Sarah Schacht

Sarah Schacht

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I try to throw a good party.

April 1, 2010


20100326-DSC_4813.jpg
Originally uploaded by LawrenceSeattle

So, I, um, ran a conference last week.

And from most reports, people liked it.

It was a little odd, as the conference organizer/conference idea originator, to get people walking up to me with this slightly bewildered look in their eyes. They’d turn to me and say something like, “I just wanted you to know that this is a great event. I mean, the food is great, there’s a diversity of people, the speakers are interesting, the venue is great… It’s really cool.”  And they’d say it like they expected Open Gov West to be like every boring, corporate, feed-you-crap-food-and-herd-you-from-room-to-room conference they’d ever been to.  Shocked realization that they stumbled upon a genuine, diverse, quality, open government event for the low cost of a $75 ticket? Priceless.

If I sound cocky on this blog post, I’m actually not.  But I am really proud of what our team accomplished with Open Gov West and the outcomes in the pipeline for the event.  What we accomplished, though, wasn’t an accident.  It was the result of being flexible when needed and hard-nosed when necessary, when it came to choices for the conference.   Here’s the ingredients to the Open Gov West secret sauce.  Pass it around to other conference organizers—I’d love to attend more conferences where people love their event experience.

  1. Don’t serve crappy food. This includes heavily processed, simple-carb foods (pizza, white-wheat bagles, iceberg salads, muffins, cookies, bottled water).  You know what crappy food does to your conference attendees?  Sends them into either a) carb comas 1 hour after a meal or b) gives them preservative and artificial coloring caused ADD.  Neither are good for real conversations and sustained intellectual stimulation.  Yes, coffee is good, but it cannot be used for self-medication against food comas.  Try buying organics, too. And don’t give me the line that they’re more expensive. I bought enough organic salad at Costco for a small army and it only cost me $55.  Finally, serve food for the vegans, vegetarians, and gluten-free folks.  They’re growing in numbers and they’re hungry at conferences.  Feed them protein, not just carbs or salad.  Show me a Q&A session that went horribly awry, and I’ll show you a ravenous vegetarian who asked an instigating question.
  2. Keep a low corporate footprint. Sponsors yes, spokespersons no.  Your audience (i.e. your sponsor’s target market) is smart enough to know when they’re being marketed to and they resent being sold to when they want to learn.  I encouraged all our sponsors who wanted to participate in sessions to provide me with speakers who were targeted on useful areas to attendees.  Just because they were a sponsor didn’t mean they got to speak.  Crazy, I know.  I asked sponsors to send folks who could a)teach something useful about their product b)engage in user Q&A c)speak authoritatively on a panel topic.  I said “no” to every offer to do a promo. Your attendee’s time is too precious and your sponsor’s reputation is too critical to allow for 45 minute promo talks—be very clear about what your sponsor could benefit from (and not) at the conference.  Thank your sponsors by being genuine; recognize what they uniquely brought to the conference.  And, to keep things in perspective, than your conveners, your volunteers, your worker bees just as much as you thank your sponsors.  —Those people worked their asses off and should get credit.
  3. If your conference is made up of one demographic, it’s a boring conference. Open Gov West may have seemed unusually diverse (gender, sector, age, background, and to a lesser extent ethnically) to participants, but it wasn’t an accident that you were surrounded by different folks.  It wasn’t an accident that you were surrounded by a unusually large group of people from government, either.  It was by design. From the start of OGW planning, I encouraged the convener team to think broadly about inviting folks from different backgrounds. I made sure to have women on my convener team. I empowered the conveners to give out discount codes, encourage those who could not pay to apply for scholarships, and we varied the ticket cost to encourage a higher ratio of government, nonprofit, and citizen “tinkerers” to be there.  Corporations who tried to buy for the reduced-rate tickets for the non-corporate folks got refunded and requested to register at the corporate ticket price.   When I saw trends emerging in ticket sales (say, 20% of our attendees were suddenly from one county *cough* King County *cough*), I quickly started pushing out of state recruitment, through scholarships, registration waivers, and promotion to out-of-area lists. I called the conference because I knew you all needed to talk to each other. I wasn’t about to let OGW become an echo chamber of the same type of folks.
  4. 4. Freak people out a little. I hired a rocking cello player to play during registration and our first breaks on day 1 of OGW.  I found him busking (playing on the street) at the Ballard Farmer’s Market, thought he was brilliant, and offered him the gig.  Brendan Smith is his name, and Brendan set the tone better than any keynote could’ve by impressing on attendees that they weren’t at just any conference; they were at a different kind of event. We reinforced this theme of moving people out of their comfort zones by doing icebreakers led by Sabra Schnieder and Leif Utne.  Then, we made it clear that they, the attendees, were the focus of the conference by getting them to talk to each other and engage with the panelists.  Finally, when something came up where we needed help, we simply deputized folks to get it done.  They seemed a little shocked/excited that they were given some leadership, yet they did an awesome job with whatever they took on. The overwhelming point that people seemed to “get” at Open Gov West?  “You’re valued!  We don’t want you to just shut up and take notes.
  5. People don’t need branded t-shirts, they need experiences. You do not need random, branded crap to make a good conference.  Nobody needs another free t-shirt.  They need knowledge, relationships, experiences that shape their perspective.  Focus more on giving them the later than the former; great ideas and relationships last much longer than commemorative tote bags, anyway.

So, those are my five big lessons on how to run a conference that people like.  Fairly obvious tips, but often overlooked by conference organizers.  More on Open Gov West outcomes an upcoming events in my next blog post.


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comments

Hi Sarah – I was one of the people who came up to you and said fantastic job and I don’t give our compliments lightly 😉

Your #5 is spot on “People don’t need branded t-shirts, they need experiences” which is why I have eliminated conferences like Web 2.0, E2.0 many others from my list and now only go to select ones like Defrag and Semantic Technology Conference where experience and fierce conversations are manifest.

Cheers…..Steve

Steve Ardire

April 2, 2010

Hi Sarah, I second Steve’s point, great job, but of course, you’ve already “heard” me say that haven’t you? I look forward to what comes next…

While it smacks of band-wagon hopping, I fully endorse #5.

It was about the experience, the sharing and the people; from the kind gentleman in a 3-piece suit from Comcast who handed me a plate during lunch to the speakers, their experiences and the questions the audience shared, all heady stuff. Wouldn’t have traded any of it for a t-shirt or yet another cheesy conference bag 🙂

Well done!
David

David Wrate

April 2, 2010

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