After having visited the KM in Europe conference and also Blogtalk in the past year I�ve spend time thinking on what to me would be a valuable congress. Value in this context can mean value to:
The organizer in the form of revenue and profit
The presenters in the form of visibility and acknowledgement
The exhibitors in the form of leads
The individual in the form of meetings, conversations and new insights.
The answer is in striking a balance between these stakeholders, and finding a way to satisfy them all. At the last KM in Europe conference, organised by the Ark Group, for instance this balance was not found, because satisfying one stakeholder meant dissatisfying another. Thus a gain for one was achieved at the cost of another. Not the win-win that a correct balance might bring.
The vendors complained that there were too little pauses in the presentation schedule thus preventing visitors to walk the convention floor and visit their booths.
The presenters complained that the vendors had no relation to their presentations, that in fact two different events were taking place in the same space.
The visitors complained about the absence of spaces to meet other people, and the overloaded program that meant that people kept missing eachother because their attendance at presentations got in the way, and also complained about the vendors for the same reason as the presenters.
And in the end the Ark Group probably complained about all three groups, the lack of visitors, the disgruntled vendors, and the fact that even such an impressive list of presenters did not mean enhanced revenue.
What made my visit to Amsterdam worthwile nevertheless, was the networking and the fringe events of the communities I count myself to be part of. The rest of the conference, the presentations, and to a much lesser extent the vendors provided a fitting back drop for it.
Now how could we enhance such a conference, to make it valuable to all parties involved.
Let�s look at this from the individual�s perspective first:
Basically to visitors a congress is a physical space to meet people to have interesting conversations with.
Which people? Well ideally one would want to see a mix of people you know or are familiar with, and people you are not familiar with. Only known faces would bring too little thought provocation, only strangers would make it difficult to get into deep conversations quickly. By having both the communities you�re already part of and new ones represented you�re sure to have enough to start conversations with, and can be sure of new insights and opposing views as well. Maybe we can call this balance Optimal Unfamiliarity.
This would presuppose that enough members of different communities will be willing to attend, and attend as part of and together with other members of these communities. A way of increasing that likelihood would be for the organiser to invite communities to pursue their own agenda during the congress, in the form of having their own semi-restricted meetings, fringe events, and social gatherings.
The balance of Optimal Unfamiliarity I mentioned for visitors can be extended to the presentations as well. Here I would like to see a mix of the known and the unknown too. Some known presenters (known to both the individual and the field) to reinforce existing bonds and convictions, and further internalise core values. Added to that some unknown (that is to say unknown to the individual, not to the field as a whole) presenters to provoke new avenues of thought, to challenge those same core values, and to open new vistas, and present emergent thinking. Presentations should be held by representatives of the variety of communities the event organisers wish to attract, and should be thought leaders in their respective communities.
The role of these presentations is to be a starting point for conversations, a kernel around which conversations between individuals (vendors, presentors, visitors) can then grow. That is why here again a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar is necessary. This also means you don�t need full programs of presentations, a few good ones are enough to trigger conversation, too many would inhibit the time for conversations. Also different forms than the traditional �I talk, you listen and gawk at my slides� should be encouraged.
In KM where speakers can represent the very frontline of current innovative thinking, the vendors are struggling. Especially software vendors are more or less doomed to be only able to show products that are lagging behind the newest thinking, simply because there�s been no time to build the appropiate tools, but also because KM has been consistently moving away from being technology and tool oriented to being society and fundamental changes oriented. So either you only have the most innovative ones from the tool industry, or look for other types of exhibitors. Research groups, small consultancy firms (I liked seeing a few of them on the exhibition floor in Amsterdam), poster presentations and the visiting communities themselves. This might also help keeping the presentation-schedule limited, and helps making the two parts (exhibition / presentations) seem more connected.
Now where does that leave the organiser as a value adder?

  • The organiser has to be able to first pick the communities to be included/targeted
  • The organiser has to be able to identify the foremost thought leaders of those communities and get them to present.
  • The organiser has to be able to identify other organisations and groups that in stead of presenting would be willing to exhibit.
  • The organiser has to invite communities to organise their own fringe events / social and formal gatherings.
    More value can be added by being a really good facilitator, which means at least:

  • providing enough spaces, sitting areas, coffee corners to have conversations.
  • provide excellent WiFi access and ubiquitous power outlets because not all those conversations will be taking place at the convention floor, but on the internet as well.
  • provide services before and during the event to make it easy for people to identify who�s coming, and to find their conversation partners easily once at the venue.
  • provide information, room and services to communities to help them set up their fringe events.
  • provide slides and additional info during the event on-line. Have the event blogged so visitors might find out what other conversations are taking place besides their own. Have screens displaying that on-line info at the venue.
    If all those conditions are satisfied chances are that for visitors, presenters and exhibitors the conference is a real source of value. That intangible value of course also extends to the organisers, as they get a better picture of who to invite next time around, and building up their network to be able to do that. But in the end the organisers will expect some monetary value from their work as well.
    Who would have to pay what? Basically both exhibitors and presenters should be paying their own way, imo. They will be willing to do that if the organiser can make sure that the quality of the conversations they will have will be worth that effort. If you pay a presenter he will care less to which audience he�s talking, and will be off to the next meeting immediately after his appearance on stage. If a presenter knows better what type of audience to expect, and can get a feeling of who will be attending, than the presentation might be the investment, on which the conversations yielded are the return, and he might stay on, thus adding his voice to the rest and add extra quality to the event. By making sure which communities will be represented at the event, including the community the presenter himself is a member of, that effect will be easier to attain, and presenters will probably also stay on for social events. For exhibitors the reasoning is much the same.
    Visitors will be willing to pay for facilities that help them have their wished for conversations but less so for exhibitors and presentations. I�m willing to pay someone to be a great connector and facilitator, but not for hearing mavens and salesmen. Paying to hear people speak is a barrier to conversation, paying for facilities to attract conversations is another matter. Presentations and exhibitions are the backdrop and starting point for conversations, but those conversations are the real reason to come to the event. Having conversations is fun. Make sure the visitors can have that fun by providing the right environment, and they will be willing to fork over money. The amount of money should be a consideration as well. The time where most people get their expenses paid by their employers is going away. Increasingly knowledge workers become independent and will be paying their own way. Pricetags counting on corporate expense accounts will then no longer be feasible: it will drive away visitors, and thus take out the one intangible value that makes a congress succeed: great conversations.

  • 7 reactions on “How to organise valuable congresses/conventions

    1. Good analysis, Ton. I think the economics of these events is going to change in the coming years. I share your preference for learning by conversation and I very rarely enjoy listening to presentations, except ones that are succinct and provocative of conversation.
      The growth of Open Space formats is a healthy sign, since this approach maximises the conversational element.
      I hope your comments will be read by the conference organisers!

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    4. Hallo Amsterdam, hallo KM Europe, hallo Welt.

      Es ist der erste Tag der KM Europe. Hier sieht es in etwa so aus wie im letzten Jahr: Schlechte Organisation, schlechte Vortr�ge, aber trotzdem sind alle zufrieden, weil sie…

    5. Ton thank you very much for the thought and effort that have gone into this feedback. It is always tremendously beneficial for us to hear the thoughts of KM Europe participants and I would like to invite and encourage the views of any visitors to this, or indeed any other Ark event, that may be reading.
      I have read your suggestions with interest. Not only do I agree with many of them but I am pleased to say we have already started work on incorporating many of them into next year?s event. KM Europe 2005 will include some exciting new features which will chime with your concept of optimal unfamiliarity and will hopefully be beneficial all stakeholder groups.
      As with previous events I will be inviting the major KM communities across Europe and the USA to participate in the event. We will offer a room, services and promotion for their own events with a view to creating the type of the fringe event you describe.
      Prior to the event we will be looking to facilitate as many on-the-day meetings as possible with an online meeting organiser (or similar) We will also provide facilities for formal and serendipitous networking at KM Europe in the form of dedicated areas and supporting technology
      Next years schedule will allow more time for conversation and discussion. We always endeavour to select presenters that are thought leaders, next year will pay particular attention to selecting leading figures who both reinforce and challenge core beliefs and act a stimulus for discussion between all stakeholder groups.
      We will be working hard to ensure that KM Europe 2005 allows for a greater level of interaction between all parties than ever before. In order for the ?fringe? activities to really take off we do need the support of the wider KM community which is where people like yourself can help.
      We would like bloggers and community members, like you, to help issue a rallying cry to all communities and associations to take part. Please spread the message – don?t wait to be invited to be involved in KM Europe 2005 please contact me Peter Nussey at and ask how.
      Furthermore I would like to hear from all previous or prospective visitors, please let me know what you would like to see at KM Europe 2005 I would also be interested to hear your thoughts on price. I agree Ton that each stakeholder needs to pay their way. If we were acting as facilitator and connector what do your blog readers think they would be prepared to pay?
      KM Europe 2005 is committed to satisfying the requirements of the KM community let us know yours and watch this space?
      Peter Nussey
      Marketing Director
      Ark Group

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