[Why? I have been helping run conventions in my volunteer work since 2001. The goal of this article is to communicate my experiences so that they might benefit from them.]
The Field of Dreams tells us, "If you build it, they will come." That's a nice thought, but they have to want what you build. Continuing the Product Management exercise, we need to figure out what our product is.
Your convention is a product and your attendees and staff are the customers for that product. To be successful, you need to give them a product that they want. All of the best intentions in the world will not make a mismatch work. So, let's figure out what should go into this product.
Let's start simply. What kind of convention are you trying to run? If you asked ten people what kind of con they were attending? How might they describe it?
In broad strokes, there are a few main categories of convention: industry, recreation/hobby, and expos. For our purposes, let's go with these definitions:
- Industry - focused on a specific industry
- Recreation/hobby - focused on a specific or related group of hobbies/recreations
- Expo - primarily a venue for exhibitors to present products to potential customers
Got it? Great. Now hold onto that idea and let's figure out what will go in there.
The Content - What Is In Your Product?A product needs to clearly address its intended customers' needs. For a convention, we need to decide what we events will provide to our customers. There are many things that can happen at a convention, but we can loosely group events and activities into the following categories based on how the attendee interacts with them:
- Presentation events - attendee passively consumes the content
- Interactive events - active attendee engagement
- Exhibitions - static content that attendees consume in ad hoc fashion
Basically, these are events in which our attendee goes to a location and sits/stands while one or more people inform/entertain them. Three common examples are:
- Panel Events
In a typical presentation, the attendees are part of an audience that assembles in a room and listens to a presentation from one or more speakers. There may or may not be Q&A (question and answer) time at the end. Presenters are often fellow attendees, but can also be special guests. The content of a presentation is often one of the following;
- New ideas/developments/problems
- Updates on existing work/ideas
Panel events consist of multiple presenters and an audience. The level of audience involvement is variable. There will often be a "master of ceremonies" that steers the conversation and the format is often essentially a "question and answer" session. This is a common venue for "special guests" such as leaders in a field/industry or celebrities. Examples can include:
- Leader in a field discussing the state of their field
- Actors discussing their show or movie
- Experts discussing a specific problem
Performances are music/entertainment acts that may require a stage or other special considerations for their placement/timing to insure they do not disrupt other events. Such events may also have highly specialized access, security, and equipment requirements. They can range from a single person with a guitar in a small room to a rock band filling a concert hall.
These events involve the attendee in an active role. To varying degrees attendees are the consumer and performer; your role is facilitation and support. Such events can include:
- Social activities
- Social gatherings
In a workshop, attendees engage each other and possibly staff and guests to achieve a desired outcome from the event. This can range from a new idea to a tangible object. They can be serious or fun.
Social activities are events primarily aimed at the interaction between attendees in a structured fashion. Some examples:
- Scavenger hunts
- "Team-building" exercises
Social gatherings are more generally unstructured events that attendees attend with the intent of hanging out with each other in a relaxed environment, typically with no agenda or schedule of events.
One of the more common aspects of any convention is an exhibition room. There are many examples of this:
- Exhibitor hall, e.g., exhibitors at purchased booths/tables
- Art gallery/show, e.g., artwork presented for viewing or purchase
- Poster session, e.g., students and postdoctoral researchers presenting their results/articles
I am using the catch all term for any attendee that might require extra support/cost, typically related to their celebrity status to your attendees, such as:
- A technology thought leader Electronic Entertainment Expo
- The creator of a popular graphic novel series at Comic-Con
- A renowned expert on information security at a HIMMS
Special guests will bring with them additional costs and you need to evaluate the cost vs. benefit to your event. If you are kicking off a new fancon at your local community college, inviting an internationally renowned actor to sign autographs and give a keynote speech might leave you with a memorable convention and a significant debt.
But for some conventions, special guests are a necessity and for many others, an expectation. Look to similar conventions, customer feedback, and your budget to guide you.
Sponsors or Promotional Partners
For many conventions, the sponsors or promotional partners are a key customer, and may even be the primary customer. For the most part, your convention is a marketing activity for them, creating exposure, building/maintaining their brand, managing customer relationships, and finding new customers. This does not necessarily need to change the product components, but you should keep these customers in mind as you shape them.
For example, will a given event feature advertising? Will it be active or passive? Will the event be completely run by a sponsor and you are simply providing the space, power, and lighting?
Don't Forget the Basics
The Devil can be in the details. It's easy to focus too much on the cool and unique things you want to provide your customers and forget the important fundamentals of any event. Any time you assemble people, they may need:
- Cash machines (your exhibitors will thank you)
- Special needs
You don't want someone to attend your wonderfully crafted event only to come away with their strongest memories being that it was really hard to find a bathroom and they couldn't get any lunch.
Pull It All Together
Now let's pull this all together and design some products! Let's pick two extremes in terms of scale and content - a large, international healthcare information conference and a small, local gaming convention.
Product #1 - International Healthcare Information Conference (Industry)
Vision: Our attendees will learn about the latest trends and critical concerns in the healthcare information technology from leaders in the industry/field and each other. We will facilitate collaboration, networking, and instruction on these topics. We will assemble exhibitors to present their latest product offerings.
Our primary customers are leaders and influencers in consumers of healthcare technology, to include hospitals, telemedicine, clinics, imaging centers, consulting companies, and the vendors that create those healthcare technologies.
Our goals are:
- Attract tens of thousands of attendees from across the globe
- Be the "go to" conference for healthcare technology
- Make a profit
- Peer presentations - attendees submit topic and abstract; we select presenters and put them in rooms that can accommodate 50 attendees for one hour sessions; refer rejected submissions to poster session, as appropriate
- Panel discussions - we will identify key topics and assemble 3-4 presenters for 2-hour panel discussions, moderated by an emcee.
- Keynote speakers - Every morning will begin with two keynote speakers, back-to-back, in a room that can accommodate 500 attendees.
- Tutorials - tutorials will be provided the day before the main conference opens; at a minimum, we will cover the following topics preventing and managing data breaches, latest healthcare policy developments, and the current billing code updates
- Welcome reception and mixer on opening night
- Networking/socials at the conclusion of the day's presentation schedule, at 4:00 PM (good opportunity for sponsorship)
- Workshops on cybersecurity, data breach, and innovation; leaders/influencers only, no exhibitors/sponsors
- "speed dating" (think of a cool name) - line up select leaders of healthcare systems and have sponsors/exhibitors pay for access to speak with them, pitch ideas, etc.
- Scavenger hunt on Saturday in collaboration with local tourist board; they will provide attendees with lunch and transportation
- Expansive exhibitor hall for vendors of healthcare technology equipment and services
- Poster session accessible during receptions/mixers (collocate these events) - attendees submit topic and abstract; we select which ones to include
For a start, let's try to get:
- Secretary of Health and Human Services
- Leader of an information security company
- A leader from Mayo and/or Cleveland Clinic
- A leader in telemedicine
- A leader of a major tech company that makes equipment for healthcare
- A leader from the United Kingdom's NHS
- A U.S. healthcare policymaker
Product #2 - Local Gaming Convention (Hobby/Recreation)
Vision: Our attendees will have the opportunity to play a variety of social, "geek culture" games. We will have a small number of exhibitor tables, chiefly to provide space for local game/geek stores.
Our primary customers are gamers and the vendors that cater them.
- Strengthen the local gaming community
- Attract hundreds of local gamers from the city and its environs
- Make enough money to sustain the event
We will not have any presentation events. We considered panel discussions, a movie room, and an anime room, but our data shows that there will not be adequate interest.
- Tabletop role-playing games - our target will be events that cater to 5-6 players for four hour sessions
- Board and card games - we can be more flexible, but our target is 4-8 players for four hour sessions
- Miniatures games - this should include both single events for 4-8 players for 4 or 8 hours as well as tournaments with multiple rounds
- Live Action Role Playing - one or two of these events each night (we need to give them a space separate from the other events for the best customer experience)
- Demo games - coordinate with exhibitors and sponsors for space to demonstrate their games to new players
- Tutorials - we have a lot of interest in a miniatures painting tutorial (Reaper Minis may have some folks that are equipped to run one)
This is not going to be a major focus for us, since our goal is strengthening the local gaming community. Local vendors of gaming/geek products or gaming groups/associations are our priority.
To avoid our local vendors getting lost in the noise, we will have a small number of exhibitor tables/booths - we only need enough space for about a dozen vendors, with two tables on average. We will want to be selective to avoid redundancy, given our small number of tables.
Give our scope and size, we are going to avoid purely celebrity guests. Let's recruit game designers/developers and have them run games. We will prioritize local/nearby guests that we can get at lower cost.
So, It's Not Rocket Science
As with many things, once you start thinking it through, it sort of makes sense and falls together. If you get stuck, look at events that are similar to your vision. They can be a great inspiration for what you want to do and avoid.
What we have done here gives us a good start for building our product. There are many details to work out and many lessons will be learned along the way that are unique to our event, location, audience, etc. As with any product, we will need to get feedback and iterate to make it better. But we have enough to move forward in an effective way.
Now, go out and create!