Reinventing Conferences

By Susan J. Ellis

I participate in upwards of thirty national or regional conferences a year in the United States and abroad. For some time now I have been vaguely dissatisfied at the repetitive format of professional conferences, both as a speaker and as a registrant. These gatherings have a "sameness" that is increasingly feeling dull.  My experience last week at the IAVE World Volunteer Conference left me determined to explore new ways to structure meaningful interaction within large groups of diverse strangers sharing a common cause but not knowing enough about each other to move forward without help -- add multiple languages and the difficulty compounds.

Because of the Internet and perhaps also because the field of volunteerism is maturing, conferences that focus on "show and tell" are no longer enough. Yes, we all want to learn about the successes of others, but we are ready to go beyond "what" is being done to the more important questions of "how" and even "why."

Challenges Faced by Conference Planners

1. Large plenary sessions are important to set the tone for the conference and convey important information to everyone at once. But they are impersonal gatherings, rarely fostering interaction among audience members. In addition, because the keynoter is selected for name recognition (to draw registrants), the speech may be slightly or hugely off-subject. In the volunteer field, you can always distinguish the prepared speaker from the "dabbler" by whether or not s/he refers to those of us in the audience as "volunteers like you," rather than as leaders or coordinators of volunteer efforts!

2.  Crammed schedules (a particular problem it seems for our field) allow little breathing space, let alone time for meaningful conversations.

3. Workshops, often overcrowded, that offer varying degrees of participant interaction. At their worst, workshops are led by speakers reading academic papers to the group or by panels of "experts" each given only a few moments to share their brilliance before moving on to the next speaker. In international events, there is the problem of how to translate sessions not located in the main auditorium with the interpreting equipment.

4. Special events that are noisy and distracting--even physically uncomfortable as people juggle plates of food standing up (and standing in long lines).

5. Banquets that feel like a second cousin’s wedding: trapped with whoever lands at your table; generally mediocre food; and constant interruptions from the front of the room.

6. As really large events are forced into multiple housing sites, conferees are scattered around the host city, losing their connection to the conference once they depart the site for their lodgings.

OK. We’ve all "been there, done that." So what can we do differently? I am sincerely hoping to start a dialogue about what you like that works at conferences. Here are some of the areas that could use some new approaches. Then read my starter set of ideas and please share your own!

Pre-Conference Interaction

  • What would conferees like to know before arriving on site that would help them to "hit the ground running"?
  • Could conferees be asked to complete some survey forms before arrival that could then be posted or shared in some way?
  • How can a conference Web site be utilized to encourage advance interaction?

Registration and Name Tags

  • What could happen at the registration area to help strangers meet each other right away?
  • Despite the fact that everyone knows name tags need to be large enough to see names at a distance, how often have you been frustrated by small print? But how else can name tags be useful in fostering interaction?

Plenary Sessions

  • What can be done to counteract the impersonal nature of a large room?
  • How can people be encouraged to meet one another?
  • What can a keynote speaker do to make a presentation memorable?


  • How can workshops become more interactive?
  • What alternative learning methods might be used at conferences?
  • How do we juggle the needs of newcomers with the needs of experienced people?

Site Visits

  • What makes a site visit meaningful?
  • How can these opportunities be expanded in some way?

Special Events and Breaks

  • How do we make sure people meet each other and don’t simply spend time with people they knew before they arrived?
  • What can be done to make breaks revitalizing?
  • If people are lodged at various hotels, what could be done at each hotel to foster the spirit of the conference and give ways to interact?

Exhibit Areas

  • What can we do to make more people visit--and use--the exhibit area?
  • What would encourage more interaction?
  • Other than making computers available for Internet browsing (a great first step, of course), how can a computer area be made more useful to conferees?

Post Conference

  • How can we help conferees to take what they learned back home?
  • What alternatives are there to printed "proceedings"?


  • What haven’t we even thought of yet that would make conferencing more exciting and useful?

Here is my starter set of ideas, what are yours?

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