Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Best Seat in the House

You've probably been too busy running conferences and events to watch the behavior of your attendees very closely. Have you noticed how different they are in different environments? Have you noticed when they are engaged and passionate versus when they are quiet and passive?

At Illumination Galleries, we have observed human behavior in all kinds of collaborative environments. We can help you pack the biggest punch into an area of your conferences that our industry has largely ignored. Want to kick it up a notch? Answer the following question:

Where is all of the real action at a conference?
Is it in the plenary during the keynotes? Is it in the breakout sessions? Is it in the lobby outside the meeting rooms? Or is the bar the place to be?

If you answered "The bar!!!" with multiple exclamation points, then you might not want to show this piece to your supervisor. But to be fair, the bar, the lounge, the cocktail reception and the official networking events are all very important venues at a conference. Building relationships is a critical objective for most meeting attendees. Relationships require time for conversations to happen. And sometimes a little liquid courage helps to grease the wheels as well. The "bar" (to include any of the social locations listed above) is the place for social interactions to occur. Some negotiations take place here, but the bar is the stage for building relationships.

The plenary is another universe altogether. The plenary is set up to "broadcast messages" -- from one talking head to many listeners. These plenaries can have more or less energy, more or less interactivity, and more or less entertainment, but the primary function is for a few people (usually in the front) to share their ideas with the dozens or hundreds or thousands of others sitting in the audience. Executives and academics really like this space. This is the world of traditional education, where the expert talks and the little people absorb. Great speakers can make this environment transformational for people in the audience, but there just aren't that many great speakers out there. And for attendees, the more passive ones will like this space too -- this is where they can be most "entertained" with the minimal amount of effort on their part.

The breakout sessions tend to be where more detailed content gets shared, and where attendees get to have some interactions with the experts. These smaller-format sessions tend to be more hands-on, and much more interactive. For people who have come to a conference to learn a skill or best practice, the breakout session is where the most vital interactions will take place. Usually people get to attend sessions that they are interested in, so the audience is normally more focused and engaged. Great collaboration is possible here.

So that leaves us the lobby -- that nebulous "between" space that connects all of the different conference venues. This is where the registration table is normally found. You'll find snack stations and an endless supply of coffee. There might even be some informational or promotional displays here. It may seem a little strange that this area is often described as the most important part of a conference. Why is this area special? What makes this space useful? What can we do to make it even better?

The lobby belongs to the community of attendees. It is the Commons. The speakers own the plenary. The facilitators own the breakouts. The bar is pandemonium. The Commons is a different story. No one is in charge of it, so everyone can use it however they like. It is quiet enough to have important conversations, but generally active enough that you don't feel like you're bothering others (or that others are listening in). It is the central hub of the community, so anyone that you would want to see will walk through there on the way to or from somewhere -- this is where chance encounters and reunions happen, full of laughter and delight.

And this is where new ideas come flooding in like the tide. When people leave the plenary, fresh from a motivational speaker or a dynamic executive presentation, they pour into the Commons to share their ideas. When they return from a variety of exciting breakout sessions, they meet here to share ideas, compare notes and tell each other what they missed in the other sessions. These regular floods of new ideas and new energy keep the Commons at the center of the community of attendees.

This is where connections are made. This is where ideas pop. This is where insight happens. If you want to make a conference sizzle, transform the Commons into THE place to be!

This area gets the least amount of design attention of any venue at a conference, yet this is where the most important conversations are taking place. This is where people are most themselves, are most passionate, are most engaged. This is where the real value of a conference is forged for many attendees. The speakers, the breakouts, and the entertainment all provide fantastic ingredients, but it is here in the Commons that it all comes together to build new connections, new relationships, and new plans for the future.

We created Illumination Galleries to turbocharge the Commons. We decided bring the design brilliance of an opening session to the conference venue where attendees find the greatest value. We create a powerful experience of the meeting's content, of making connections, of building relationships and of producing results. Come visit the website and we'll show you how.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

"Where the Real Fun Is!"

Great tweet from my friend Dan regarding the recent SXSW conference. The blog post describes the high points of this conference. The most striking one for me begins thusly:

"How were the panels? I only attended 3. Most people quickly realize that sessions isn’t where the real fun is (hint: it’s the lobby!)."

At more and more of these events, the "juice" for attendees is not in the formal program of the conference, but in the interactions with other attendees. Most conferences, however, still focus their investments on the heavy, one-to-many set pieces - keynotes and the panels.
If the "real fun" is really in the lobby, I would love to know how (and if) SXSW structured that fun. How did they facilitate it? How did they encourage it? How did they document any of the great ideas and conversations that came out of it? Does no one else think that THAT should be the new model for conferences?

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