Five Factors That Make Or Break A Conference

The SimpatiCrew returned late Saturday from the INTEGRATE 2012 conference at West Virginia University‘s stunning Morgantown campus. It was our second participation in an emerging media conference in 12 months. It also proved the more valuable of the two.

Whether you’re a start-up or small business, you’ve probably considered budget-conscious ways to invest training dollars. You’re right to: There are good alternatives to commercial destination conferences. Many, like WVU’s INTEGRATE, offer an intimate, academic and professional atmosphere. Here are five factors to consider as you do your homework.

5. The Speaking Roster

All-star keynotes and C-level titles don’t necessarily portend the keenest, nor most relevant, of insights. Too frequently, speakers exhaust the bulk of their stage time acquainting the audience with their company and key results. Don’t get me wrong: When facing an audience of 7,000+ attendees, it’s important to answer the question, “Who are you, and why should I care?”  But at a big conference in San Diego last June, most time blocks translated into little more than hour-long sales pitches. Speakers seemed to forget they were at a learning summit, not an Apple media event.

On the other hand, the roster at INTEGRATE played host to successful authors, agency principals and Ph.D.s. These speakers didn’t hesitate to capitalize on the spotlight, but they certainly didn’t hesitate to impart upon the audience the very methods and strategic thinking that brought them success, either. One speaker, Mark Schaefer, even gave away copies of his latest book, Return on Influence (McGraw-Hill 2012). Try walking away from a premier conference with anything more than free pens and branded beach balls.

It’s worth noting INTEGRATE still had its share of movers and shakers, like Dave Pavelko, head of Google Travel and Fred Cook, CEO of GolinHarris.

4. Networking Opportunities

Industry’s largest conference! Record-breaking attendance! Over a gajillion companies represented! Let me spell it out for you: None of that means jack if the host organization doesn’t help its attendees mingle. Some conferences create the perception of networking emphasis by adding “schmoozing time” to the agenda in the form of cocktail receptions, dinners and rooftop parties. All great networking events offer such things, but merely offering such things does not indicate a great networking event. Because let’s face it: professional connections require more than introductions, handshakes and exchanging business cards. They require sustained, meaningful interaction.

At West Virginia University’s INTEGRATE conference, I immediately encountered something you won’t encounter at a big conference:  group discussion in a workshop setting. In “The Role of PR in Crisis Management,”  Dr. Mitchell Friedman and Rebecca Andersen of Pacific Bridge Marketing orchestrated a highly interactive session that drummed up good discourse and, for me, three introductions. (Plus, INTEGRATE’s cocktail reception had complementary hors d’oeuvres.)

3. Resource Friendliness

If there’s anything an entrepreneur hates, it’s a resource hog. As it happens, INTEGRATE was an efficient use of both time and money. Instead of spanning a week and running up the tab, INTEGRATE asked just two days of my time and less than $500 per person. The conference fee was so modest, in fact, that the bulk of the company’s expenses were travel, lodging and meals. Not to mention: ever spend a full workweek at a professional event? The hundred-yard stares and walkouts are happening by Wednesday. Small and short can actually translate to cost-effective and concise.

2. An Academic Approach

Not only were the attendees, speakers and event staff at INTEGRATE more approachable and accessible than the premier counterpart in San Diego, the same parties were genuinely interested in (1) learning about me and (2) making sure I was learning. Why? Consider whether your conference is the product of a for-profit entity or the brainchild of a university. There’s a big difference. In the latter, profit is secondary to scholarship. It’s noticeable. Trust me. (Hint: INTEGRATE falls in the latter category.)

1. Big-town Perks + Small-town Views

Don’t eliminate a conference from your short list because of location alone. San Diego is beautiful, to be sure. But remember, it’s possible to find culture and the quintessence of American beauty in locations that aren’t media darlings. Which can, in fact, be a very pleasant surprise.

Suspend your preconceptions about West Virginia, for example. Morgantown has everything San Diego does: luxury accommodations, franchise restaurants and retailers, local thread shops, lively cafés and microbrews. It even has fantastic sushi (sampled at Dragonfly, which now comes with my highest recommendation). What it lacks in beaches and bridges it readily compensates for with inspiring architecture, soaring green mountains and and clouds you can practically touch.

The Verdict

There’s no algorithm for finding the right conference, but weighing the above five factors should help you make an informed decision and, ideally, get you the most bang for your buck. In my experience, the smaller conference was more suiting. What’s your take on conference going? Leave a comment.

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