Reflecting over a busy year of conferences and the main characteristics that made my experience as an attendee better, I always come back to event size and intimacy.
In his recent article “An industry challenge: build “MicroSXSW” to bring back fun times at SXSW”, Robert Scoble complains on the big size that South by Southwest (Interactive) has gained over the last editions and the negative consequences that it has brought (over crowded, long waiting/queuing times, packed spaces, absurdly high prices of hotels and “big massive parties where you collect a lot of business cards but don’t have any good conversations to show for it”).
As a conference organizer it is your responsibility to address this issue by acknowledging the causes and designing into your event experience several moments for smaller groups to gather, increasing the possibilities for good conversations to occur.
“It’s no longer about how big your… party is. But it’s about how awesome your conversations are.” (in one of the comments to Robert Scoble’s article)
I often felt the same as Scoble during this year’s edition of SXSW but it was partially compensated by the fact that it was my first time there and that I had a bunch of friends I could rely on when things got too big. I mostly skipped big parties (or left after a short while) and instead enjoyed the most dinners, lunches and random breaks, with the biggest of them having something like 8 people.
At Le Web ’10 I suffered something similar. The event was very productive due to the 8 or 10 meetings I manage to organize using the matchmaking tool Presdo Match, but in general it felt too crowded (3,000 attendees). I knew at least 50 people that were attending but we never bumped into each other. At peak moments the exhibition and networking areas were so full it was difficult to move around.
A negative feeling at several other events was a caused by a mix between the number of people, noise (product of too many conversations taking place at the next time), inappropriate spaces and lack of intimate areas in which to comfortably talk or drink coffee. I attended something like 30 conferences during 2010 and it was at those where the audience size was something around a couple of hundreds (let’s say a maximum of 300) where the people dynamics worked best.
As an attendee I prefer small events but as a conference organizer I often aim to organize big(ger) events. Not all is lost though. While satisfactory human interaction is limited to smaller numbers, large events can take action to keep those dynamics almost intact.
Create and encourage meetings before, during, after and related-to your conference
Scoble’s proposal (or rather provocation) to finding a solution is something like:
Kill the big parties. Instead, follow Zappos’ lead. This year they hosted a bus. It could only hold about 30 people (it had its own bar, after all). But the time I spent on that bus is still my favorite experience at SXSW. Why? Because it forced a small handful of people to sit together and talk. Even if it was just for 15 minutes it was nice to have an intimate experience with a small number of other people.
To me the Zappos bus was the prototype of the “MicroSXSW experience.”
The MicroSXSW approach could work, especially if the organizers also make it part of their job to encourage smaller gatherings. SXSW has a good chance of achieving so because during the days of the event the whole city of Austin transforms into a venue composed by hundreds of smaller locations (bar, restaurants, concerts, parties, multiple conference rooms).
TED Global, a 650+ people event, has that micro-gathering feature in its nature: the many programmed lunches, dinners, breaks and side activities (from running very early in the morning to drinks and parties in the late evening) fostered constant micro events with the added value that most speakers participated in them. So one day you could be sharing a TED Run with other attendees, have lunch with different delegates, TED Fellows and speakers and spend the closing event punting in the river with the organizers and a bunch of other people you hadn’t yet met.
The solution can come from several different fronts. In the case of SXSW I handed over my experience to serendipitous encounters. Instead at Le Web I had scheduled several meetings beforehand using the online tool provided by the organizers. Often I’m lucky enough to have a great connector (as defined by Malcolm Gladwell) friend that introduces me to people that matter [to me].
Take into account that newcomers and veterans of your events might have a different perception so engage with them differently. Send them ideas and existing opportunities to meet and ask for suggestions. Encourage tip-sharing on a dedicated forum. By recognizing the existence of the “size issue” you are showing them that you care for their individual experience.