Let’s face it, most conferences suck.

Major suckage. Soul-sucking, bumming-out, identity-smashing, time-wasting, wandering, wondering why you spent the money, WTF-ing, straight up sucking.

Am I just super critical? I don’t think so. Conferences are a bit of a paradox: there’s one for everything (even conferences!), and people love the idea of connecting with like-minded people, but the actual experience rarely measures up.

Why?

Money is the short answer — but it leads back to why.

Conference organizers often lose sight of the real reason that they are producing the conference, and forget that addressing the real reason is the best way to make money, instead of just trying to make money. What’s the real reason? As with most other businesses, most conferences are started by someone who had a need themselves, who wanted to meet like-minded people, and who couldn’t find the right place to do it — and so they started a conference. (If the real reason is just to make money it’s guaranteed to suck).

What I mean is that the real reason is to serve people like you — people who want to connect with like-minded peers. The product of a conference is this service to a community. To repeat:

The product of a conference is to serve a community.

So why do so many conferences suck? There are a lot of moving parts to a conference. It’s not an easy business, and it’s not a business that most people are familiar with. It’s complicated, and the product isn’t a thing, it’s an experience. Still, it all comes back to the fact that in whatever ways the conference is not serving the community, the conference will suck. If the conference is serving the organizer or the sponsors first, the conference will suck. That may sound simple (it is!) but there are a lot of different ways this suckage can play out. Here are just a few examples:

Crappy venue

Why would anyone want to get on a plane to go sit in a dark basement? Nobody does! Why does this happen so often? Because the producer can’t afford a better venue. Why? Because the producer isn’t charging enough for the conference. Why? Because they think you won’t pay what it actually costs. Why? Because often they’re right! A great conference is not cheap. YGWYPF — if you want free, you’ll get what free gets you. If you complain about the cost and ask for discounts, don’t expect a pleasant setting. If you and your peers are not willing to pay a reasonable price to be part of the conference you think you want to be part of, then the conference probably shouldn’t exist.

Crappy content

I hate that word. What do you mean by “content”? You mean the words the people on stage are saying? If the people on stage aren’t your peers, that’s problem #1. If the people on stage are trying to sell you something, that’s problem #2. If the people on stage are uninformed, inexperienced, uninteresting, incoherent or worse, that’s problem #3. All of these come down to the role of the producer in creating a great agenda. Producers must be wise about speakers. People say they want great speakers, and name-brand speakers can seem to generate interest in a conference, but charismatic speakers do not make a great conference. Charismatic speakers make edutainment, and the value of edutainment usually goes to zero just about as the lights come up. Real value comes from real connections and real conversations.

Room full of zeroes and strangers

Who is in the room? Why are you there? First of all, you are there to meet your peers. Are you there to meet consultants, wanderers, pundits, lobbyists, junior staffers, and vendors? Do you find yourself spending 5-10 minutes making small talk with everyone you meet, only to find that what they do is only marginally relevant to your interests? What if everyone in the room was hand-picked to be certain that they all share a solid common ground? What if you were kindly introduced to several people that you should meet but that you didn’t know that you should meet? Your time is precious, and every conversation you have should be worthwhile.

Up to your eyeballs in advertising

Advertising is a terrible way to fund anything good and real. If the conference is about tomatoes, people who care about tomatoes are the customers, not people who want to sell stuff to people who care about tomatoes. The product is the conference, not the people who care about tomatoes. If the people who care about tomatoes don’t want to pay the actual, real cost of TomatoCon — and they almost certainly won’t want to — there are a few alternatives. 1) Be honest, charge them the real price, if they won’t pay, there’s no reason to have the conference. 2) Charge them what they say they will pay, and go out of business. 3) Introduce some sponsorship into the business model.

Most people don’t want to pay the full cost of a conference, probably because they fail to understand the complexity of the product, and the value that the producer is creating by doing the work that the producer does. This hidden value is the gap between what people think the price should be and what the cost actually is. Most conference producers find that they have to sell at least some, and often quite a lot of sponsorship to make a viable business. The key to not sucking is in the how. It’s easy to fall into selling your customers’ time, burying sponsor pitches in the agenda as “content”, and plastering advertising over everything, including even the name badges. It is possible to do sponsorship well, but the only way not to suck is to serve the community first.

Chicken dinners and cheap wine

How often do you eat chicken and mashed potatoes? Do you buy your wine from the bottom shelf? Do you have dessert with lunch? Every day? Are you insane? Feed people better than you would feed yourself. Food is not an afterthought.

Sitting on your ass all day

Nobody feels good sitting around all day, especially in the dark, especially with a bunch of strangers, especially after a ton of coffee and dessert for lunch. Physical activity is key to our well being. People! Get up and get outside! If you want your conference to not suck, you need to incorporate real physical activity into the agenda. Not a booze cruise. Not a zip-line ride. A walk, a run, a hike, a bicycle ride, some rock climbing, surfing — you name it, as long as it’s actual physical activity. The simpler the better. No team building is necessary. You don’t need guides or helmets. People will love you for it.

A conference is a unique combination of media and hospitality.

Like a magazine, a conference is a three-way relationship between content, participants, and sponsors, with the producer/publisher/organizer in the middle of the triangle. Like a hotel, restaurant, club and an event, a conference is an exercise in experience design. Sometimes I call conferences live media.

Conferences aren’t boring, they’re an amazing opportunity to connect with other people, to form and be part of communities, to interact, learn and grow. The problem is that most conferences suck. If you can get your head around some what I’ve mentioned above, your conference could suck less — it could even be totally awesome!

If you have the feeling that your conference could be better, read on for some further thoughts, and get in touch if you’d like to talk about how to make your conference awesome!