The Perfect Conference Format

I've been attending a lot of events lately, and one thing that keeps coming up for me is that the multi-day conference / workshop format is a bit broken. My main beef: by day two (or god forbid, day three) the audience has petered out and whatever energy was there on day one has been lost.  I felt like this happened at last year's (excellent) Nonprofit DevSummit, and even at last week's incredible Open Cities Conference.  It's a bummer, because these events always draw together really awesome people, but they can often fall short in a few regards. Here's how these events typically go:

  • Day 0 (evening before conf begins): maybe some late drinks with attendees as they arrive, or just heading straight to bed after travel.

  • Day 1: Conference begins in the AM -- introductions and big kickoff. Woohoo! Everyone is so psyched!  Evening socializing (very important).

  • Day 2: Morning attendance shows that some people have split (sometimes for good reason, sometimes to get a breather or explore a city on their company's dime) -- participation is good but waning.  More evening socializing.

  • Day 3: Lame-o stragglers pick up the pieces.  Poo!

The ideal conference would keep everyone there and fully engaged for the whole time, right? So, what to do about it?  Some suggestions I've heard: only accept RSVPs if people commit to all days (not realistic); schedule some awesome speaker for the morning of day 2 or 3, to draw people along (not a bad idea); limit conferences to just one day (sometimes tough to justify travel). But this morning, I may have come across the perfect format.  Talking to John Barstow from Orton Family Foundation (about our joint project, the Community Almanac), he described how they organized their recent staff retreat:

  • Day 1: Conference starts in the afternoon, to allow for morning travel.  Introductions and orientation. Excitement!  Evening socializing.

  • Day 2: The real meat of the conference -- all day activities and good stuff.  More evening socializing.

  • Day 3: Casual breakfast and wrap-up.  Time to decompress, process what went down, schedule any ad-hoc follow-up, then plenty of time to relax and travel home.

I gotta say, I really love this format -- there's still enough time to get real work done, and there's no lame aftermath moment.  I think I'll be scheduling my next event this way.

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