What Makes a Great Conference?

I’ve been asking around on email and on the social networks what makes a conference memorable, special, or amazing.  This topic has my special interest, not only because I attend between 20-25 conferences per year, but also because I’m trying to help make the DARE 2013 conference in Antwerp, Belgium a great experience.

The obvious replies that people usually have are “amazing speakers” and “great hallway conversations”. I agree, and there’s plenty that organizers already do (or should do) to make that happen. But personally, I am more and more convinced that “greatness” is an emergent result of the complex interplay of little things.

Here are some suggestions I received:

  • Have great coffee available during the conference. (Johan Oskarsson)
  • Have dinner with strangers at the end of a conference day so that attendees get to know each other better (Ángel Medinilla)
  • Let people rate speakers directly after their sessions, and repeat the best session at the end of the conference. (Tiago Andrade e Silva)
  • Use feedback/happiness doors to capture quick feedback after each session.
  • Do phone interviews of speakers and edit their descriptions to match the audience. (Lee Copeland)
  • Have an icebreaker party before the conference with a jam session of speakers and organizers. (Alexey Krivitsky)
  • Print people’s first names on badges in big letters, and on both sides of the badge. (Jon Jagger)
  • Use conference apps so that people can easily see the program on their smartphones and mark their favorite sessions.

And there’s much more, ranging from the very obvious, such as give away free books, to the somewhat-less-obvious, such as invite a circus act.

There are three weeks left until DARE 2013. The number of participants is growing steadily, while time is shrinking fast. I’m afraid we cannot implement all ideas people have suggested. But we’re trying hard to hear at least those three most important words, “That was great!”

p.s. I have a discount code for friends. Contact me.

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  • http://profile.typepad.com/tanninen Ari Tanninen

    Nice list of suggestions! I’d like to add “serving the purpose I came to the conference for” to the list. Depending on person that purpose could be networking, advancing the state of the art, selling yourself, getting inspired, finding business partners, or beer or whatnot.

  • http://ziobrando.blogspot.com Alberto Brandolini

    One more… do not force people to rush. Providing a little decompression from session to session, is incredibly valuable.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jitterted Jitterted

    I think you missed the larger, more structural things that can make a conference better: programmed slack time. More than just the “decompression” time that Alberto mentioned, but time (at least 30-45 min.) in the program for people to talk about what they’ve heard and not feel like they have to rush to the next session, or (to combat regret and loss aversion) feel like they’re missing out if they’re not attending a session.
    I also think for conferences that have the luxury of lots of submissions: have submissions be on video, but also work/coach people on how to be better presenters. I see that the Lean Startup conference is doing this and I think it’s great. We’re not going to get more and better talks until we help people learn how to present better.

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