Is the conference dead?

Over the past 25 years or so I must have been to at least 150 conferences, that’s not counting all the seminars, workshops, roundtables and working groups. The subjects have ranged from innovations in lighting to strategic property management. The organisers have included trade bodies, professional associations, government and think tanks.

Now most of these have been in the limited FM/buildings/property space but with a few variations and innovations over the years, the format has remained pretty much the same. Registration – opening keynote – plenary session – more plenary/parallel sessions – closing keynote (often with a sparse audience). Interspersed with combined food breaks/networking/exhibition visiting.

OK, we’ve had the unconference, the fringe sessions, motivational speakers, poets and other novelties but perhaps it’s time to rethink conferences from top to bottom.

The traditional conference model is perhaps the least efficient method for either imparting knowledge or facilitating genuine exchange of information or ideas. They are also hugely expensive – for organisers,  delegates, sponsors and the environment.

Social media is taking over much of what conferences are supposed to deliver, including communities of interest, knowledge exchange and networking.

However, I’m not sure that purely virtual events are the answer. They require less commitment so often fail to reach critical mass. They also lack the sense of occasion you only get from something happening in real time. Watching a livestream is always more memorable than catching up later.

What’s needed, I think, is a really effective hybrid model. One that uses the best social media apps to deliver contact, great content and engagement, combined with a smaller-scale “real world” event (or events).

Social Media Week (24 – 28 September this year across 13 cities in 11 countries) gives an idea of what’s possible . Although a global initiative, with a team in New York, there’s a large element of self-organisation. If you want to propose a session  you can. As you’d expect, social media is fully integrated and the statistics are impressive – including 32,000 local Facebook fans; 50,000 people watching online and 217,000 social mentions.

The business model may have to change too. Rather than the numbers game of large venues, extensive catering and sponsorship  we could see hybrid events using a number of smaller spaces, possibly within supportive organisations.

Last month’s Workplace Week shows what can be done with effort, imagination and goodwill. Of course a worthy cause helps.

Cathy Hayward