Different strokes for different folks
By Jeffrey Cufaude
A current cruise line commercial features hoards of passengers all moving in lockstep fashion, doing the same thing at the same time in the same way. It could just as easily be a commercial for some meetings or conferences. We need to experiment more with offering different options that provide the same value.
If one of your major social events is a big dance party, why not also offer a more subdued lounge area where people can enjoy the music in the background while having good conversation with colleagues? Many popular nightclubs offer different floors either with music from different decades or different social experiences altogether. Why not have several concurrent social events, each offering a different format that might appeal to different social styles present among your attendees.
After a general session, why not offer a track of concurrent sessions, each of which explores the keynoter’s content using different formats: open space conversation, case studies, moderated panel, speaker Q&A, etc.? Or do as the Association Forum of Chicagoland did at one of its conferences and offer discussion./implementation sessions organized by job functions. Each functional area discussed how it could apply the speaker’s ideas in their daily work.
The same idea can be implemented in an individual breakout session just as easily. Presenters looking to help participants apply their content can create several different ways in which people simultaneously do so, some people could gather in a group discussion, some could work through a case study, some could complete a worksheet on their own, some might mindmap implications of the content. Each group can then highlight their learning for those who were engaged in a different exercise.
No one says an entire room has to be set the same way. At one of their Great Ideas conferences two years ago, ASAE & The Center for Association leadership offered a general session room with a mix of more than a half-dozen seating styles and participants gravitated towards those they found most appealing. Half of the participants at the annual TED Conference gather in a traditional auditorium while the other have enjoy the session from a Simulcast Lounge replete with multiple mini-theatre viewing areas, blogging stations, and other informal gathering spaces.
Doing a boxed lunch? Great. Why not offer different spaces where people can eat? One room could feature short video clips on educational topics that people could watch while eating. Another might offer short presentations on personal development topics. One might be a "technology-free zone," where people can enjoy lunch absent cellphones and PDAs.
One size rarely fits all. While treating all participants the same definitely makes a planner’s job easier, doing so will rarely create the types of conference experiences that individuals desire.