I’ve been involved in designing, marketing and managing events — mostly conferences in the management, technology, design and creative sectors — for more than ten years now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that conferences need to have an expiration date, like food. A sort of “best before dd/mm/yyy”.
What Does It Mean
This means that when you decide to run a conference with specific goals (or if you are currently running one), you also set a date by which you will cease such event because you consider that by that time its mission should have been achieved or that a stop should be made to reassess the future steps.
Of course, it could happen that after a first edition the deed proves unsuccessful and does not go on, that the goal is achieved before the deadline or that when the date comes the motivations to organize it are still valid and you decide to endure for one or more editions.
What an expiration would prevent is that you go on out of inertia while the experience and significance of the gathering dilutes into irrelevance, waning into a shadow of what it used to be.
Why Have An Expiration Date
Events are a product of their time. The good ones catalyze a particular mood in a group of people, be it in a specific industry, sector society or what not, and offer something that that people find valuable. But as with physical products, events follow cycles and what is novel, interesting, useful, relevant or entertaining today might not be so tomorrow.
When an event goes beyond its expiration date one of two things can happen: One, it is still relevant and can go on for a bit longer. Two, it starts to decay despite the passion, energy, resources and effort of a great team. In this second case, I believe that it’s healthy to take a break and decide wether it’s better to insist or rather apply that passion, energy, resources and effort to something else.
Thinking about my own professional career, I’ve gone through that kind of cycle a few times:
I was involved in the organization of big — now you would say rather traditional — management congresses (think 3,000+ attendees) where we brought together an at the time never heard of roster of academics, industry and world leaders who offered their vision and ideas in 1,5 hour long sessions each, for two days. I still can’t believe how much money we generated with the first editions in cities like New York, Milan, Buenos Aires and other major business hubs around the world. It felt fresh in 2004, in a pre-social media and startup craze world. I left in early 2008 and now, in 2013, this series of events still exist but are no longer perceived as the must-attend for the business community, at least not that under 40 y.o.
I’ve also worked in an amazingly creative and experimental event that had as a goal to transform a particular city into a creative hub, a point of reference for the creative industries in Europe. It had the financial support of the city (plus other industry sponsors) and pioneered a set of formats and interactive installations that were among the most original I’ve ever experienced. In my opinion, after 5 editions (I was involved in n. 4 and 5) the reason for which this event had been created had been grandly achieved and following that its originality reached a peak and the following ones were still good but felt direction-less, became smaller and — again in my very own personal opinion — less relevant to the local and international community.
Barcamps had all the buzz back in 2006-2007 and gathered droves of people interested in the exploration of the nascent space of social media (at least the first bunch of them, later the un-conference format was applied to many other topics and industries). Back then the conditions were just right for them to happen. However today you barely come across one (as a community thing, not as a format).
Another example that comes to mind is the Universal Exposition, which started in the mid-19th century and was considered a driving force to expand international industrial and cultural exchange. Nowadays it still takes place but it’s hardly such a relevant occasion anymore, especially for the Western countries. Nonetheless, if you consider the influence of time and location, the “expo” that took place in Shanghai in 2010 had a majority of the attendees come from mainland China, and for most of them it was the first time visiting Shanghai and being exposed to other international cultures.
Effects of Having an Expiration Date
The effects of having an expiration date would allow you to:
- Break hype cycles — there’s an expectation that an event should be always better than the past edition, which at a certain point becomes hardly sustainable.
Take for example the presentation of the iPhone 5s in September 2013. Several analysts considered it a boring event and featuring an unsurprising product, albeit an excellent one. Well, we’re no longer in 2007 when the introduction of the original iPhone was revolutionary and launched the era of the modern smartphones with touch screens. And that’s ok.
- Avoid diminishing returns beyond a point were it somehow damages the event, the credibility of the brand or the relationship with the community.
- Prevent from wasting resources (financial, human resources, etc) on a cause that no longer has a meaningful impact, whatever that used to be.
- Create time to think, re-focus and plan what comes next without the pressure of the inertia created by a cycle that is no longer relevant (e.i. the next edition).
- Find new goals and have the freedom to decide what instruments are needed.
- Prevent the exhaustion of the experience, limited by the formula (format, content, city, etc) used in the past, even if it was a successful one.
- Keep the memories of past editions high.
- Avoid decadence: All that rises must come down.
- Move on, because that’s life.
Change Is The Only Certainty
Surprise, originality and excitement only last for a certain period of time, and the same can be said for impact and relevance. It’s not easy to detach yourself from a successful conference. It takes courage, vision and the understanding that everything in life moves in cycles. People, things and habits are born and die. It might also create uncertainty on what comes next. That’s normal and must be embraced.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t invest in the longevity of the brand. The biggest asset of an event is (or should be) the relationship with the community of attendees, sponsors, partners and other stakeholders that it has — hopefully — created during its existence.
Yes, it’s a valid alternative to try to milk the most value out of a specific conference and figure out what to do next later. It’s surely the most reasonable thing to do purely from the Return-On-Investment (ROI) point of view. But you’re not running an event just for the ROI, or are you? ;-)