taking 5-star hotel. And from morning till evening, we sat in a room listening to people go over mind-numbing Powerpoint Presentations. After the meeting was over, we had 2 hours to enjoy Cancun. I didn’t meet any of my co-workers, and I can’t help but wonder if there would be no impact on the bottom line if this event was never held.

At another event that was called Innovation Uncensored, a staff member came up to me and asked what I thought. I suggested that he change the name since it wasn’t innovative or uncensored.

After years of this, in 2013, I planned the conference I’d always wanted to attend. You can see the trailer below.

Since then, I’ve been a keynote speaker for about half a dozen conferences in the event industry. Every time I speak to one of these groups, I tell them “stop putting people in hotel ballrooms for hours on end, where they want to gouge their eyes out.” Everybody cheers when I say this. Many of them talk to me afterward. But I still give the bulk of these speeches in hotel ballrooms.

The Venues Are Terrible

Photo by Product School on Unsplash

Contrary to popular belief, a venue is not just a container for the people who attend an event.

This isn’t just true for conferences. Keith Rabois, the venture capitalist, says he knows whether he’s going to invest in a company just by looking at the office space.

Environment has a massive impact on behavior and outcomes. If the goal of an event is to foster innovation, connection, and community, then the environment in which that event is held should be conducive to those outcomes.

It’s easier and more cost-effective to use hotel ballrooms. But it’s also less likely to make a big impression on the people who attend.

The Structure is Broken

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Erik Wahl once said to me, “live music has engaged participants; keynote speaking has passive consumers. There’s room to be explored in how you bridge that gap.”

The standard structure of having people sit in sessions for 8-hours with short breaks to use the bathroom or eat lunch leads to boredom instead of breakthroughs.

I recently was a speaker at a conference that asked me to attend for the entire event. Even though I did nothing the first day, by the end of it, I was exhausted.

During the Q&A after my speech, which was about attention management, I suggested that all these executives reconsider the format of such events if they want to keep people’s attention.

I always tell event planners that they should stop planning events and start designing experiences. Who says that a business event can’t be more like a rock concert?

So now the question is how do you fix them?

Less Passive Consumption. More Active Engagement

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

First, the sessions should be shorter, and there should be more time for attendees to interact with each other. Either limit the length of the talks or the number of talks.

But it’s also up to the people who create the events to design an environment that leads to engagement.

For example, one of the most wasted opportunities for everyone who plans events is the nametag. Something as simple as an ice-breaker question and a person you are supposed to meet would enable deliberate serendipity. We tried this with index cards and made people ask really personal questions to a person they never met (when was the first time you fell in love, what are you most afraid of, etc, etc.). It was amazing how quickly the walls came down and people connected.

That’s one example. But there are so many opportunities for active engagement. Adobe Max may be the biggest conference for creative people. A company like Adobe Creative Cloud could use its tools to create interactive experiences that cause attendees to interact with each other.

Cooler Venues

Photo by Ruben Ramirez on Unsplash

There are so many venues that are hipper than a damn hotel ballroom. I’m sure the hotel industry hates my guts for saying this. But you shouldn’t. People still need a place to sleep, and that’s usually at a hotel. I’ve witnessed first hand how to transformative a venue can be.

Do things that Don’t Scale. Do Things People Notice

Paul Graham gives startup founders the advice to do things that don’t scale. Event planners should do that as well.

My friend AJ Leon custom-illustrated every name tag for his event (see below). When we followed suit, the girl I was seeing at the time said: “nobody is going to throw these away.” I replied, “I know. That’s the point.”

Signage is yet another opportunity that is completely wasted. With the number of creative people that attend an event like Adobe Max, they should have the coolest signage on the planet. Most of the time when you’re a speaker at an event, there’s a sign outside the door with your name, headshot, time slot, and title of your talk.

Contrast that with what Mars Dorian did when we planned our event.

Ban Smartphones and Technology

Somewhere along the way, hashtags became more important than handshakes. By allowing technology in the room, conferences are doing their attendees a disservice. Rather than being present, attendees are in the words Sherry Turkle “alone together.”

When you ban technology, it forces people to interact with each other. It increases the depth of their connection. Rather than being a place to collect business cards, an event becomes a place to truly connect.

It’s been six years since our crew at the Unmistakable Creative has planned a conference. But I’m ready to go to another conference that I’ve always wanted to attend. That’s why I decided to plan The Architects of Reality. Tickets go on sale this week.




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Srinivas Rao

Srinivas Rao

Candidate Conversations with Insanely Interesting People: Listen to the @Unmistakable Creative podcast in iTunes

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