-Jessica Charles, VP, programming and events, ForbesLive
-Hugh Forrest, co-president and chief programming officer, SXSW
-Marc Hodosh, founder & co-host, Life Itself
-Craig Minassian, chief content, communications and marketing officer, Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative
-Emily Musil Church, Ph.D., senior director, Center for Strategic Philanthropy, Milken Institute
-Monique Ruff-Bell, head of conferences, TED Conferences
-Chris Stanley, managing director, WOBI USA (World Business Forum)
-Jody Tropeano, head of content, HLTH
Conferences are unique opportunities for brands and their communicators to do so much in one place – to learn, network, grow a business, amplify thought leadership and more. After two-plus years of virtual-only options, the in-person event is back in full force.
“There's over 1.8 million events hosted globally, throughout the world,” notes Melanie Samba, founder and CEO of Sproxxy, who sponsored the recent virtual event, State of Conferences. “And in the last year alone, the number has actually doubled.”
The pandemic altered the look and feel of conferences, which were mainly in-person gatherings until March 2020. At that point, most went to a virtual model, which for a while was the only option. This reality actually facilitated quite a bit of evolution in the event space. And that spirit of experimentation was maintained – and even bolstered – when events started returning to being in-person.
For example, Milken Institute used a hologram of Mike Milken at the Asia Summit in Singapore when he wasn’t able to be there physically.
Event organizers “responded not only to the needs of where people could go physically, but also mentally and intellectually where we all were” in terms of health, racial equity and diversity, observes Emily Musil Church, Ph.D., senior director at the Center for Strategic Philanthropy at Milken Institute. This moment in time allowed for “people from anywhere in the world to communicate with each other.”
While virtual events have an advantage of removing geographic obstacles, people definitely longed for that “human element” that you only get when you meet face to face and hear great speakers in the same room that you’re in and in the physical company of others, explains Chris Stanley, managing director at WOBI USA (World Business Forum).
“The importance of an in-person event can't be stressed enough,” says Marc Hodosh, founder and co-host of Life Itself. “It’s not just that we all missed it. It's much more powerful than any virtual platform I’ve yet to see.”
Engaging the audience
One conference that has stood out over time for inspiring speakers and attendees alike is TED. The entire experience is built around creating community and connection. Anyone can apply online to give a TED Talk, which showcases ideas that are “unique, different, valuable, worth spreading,” points out Monique Ruff-Bell, head of conferences at TED Conferences.
It's not easy to give a TED Talk. Many people don’t know how to craft a story, be succinct and sprinkle inspiring nuggets throughout. That’s why speakers receive training “on how to deliver the right storytelling for our stages,” she adds.
Before applying, do your homework and review the content at the venue. Find out what makes you different and who the audience is.
“In the end, the viewers are the secret sauce to TED,” stressed Ruff-Bell. “They're the ones who are getting motivated and inspired.”
South by Southwest (SXSW), a premier destination for creatives across all industries and across the globe, starts accepting proposals in late June. The SXSW panel picker typically receives 4,000 to 5,000 proposals each year. The more popular proposals offer a new and different take on a traditional idea, comparisons or takeaways.
Speakers are encouraged “to be as energetic as possible and engage with the audience,” advises Hugh Forrest, co-president and chief programming officer at SXSW. “Don't just read a presentation. Find a way to deliver your message, your idea, your theme in a new and interesting way, because you're competing with all those other sessions on our stages.”
Also featured during this virtual event are key individuals leading the charge at event organizations such as (clockwise from top left) Forbes Live, HLTH, The Milken Institute and Life Itself.
Beyond the event itself
Conferences today are about the overall experience, not just the sessions on a stage. WOBI attracts a diverse audience with “a thirst for learning and wanting to make themselves and their organizations better,” says Stanley.
Attendees at Life Itself come together “to spend time with a group of thought leaders for four days that they don't normally get to interact with,” adds Hodosh. “It’s a rare chance to show what they're about to those leaders.”
Forbes Live hosts numerous events a year where the world’s most influential leaders and doers share their knowledge. Those connections extend beyond the event itself.
“We work with different stakeholders in order to create those moments for other attendees and open up the floodgates for people who are not able to travel for these events” offers Jessica Charles, VP, programming and events at ForbesLive.
To maximize your experience, Forrest recommends creating a game plan for who you want to meet and what you want to accomplish. And he highly recommends finding a way to break out of your industry and make a connection in another sector that will appreciate your expertise.
“The people who make the most out of SXSW and similar events are the ones who are really aggressive in terms of seeking out new opportunities, new people, new ideas, new discoveries,” he emphasizes.
A look forward
The truth is people will be more selective about the conferences they choose to attend in a world forever changed by the pandemic. At SXSW, for example, attendees now wait to register during the last month and international attendees have dropped significantly.
“Attendees, speakers, sponsors are all going to be very intentional with what they commit their money and time to,” points out Charles. It’s up to event creators to ensure that they keep pace with the continued evolution in terms of content creation and event structure and provide both quality experiences and connections.
Now more than ever, conferences need to demonstrate “a clear ROI on people's time and why they should attend their event,” says Jody Tropeano, head of content at HLTH. One way to do that is through personalization.
It will be up to event organizers to “use artificial intelligence (AI) to figure out the personas of each of our attendees and suggest things to them,” she continues. That, in turn, will also improve the experience for speakers and sponsors as they are able to connect with the right audience.
The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) has very high expectations of all who take part in the event – presenters and attendees alike. All those who want to get involved need to be taking action on pressing challenges.
"It’s what President Clinton likes to call a ‘community of doers,’” suggests Craig Minassian, chief content, communications and marketing officer of The Clinton Foundation and CGI.
On hiatus since 2016, CGI returned in 2022 to address “a number of interconnected and seemingly existential threats.” To do that, it needed to become more accessible and relevant through a lower price point to local frontline organizations.
“We take seriously not only the composition of the program,” says Minassian, “but the composition of who's in the room. We want people to build those relationships and expand this community of doers.” After all, that’s one of the best parts of any conference experience.
Click here to view the “State of Conferences” virtual summit on demand.
And click here for The State of Conferences 2023: A guide for comms pros, an exclusive eBook courtesy of Sproxxy and PRWeek.