The Conference is the conference that every conference should be like, but then isn’t
Once a year in Malmo, Sweden, The Conference gathers 1000 people to explore the complexities of the digital world. As it was my first time attending I wanted to share my notes on what makes it special.
When you attend lots of tech conferences you know that 8 out of 10 are bad. They are too big; too commercial; poorly curated; badly communicated. There’s overpriced food; awful networking sessions; pointless panel discussions— the list goes on. You leave these conferences exhausted, feeling empty inside and with your pocket full of business cards that you want to throw away the next day.
When a conference offers a different experience it’s likely not by coincidence, but by design. The Conference is one of those places. Here’s what I think makes the difference:
1. Curation that brings in new perspectives
Most other conferences put speakers on stages that A. either confirm what you already know, B. pitch their company or C. travel the world to give the same old keynote everywhere.
At The Conference I haven’t heard of 90% of the speakers before. Almost everyone I saw is a practitioner: they’re busy working on stuff and only occasionally share about their learnings. As an organizer this means going the extra mile. It takes 10x more time to prepare these talks than booking a keynote a person has given many times before.
2. All female keynotes, all female panels
Diversity actually happens at The Conference. A day with all female keynote speakers. All female panels. Queer theory and quantum physics. More of that please.
3. It’s the experience that matters
Unlike most other conferences The Conference understands that what you actually remember from a conference is the experiences you had. The people you share lunch with; the drinks you had with a random group of new friends; the one idea someone shares with you at a dinner that you keep thinking about.
The Conference is designed to facilitate these experiences. The breaks are 20 minutes, not 10. You pick your own lunch box and randomly seat next to someone you don’t know. You talk about the talk you just saw and not about what you do. Weird and wonderful musicians introduce each keynote. A 300 people dinner in an abandoned shipyard kicks off The Conference. That’s what stays.
4. The audience flows
1000 people attend The Conference every year. The venue, an old slaughterhouse in the middle of Malmo, holds them easily. The day kicks off with a keynote in the big theatre, then people dissolve across 2 stages with parallel tracks, before meeting at the theatre again for the closing keynote.
There’s a flow that works. There are almost no empty seats in the rooms and no long lines to wait to get in. It feels packed and yet there’s enough space for everyone. I have no idea about the design principles behind this, but The Conference does it really well.
5. Vegan and vegetarian food all the way
Locally sourced, premium ingredients. Great coffee by the best roastery in town. Fruit and snacks in the breaks. All included in the ticket.
6. An eye on sustainability
Disposable lunch boxes and cups. Metal cutlery. Separate waste boxes on every corner. Local food. The Mug Motel to keep your own mug during the entire conference. It sounds easy but it isn’t. This is about having values and executing against them to the last bit.
7. A design that’s playful and fun
The Conference looks different every year. Every year a new design is being made that starts with the website and then goes along the entire experience: through the printed agenda and notebook you receive when you enter, your name badge with a carefully paper cut-out on top, the furniture, stage design, stage names, background graphics.
Why does it matter? There are smarter people than me to explain this, but I believe it wires your brain the right way. It’s playful and fun. It combines your digital experience with your real world experience. Again, it’s the experience that stays and The Conference’s design greatly supports that.
8. The Archive is up to date as we speak
All talks are being live-streamed and recorded. Well, that’s standard you say. But you’ll be surprised how many conferences struggle with putting up their content up MONTHS after it happened.
All talks from this year’s The Conference are online now, two days after it took place. So are 300+ talks from the previous years. With the level of curation adding up year after year, The Conference builds a serious resource and legacy that few others can match.
9. A team that cares
Maybe this is what it all boils down to. From talking to numerous speakers and guests at The Conference I continuously heard that they just feel really well taken care of and respected. This entails the first outreach email, the overall organization, travel booking, hotels, dinners, coming up with an emergency plan when the water runs out during the Scandinavian heatwave— the team at The Conference goes above and beyond to ensure everyone has a good time.
That’s not really something you can teach. It’s just something I believe most other conferences lose along the way as they grow, sell tickets, make sponsorship packages or do whatever it takes to stay relevant.
Now in its 10th year The Conference only seems to get better at what they were already good at. It feels effortless when you’re there but I believe it’s the result of years of attention to detail, passion, curiosity and care.
Thank you for bringing this group of people together and let us leave inspired, enriched and full of new encounters.
Full disclosure: co — matter was a curating partner at this year’s The Conference.
The aim of this article is not to endorse The Conference but to share my personal interpretation of what makes a good conference in 2019.
If you’re interested in another perspective on the futures of conferences, curation and critical dialogue I recommend this interview with IAM’s Andrés Colmenares.
All photos by jesperberg.se and brakss.com via The Conference.