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5 ‘Radical’ Event Reimaginings May Actually Make Dollars and Sense

Getting a seat at Time’s new invitation-only event requires membership in the recently launched Time 100 Membership program — which means paying a fee unless you are a VIP. One of the four tiers is called Rising Stars: For $1,750, businesses send a selected employee to the conference. Patron-level members and former Time 100 honorees also may nominate Rising Stars.

That all sounds a little elitist, but the point of you “qualifying” people to attend your events—making it extra-special—rather than the other way around is becoming more common. (“You’ve been invited” usually gets my attention.)

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“Make it a little difficult for people to attend the conference. Make it aspirational,” writes VR Ferose, SVP and head of SAP Engineering Academy, in a recent article in Forbes titled 5 Radical Ideas to Re-Imagine Conferences. “This is one way to create demand. Have a simple questionnaire; ask why people want to attend the conference in the first place.”

That is part of his #1 reimagining that he calls Curate the Audience and Not Just the Speakers.

Benny DiCecca, formerly head of Wellesley Information Services and now CEO of World Congress Research, used to speak in those terms. “Are you asking [your audience] the right questions? One question we weren’t asking was, ‘Are you willing to pay to go to an event to learn on this topic?’ There is certain information that people would open up a checkbook and some people would not.” Are people willing to travel, he added. What would they pay for?”

Here are Ferose’s four other event reimaginings:

2. Share the Unsung Hero Story. “Imagine that you invite a speaker who came fourth in an Olympics and missed a medal by a whisker. Such a speaker would probably have more insights for the attendees than a medalist would… We often forget that handling failure is more important than handling success. We need to celebrate the non-celebrity.”

We do tend to think more about our successes than our failures, but some of the best talks I’ve seen have come focused on some shortcomings. Brian Grazer, the Oscar-winning movie producer, recently told about the time he lost for Best Picture. He was so sure presenter Sidney Poitier was about to announce Apollo 13 as Best Picture that he stood and reached for his speech. Poitier announced “Br…aveheart” instead of “Br…ian,” and Grazer sat down defeatedly. But he was consoled by real-life astronaut Jim Lovell, who told him “I never made it to the moon either.”

3. Don’t Focus on the Frills. “When a conference is all about free T-shirts, stickers and lots of giveaways, be a little skeptical,” Ferose writes. “While a bit of nudging is always helpful, overdoing it can be counter-productive. Remember all those lanyards, plastic covers for IDs, plastic bottles, and other swags we got from various events over many years?”

Especially in these environmentally conscious times, turning your attention more to a community project can attract more people or give them something more tangible to remember. “Audiences have an innate want to be a part of something,” said Nina Gomez, head of operations, Singapore, CWT Meetings & Events. “They don’t want be on the sidelines anymore, they want to be a part of something bigger.”

4. Plan for Impermanence. “Have a flexible instead of a fixed agenda. It allows people to remain engaged throughout the event, instead of their choosing only sessions that interest them. Some events even invite the audience to build the agenda in real-time… Always have an element of surprise mixed into the agenda.”

I’ve been to many Q&As after plays, movies or talks. Some should end quickly but others you want to keep going. I wonder if you could do this at publisher events. Leave a cushion of say 15 minutes at the end of sessions. If attendees want to leave, they go and network outside. But if the session is really dynamic, they stay, ask more questions, talk more. And maybe a popular session the first day should be repeated the second. Film festivals often leave the last day for Best Of or Most Popular encore screenings.

5. Make it More Democratic and Inclusive. “I have attended many conferences where there was a panel discussion on how to tackle homelessness,” Ferose writes. “Everyone on the panel had the right intentions and had thoroughly studied the subject. But imagine if they had invited a homeless person to the stage and got his perspective… Having representatives from all sections will make conversations more inclusive and authentic.” We’ve talked about doing more panels for SIPA 2020 to add more inclusiveness.