The Importance of Concept in Event Design

I’m currently directly involved with promoting two events. In an effort to spread the word about both, I thought I would write a short series of posts about how I think about conference design. Update: The second in this series, “What’s in a Name? The Art of Naming Conferences”, is live.

The first, Admission, is the inaugural conference that my company, Tito is hosting about the art of creating conferences.

The second, Úll, is the seventh iteration of a conference I started organising because I fell in love with the idea of doing a boutique conference for people who love the Apple indie scene (Úll is Irish for “Apple”). It will have been 18 months since Úll in 2017, and the reason it’s taken so long is that I was waiting for the right concept to come along.

For many events, the concept is really simple: fill seats to sell sponsorship. If you’ve ever been to a conference that you were excited about on the face of it (probably because someone you admired was on the lineup), but you came away with an empty feeling that you couldn’t quite put your finger on, then you have experienced this.

These kinds of events are totally legitimate, but the empty feeling you get is because you are not the customer, sponsors are. Once you’re in the door, you become a number to sell to sponsors. Hopefully you get some ambient value, but you’re not the prime target when it comes to designing the event. Once you enter the venue, the main goal is to get you in front of sponsors. Cue exhibit halls, and branded everything.

I started organising conferences because I experienced the above and I wanted to flip this status quo on its head to put the attendee first. Putting the attendee first means that once the attendee walks in the door, the goal is to create a scenario that anticipates their needs as people rather than potential customers for sponsors’ products.

I asked on Twitter (and Mastodon) “Why do you go to conferences?” and aggregated the results from about 30 responses. The top 3 results, were:

  • meeting new people / networking
  • interacting
  • learning

I’m glad “learning” snuck in there, because the next highest was “seeing friends”. Now, my Twitter may be a bubble, but I’m fairly certain that the above is actually why most people go to conferences.

People value finding and enriching relationships more than the actual content of the conference. Providing useful, engaging content is the hook. This is why sponsor-first conferences work: they bring people together, and people love people.

Just because something works doesn’t mean it’s right. That’s the attitude I take to business, and that’s how I approach conference design. My inspiration for conference design comes from the world of entertainment: theatre, film and theme parks.

Theatre, because I want people to leave with a feeling related to the one I get when I leave a show like “The Importance of Being Earnest”: uplifted, smiling in delight, and shaking my head at how clever it all was.

Film, because stories matter, and film teaches us the perfect story arc. A great conference, to me, puts the attendee as the star of their own film, or indeed makes an effort to treat every attendee like a film-star.

And theme-parks, because Disneyland is where you go to “experience the art of experience-craft”. So much of it is sleight of hand, but Disneyland is a living, breathing example of a place that makes the above come true. If Disneyland can do it, why can’t a conference?

And so back to concepts.

The concept for this next Úll this year is simple: instead of putting a show together and asking people to come, I’m asking people to come and promising that I will put on a show for them. Since it’s the 7th year, I’m hoping people will trust that we’ll do a good job, but I’m confident that it will be a deeply personal event. I’m also just excited to try a new format.

The concept for Admission is also quite simple: there aren’t too many events out there for conference organisers to meet and share experiences. Conference organisers meeting other conference organisers, customers meeting other customers, and listening to some folks who have done this at scale, seems like something that should exist.

And speaking of “something that should exist” … not all conferences that take sponsorship are sponsor-led. Conferences like XOXO accept patronages from sponsors who believe that XOXO is something that should exist. There are many different approaches, but ultimately: people come for people.

If you’re in to surprise and delight, I hope to see you at Úll, and if you’re interested in organising events, you should come to Admission.

The next post in this series is “What’s in a Name? The Art of Naming Conferences”.