Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It's about the hall. That's where it happens.

As mentioned previously, I was at a great blacksmith conference a couple of months ago. Not mentioned was the fact that they missed one key element, one that most conferences miss: some of the most valuable information comes from the side conversations, not always from the planned presentations.  This is true in almost every conference I have attended, from IT and security events to auto dealer conventions, large events to small- the schedules and facility hinder impromptu discussions instead of encouraging them.  I understand that the event organizers are trying to put on great events packed with content, but they seem to miss the fact that attendees are a key part of the event, not just passive observers.

One shining exception is PodCamp Boston.  Last year, an impromptu gathering in the hall was one of the most significant social media events of the year- this year "the hall" was extended into a large room with plenty of tables and chairs (and power outlets and wireless Internet access) and people were encouraged to use the space for:

  • follow up to presentations
  • informal meetings on topics not covered in scheduled events
  • general socializing and networking
  • putting what they learned to work immediately
  • whatever else seemed appropriate

To their credit, DefCon did have speaker rooms for follow-up after presentations this year, but they weren't always readily accessible, and they were only available for a limited time after presentations.  On the other hand, Black Hat didn't even have enough hall to use as a hall this year.

So, how do we do this better?  It needs to be easy to have a productive side conversation without disturbing presentations or other attendees, and that means convenient space needs to be readily available- ideally with plenty of power outlets and wireless Internet access.  The event schedule needs to allow enough time to pause briefly between sessions and not force attendees (and speakers) to sprint from one room to another. And everyone needs to be encouraged to use the resources available to get the most out of the event.

The evening events at SOURCE Boston this year produced some great conversations, and they are making additional space available during the conference next year to facilitate more- now we need to spread the word and hope more events recognize the value of "the hall".

[Full Disclosure bit- I am a SOURCE Boston volunteer]