Are conferences dead?

We can’t sit down and listen to someone who has all the answers, because that person doesn’t exist, David Williams says

We ran our first Impact Conference back in 1998, when celebrity speakers were all the rage, and wacky sound effects heralded the arrival of each new Powerpoint slide.

Things have changed a great deal since then, and when it comes to hosting events, we’ve had to adapt quickly.

In its hey day the Impact Annual Conference effortlessly attracted upwards of 200 professionals, with many organisations sending teams of people as part of their rewards and incentives schemes. Few worried about their carbon footprint, or travel expenses, and our clients flew in from all around the world.

Then times got tougher. Any spend began to involve procurement, and, rightly so, there emerged a real need to prove the ROI for any time out of the office. Those who hold the purse strings now need to know that their money is being spent on real learning, new collaborations and direct business benefits…not just notepads full of good intentions and bellies full of Danish pastries.

As we entered the new millennium, we began to suspect that conferences had had their day. Our speaker line-ups were as strong as ever, we had the same stunning location, but, to be honest, we were struggling to get bums on seats.

It was then that we started to realise that “bums on seats” was not what people were after…bums were in fact wriggling and people were getting twitchy. Impact programmes are all about involvement, engagement and leadership action. They are experiential. It’s what we’re good at. And it’s what our participants wanted more of.

In the few years that followed, our conference programme began to evolve. More community projects, more workshops, more conversation. Less sitting and listening, more jumping and shouting. Our feedback scores increased year on year…but still we struggled to attract the numbers. We felt the title wasn’t working. This wasn’t a conference any more. It was more than that. And conference was worse than just a misnomer…it was doing us damage. In an L&D market saturated with conferences, summits and forums, we just didn’t stand out in the way we deserved.

That’s when the idea struck me. Maybe it was a midlife crisis. Maybe it was the realisation that my own two sons were now older than I was when I started the company. We needed to run a FESTIVAL. Mongolian yurts, bunting, live music, open fires. Camels.

I mentioned “the F-Word” to our marketing team and could see from their expressions that they were wishing I’d just gone out and bought a sports car instead.

Was the world of L&D really ready for a FESTIVAL of learning?! How would it work?

How on earth could we create a festival atmosphere when the headline acts would be more L&D than R&B?

We began to nervously pick apart the festival form, looking at which elements could be translated into the market we work in. We took heart from others – The Hay Literary Festival, The Kendal Mountain Film Festival, even local food festivals – all of which had successfully adapted the event format from the world of popular music.

According to Robin Ashcroft, of the Kendal Mountain Film Festival, congregationality was the key. Creating a shared experience. Suspending reality for a little while, allowing strong relationships to be forged and powerful learning to take place. Now THIS was something we could work with, and something we clung to when the logistics and planning threw challenge after challenge in our path.

That sense of congregationality comes through carefully crafting a programme that, in its apparent informality, encourages participation, involvement, collaboration and application. Where a conference would aim to disseminate expert content through traditional lecture, our festival would see participants creating their own journey. An interactive format would allow challenges to be shared, advice to be given, discussion, co-creation, and an altogether more social approach to not only coming up with new ideas, but also working out what they mean in practice and how they might actually be applied.

This is, after all, the way current, and future leaders operate. As we go forward into this VUCA environment, our best chances of survival come from working in collaboration. In congregation. We can’t sit down and listen to someone who has all the answers, because that person doesn’t exist – and even if they did, we’d never be able to afford that kind of speaker fee. So, we do what we can. We learn from each other. We expose ourselves to environments and situations that help us learn more about ourselves. We share, we gain and we’re proud to have fun along the way. The F-word is here to stay.

Learn more about our annual festival of learning, Learnfest and book your ticket.


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