I met two people at a party…

…after a while the conversation ran a little dry, so I asked them what they did for a living.

The first one said “I’m a problem solver.” I understood, but didn’t know what kind of problems they fixed. “I work with a group of people who wait for calls for help of various kinds. We’re ready to sort things out. Say, for example, your cat is stuck in a tree. We can get it down for you. If you’re locked out, we’ve got specialist equipment to get you into your home. We also rescue people from fires.” I was surprised by that last sentence. “So you’re a firefighter then?” “Sure, but we do a whole more than that!”

I turned to the second person. They described themselves as an ‘event manager.’ I’d heard of events, but I thought that that term applies to any effect that has a cause. Series of events are how humans experience time. ‘Event’ seemed to be a very general term. I got some clarification: “We do parties, product launches and press briefings. We organise conferences for thousands of people all over the world. If an organisation wants to start or maintain a community, they come to us.” I was surprised by the last two sentences. “So you’re a conference organiser then?” “Sure, but we do a whole more than that!”

I worked a while for a company that organised conferences. After a while I learned that it was part of the ‘event industry.’ It seems odd to me that this industry doesn’t describe itself in terms of what it spends most of its time doing: organising conferences. This seems to be the symptom of worrying that definition isn’t interesting enough for people outside the business. “If I say that I organise or work on conferences, they’d think it a bit sad and limiting. I’ll say that I’m in the ‘Events Industry’ – that’ll sound better. It implies variety, it’s less embarrassing.”

It isn’t a good sign when a group of people don’t define their work in terms of what they spend the most of their time doing. Maybe they think that conferences are a waste of time. Atendee recall for the content of most presentations is almost non-existent. Gimmicks and office politics rule the roost. Few dare measure if people’s actions change after a conference. They suspect that all the effect their conferences have is found when you get people from different parts of the world to have a drink together. The rest is window-dressing.

It’s odd, because most people ouside ‘events’ see conferences as exotic, worthwhile, informative, a sign that the organisation cares, a break from the norm and a way of marking special times in their lives (“Remember that time in 99 when we were in Florida the week that Star Wars Episode I came out? You did that alternative title sequence and opening bit… That was cool!” – a quote from an attendee at a tech conference).

With the costs of gathering large groups of people in a single place becoming prohibitive, event managers are going to have to come up with a new name for themselves. One that doesn’t require a list-like explanation most times they inform people. Maybe it’s time that someone redefined the conference in terms of what is supposed to do

If it’s not a word that has become tired from over-use, maybe community should be in there somewhere. What do you think?

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1 comment
  1. Julius said:

    Great post Alex

    and great point.

    It’s definitely time for a new definition.

    It’s also time to get to more powerful concepts that deliver unprecedented value.

    If it is a fact that conferences have relied a lot on the reputation of being fun and exotic, that reputation is not going to pay for the future.

    Online interactions are stimulating deeper discussions and virtual events offer new opportunities to meet.

    I think there are great opportunities for those “event managers” that care enough to be innovative.

    Thanks for sharing your insights

    Julius

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