Radically Relational: The Social Conference

By: Jeff Hurt

The traditions of meetings and conferences are losing their value. Today's conferences must be social, connecting attendees in ways they can do nowhere else.

The typical conference, event, or seminar can all too easily become a distribution center, a place where attendees come and get stuff and conference organizers dump stuff. The venue resembles a cold, climate-controlled warehouse that receives merchandise from multiple vendors and distributes to multiple stores.

The attendees receive education, information, new contacts, and swag. The conference organizers secure speakers to dump their presentations, exhibitors to dump their marketing messages, and sponsors to dump their tchotchkes.

Often everyone leaves satisfied. The attendees feel as if they gained a lot of new knowledge, business cards, and free stuff. The exhibitors feel as if they've added new prospects to the funnel and advanced some existing relationships. The sponsors feel as if they have gained a lot of new eyeballs and increased mindshare. The conference organizers feel good about the "smile factor" evaluations they've collected.

Today's conference experience has been boiled down to a sterile, predictable, transactional encounter, similar to a factory assembly line.

Yet, did anyone leave the conference transformed? Was a new community created? Was the existing community nurtured, developed, and challenged to change?

Today's conference experience has been boiled down to a sterile, predictable, transactional encounter, similar to a factory assembly line. Everybody enters into a room, inputs received; everybody exits, outputs expected. And it's condensed into a short timeframe, often at hyper speed. The more we can cram into our minds and our time, the better we are—or so the belief goes.

Little time is given to people building relationships: to stop, chat, look each other in the eye, and listen. Little thought is given to an individual's uniqueness, her preferences, her expectations, or her insights. Not all attendees want the same cookie-cutter conference experience.

Businesses and organizations have seen a shift in society's expectations of them. People crave social interactions and community. They want to connect on a basic level, hand to hand, shoulder to shoulder, mind to mind, heart to heart, soul to soul. People yearn and hunger for engagement with others.

They don't want to talk with a nameless person at a company. They don't want to call a contact center and speak to a person in another country. They don't want broadcast, push messages from humanless brands. They don't want to sit for eight hours listening passively to talking heads at conferences. They don't want to hurry past others in the conference hallways to get to the next session. People want and need connections. And that's why our conferences should be radically relational.

The goal of this breed of social conference is not just to set up a new program but to create and develop a community where attendees, exhibitors, sponsors, and vendors come together in relationships and where these relationships can grow and flourish, whether new or well formed.

This sense of community is viral, spreading outward through touch, breath, proximity, connections, and life. It is spread by conference attendees infected with the passion of a social conference with a renewed vision and outlook. The radically relational social conference is one where meetings and events really can change the world.

When we divorce our conference attendees from building and maintaining relationships, when we schedule too many presenter monologues and panel dialogues and too few peer-to-peer discussions and collaborative sessions, the natural transformative power of lives connecting with each other is stripped away.

It's time to start thinking about everything we do when planning, preparing, staging, and implementing an event in the context of relationships. All of our logistic and strategic planning must serve as a catalyst for attendees to build transformative relationships and social connections. Whatever else we may do in our conference environment, let it first lead to radically relational social conferences.

Jeff Hurt is director of education and engagement at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting and the former director of education and events at the National Association of Dental Plans in Dallas. Email: [email protected]

Jeff Hurt

Jeff Hurt, DES, is executive vice president of education and engagement at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting in Dallas.