The Best and Worst in Conferences

As camp professionals, attending conferences of all sorts is a requirement.  Some are better than others.  But hosting conferences of all types is also expected.  Use your personal experiences attending conferences to better understand how to plan them.  This is a great way to make even the worst conference experience into a positive learning opportunity.  Here are some examples of observations made about conference planning, based on experience as a conference attendee.

Things that ruin your conference experience:

  • Bad signs.  Few things are worse as a conference-goer than being unable to find where you are supposed to be.  Signs are simple and easy to make and do well, but for some unfathomable reason many conferences skip them.  Or don’t have enough.  Or have small signs.  Or unhelpful signs.  As a conference attendee, if you get stressed just finding the right spot to be, you are going to consider it a bad conference.
  • Bad coffee.  Such a small detail, but it makes a huge difference.  A conference that doesn’t provide coffee (especially if a coffee shop isn’t close by), or provides bad coffee, is going to be on the bad conference list for most people.  Conferences are filled with long sessions and periods of sitting still.  Even the worst speakers are made better by a good cup of coffee.
  • Bad food.  Conferences that provide no meals at all are preferable to conferences who claim to provide delicious food, but fail.  Expensive food and wide selections are not even that necessary; decent food is absolutely essential if you don’t want a conference to be put on the ‘bad’ list.
  • Bad speakers.  Conferences are filled with sessions in which a speaker shares wisdom of some kind; that is basically the point of a conference.  Nothing so quickly ruins a conference than being forced to sit through a bad speaker.  Unhelpful content, if shared by a witty or engaging speaker, is preferable to a bad speaker.  Discussion sessions or free times are preferable to a mundane or monotone speaker.  An average speaker won’t necessarily put the conference into the ‘bad’ category, even several average speakers won’t make that happen.  But one single bad speaker will destroy any conference.

Things that make great conference experiences:

  • Clear information.  When people know where to go and what to expect, their conference experience will be great.  Brochures that outline what to expect from various workshops, bios on speakers, clear signs, information posted about available free time options; all of these small informational details work together to give people a great conference experience.  Even the most simple conference with very few options and only a small number of speakers will skyrocket in people’s perception if they are given clear and consistent information regarding what to expect from the conference.
  • Beverages and/or snacks.  One of the most exciting realizations for any conference attendee comes when they find snack carts outside workshop rooms.  Gourmet creamers, ice cold soda, and Fair Trade coffee are rarely met with as much joy as they are when discovered by conference attendees.  These are more small details, but their presence really does elevate the conference experience.  Even something as simple, and cheap, as having a glass pitcher of water in the back of the room (with cups) drastically changes the perception attendees have of the quality of your conference.
  • Quality content.  The best conferences have very clear goals, and specific information to provide that goes along with those goals.  People value their time, and the best conferences recognize that time should be spent on quality speakers and quality content.

Next time you attend a conference, pay attention to all the details that make you think positively or negatively about the experience.  Write them down and use that knowledge as you plan your own conferences.

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