GEL Conference – Exploring What Makes a Good Experience

March 7, 2011

in Conference, Future of Conferences, Interview

The GEL conference (web, twitter, Facebook) is one of the big inspirational events of the US. The 9th annual spring conference will take place next April 28-29 in New York. I asked Mark Hurst (profile, twitter, Facebook), founder of GEL, to describe its main features and the biggest challenges he faces every year as an event organizer. The main focus is on speakers talking about good experience and Mark tries to never repeat a speaker.

“Every year it’s a different take on a similar theme: the perennial theme is good experience and what GEL tries to do is bring together  a diverse set of voices and perspectives”.

What makes a good experience at a conference?

“One of the goals of GEL is to teach good experience by creating one right there at the conference”

It’s both about big things and tiny details. According to Mark, typical examples of bad experiences in other events are:

  • Badges that are hard to read
  • You can never find the schedule of the event because it’s somewhere hidden in the attendee bag
  • The attendee bag might be something unattractive (a polite way of saying cheap) and bound to the landfill after the conference
  • Sponsor banners and logos “polluting” the physical space

View of the theater during a stage presentation

Badges

“When you build a conference with the attendee experience as your primary focus you get a different perspective on those details”. Name of the attendees in big font, schedule printed upside down on the badge (so that you just look down to read the schedule and while you’re doing so someone can read your name).

GEL 2007 Badge - Photo courtesy of nickbaum on flickr

Sponsors

“We have few to no sponsors every year. We don’t do things like selling the lanyard for 1,000 bucks or having a logo banner in every room of the conference”.

Catering

Catering is a very big element of a conference and Mark recommends not to “skimp on food quantity or quality. We use a local NY caterer who uses all organic, locally sourced and seasonal ingredients. Taste is better, nutritional value is higher, attendees feel better at the conference and there is a minimum carbon footprint”.

Also any food that is not consumed during the conference goes to a homeless shelter so there’s absolutely no waste. To further reduce the among of waste, GEL uses plates made of dry banana leaves that are fully biodegradable. “I have gone to conferences in the past where you go to the breakfast or lunch and you could tell that the organizer found the cheapest possible, chemical box lunch to save a few dollars and that shows that the organizer is not fully committed to the attendee experience”.

Members of the Gregory Brothers, Flying Karamazov Brothers, and Ebony Hillbillies together at GEL 2010

Conference bag

This is an aspect where several organizers fail. Mark has as a policy to give a bug but one that he would actually would like to use at home, carrying books, groceries or whatever. Furthermore the items that GEL are only those that attendees would actually want.

“There are no coupons because people don’t want coupons. There could be a voucher for a free item, that’s nice, but not a coupon for a 20% on some vendor service. that’s gross. That’s more for the benefit of the vendor than that of the attendee”.

Program

The “attendees come first” attitude affects not only collateral details but but also big issues as the programming.“The other day I got a proposal from a sponsor that also wanted to speak but that’s  absolutely the opposite of what attendees want. Attendees want to hear speakers that have something to say that is substantial, that they’re passionate about, that’s inspirational and motivates them to change something in their world”.

If you don’t rely from sponsors then it’s ticket sales that make the event possible. Money does play a part in bringing the event together, but Mark tries  to run this event with the lowest possible ticket price to make it feasible. “I have an advantage and that is that GEL is not the project that sustains me and my family financially (I have a consulting firm that does that), so I’m able to keep prices extremely low for the quality of the experience and I give a hefty discount when attendees buy for the next year the year before”.

The ticket price for GEL is about 1,000 dollars.

The ONE question for event organizers

“There is one central question that every [conference] organizer has to grapple with: why are you running this event?”

Answers tend to fall into two categories: you’re running the event to make money or because you love it and want to create a great experience. “For me GEL is something that I love and although I need to bring money to pay the expenses and put it on, that’s not the primary goal of running the conference and I’d like to think that it shows, because I’m able to bring the best caterer I can find, and rent the best venue I can find and so on”.

The biggest challenge in organizing GEL

Programming the event is a 12 month process that includes scouting for new speakers and new material to put into the event. “I have to be aware to who has spoken at other events because I try to have speakers that have not presented at other events. I prefer to run people that no one has ever heard of. Not always possible but it’s a goal. More often the new voices are people who no one’s ever heard of. On one side I like to think that I’m giving them at least a little exposure through the GEL platform and it’s gratifying to see them go off to make great things after they have spoken at GEL. I love to see them picked up by other conferences”.

This goal of tracking who has spoken where pushed Mark to launch a side-project with is a very useful tool for conference organizers: SittingO. It’s a website that collects speaker lists and event lineups, to track who has spoken where. For more info on SittingO read my review here.

Best networking “tool”

While GEL attendees are encouraged not to bring digital devices to the conference, Mark has created a program that enhances the possibility of interacting with new people. GEL is divided in two days The first one consists of a full day of in-person interactive group oriented experiences. “You will have at least two or three different experiences during that day where you’re alongside other attendees you haven’t met doing something, getting to know them and experience something side-by-side that gives you a shared context to talking with them later during the event”.

The second day is dedicated to the “theater talks” and by then people will have already built up an initial sense of community during the previous day. “During the second day we have five breaks: breakfast, mid-morning, lunch, mid-afternoon and cocktails. Five times for people to go into the shared area and say “what do you think? or “Oh, I remember you from yesterday” or “I didn’t see you yesterday, what events were you on yesterday?”.

Mark recalls that by the end of the conference every year the cleaning crew had to ask people to leave, because the talking went on after the program was over.

“I heard that occasionally there’s an after party but I’m usually too exhausted to attend”.

A GEL Day 1 creativity workshop held at Etsy offices

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  • Anonymous

    GEL is one of the wonderful talks sites on the Internet. Many people know of TED, but a much smaller number know of sites like GEL, BIL, DO Lectures, etc. All are very good and offer fine hours of learning and inspiration. I have put together a “directory” of 59 video talks and lectures sites which your readers should find very robust. Thanks for the mention of GEL! Jim Melfi, Founder, VideoTalks.org.

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