Jeff Hurt is EVP, Education & Engagement, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting

Has your annual conference become predictable? Do attendees show up to the general session late because they know it starts with business for 20-30 minutes before the keynote? Predictable meetings and routine conferences aren’t working. Predictable means to behave in a way that is expected and can be predicted; can be prophesied; can be foretold; to declare or indicate in advance; especially: foretell on the basis of observation, experience, or scientific reason.

It starts with an Opening General Session (OGS), where everyone is seated theatre style facing the front of the room. At the front is a stage with a couple of screens. Entertainment opens the session followed by a customary welcome, announcement of sponsors, parade of important people and then a keynote presenter or maybe a panel. Following the OGS, there are breakouts. Most of those rooms are set theatre-style too as people passively listen to speakers or panels. Then there is a break followed by more breakouts. Next is lunch, seated in rounds of ten or twelve. After lunch comes guess what? More breakouts. This pattern is repeated for a couple of days with little variation except that there is usually dedicated time in day two and three to visit the tradeshow. And there might be a couple of evening receptions or parties.

How can we change your forgettable conference experience to, “the unforgettable conference?” Three words, the summer camp experience.

I remember as a teenager going to a summer camp in Saranac Lake, NY. It was an unforgettable experience, full of surprise and wow moments. The typical summer camp was turned on its head from the moment I arrived on the bus, being faux hijacked by camp counselors dressed in over-exaggerated clownish costumes, forced off the bus at the camp entrance and then marched around to see the camp’s facilities with a make shift band playing pots and pans. Suddenly, two of my friends were no longer in line behind me. I turned around and saw them whoosh by me on the camp’s water chutes. I then felt the tap on my shoulder and three counselors pulled me aside. They asked if I could swim, if I was afraid of heights and if I was ready for the unexpected. Little did I know, I was going to be put into a harness to parasail on the lake in front of my peers.

Here's a beautiful picture of camp at Saranac Lake!

It was unpredictable. Camp organizers might wake us up at 2 A.M. for a surprise bonfire, marshmallow roast and impromptu fire walking experience. Or we would have lunch where we had to decode and prioritize a menu that included our utensils and food. It was tough eating green beans without a plate or fork. It was safe, yet thrilling and it was unexpected. I was encouraged to relax, enjoy and go with the flow of the finely tuned well-orchestrated experience.

What about a conference camp experience? Our annual conferences should be like that because we don’t always have to behave like adults, or do we? Fearing change shouldn’t be the reason we make our attendees’ experiences better. I challenge you to shake it up a little and create an annual conference that is unpredictable, unexpected and has a huge WOW factor.

What type of support do we need to shake up the conference experience? Share your thoughts below!