(This post is NOT a review of FutureStack as an event, or the recent announcements from New Relic. For that, you can check out this post. Rather, this is my reflection on how in-person events may shift and even capitalize on this "next normal" in which we all find ourselves. )
"Oh my goodness, it's YOU!!"
This was by far the most frequent thing I overheard at FutureStack this week. While the pandemic is by no means over, we’ve all had to do the hard calculus around whether we should travel. The result of those computations for many was, "Yes, let's make this happen!" And thus, FutureStack was a go.
Finally, I saw faces unframed by computer screens and heard voices transmitted over the most immediate (and analog) of transport networks—the air between us. It was clear that for many of us, our brains were struggling to keep up with the switch to a 3-D context. I literally walked past coworkers, completely oblivious to their presence, only to be dragged back by well-meaning folks saying, "Leon? Leon! It's _____! Don't you want to say hi?"
And then it was my turn to say, "Oh my goodness, it's YOU!!"
Just to be clear, this wasn't my first in-person event since travel restrictions and my own personal risk assessments have eased up. But it was the first event that included a large number of coworkers, people I work with daily and colleagues, people from other organizations, and companies that I interact with online almost as often.
Initial disorientation and awkward apologies aside, what followed was just as heartfelt and twice as heartwarming: collaboration. Never have I seen "the hallway track" of a conference as enthusiastically populated. Employees, partners, and customers settled into any available corner, opened laptops on any available flat surface, and began to discuss, debate, plan, and organize with gusto.
That led many to realize that "The Flow," a space with a variety of tables, chairs, and beanbags, an overabundance of outlets, and a steady supply of snacks and drinks, was purpose-built for exactly this moment. In other conferences, this type of space would be sparsely populated except when the food appears. But throughout every day of the event, The Flow enjoyed a respectable number of people.
The designers truly outdid themselves to create spaces that were comfortable and yet accommodating to the needs of folks who wanted to do more than catch their breath for a minute—they wanted to work, reflect, and catch up. It didn't hurt that an in-event hackathon was held there as well, offering attendees a chance to brainstorm, dream, maybe even win some cash, or just watch the action unfold.
Meanwhile, people who wanted a place to just hang out found the design to be pure perfection. Along with the areas I’ve already mentioned, there was a gaming corner stocked with comic books, pinball machines, classic video games, and even a foosball table!
And then there were the "special guests" at this event. No, I'm not talking about industry luminaries who graced the stage. I mean the 16 students from the Career and Tech Education program of Las Vegas' Clark County school district (more info on their program can be found here: https://cteinccsd.org/. These high-school-aged folks put aside their preparations for year-end finals to spend two afternoons exploring, inquiring, and observing. Their questions, point of view, earnest and eager demeanor, and open sense of wonder, not to mention their utter lack of cynicism or need to appear to be "above it all," was a reminder to everyone they met of why they chose a career in tech in the first place.
Convention Lessons Learned
FutureStack was a great example of several ways in which in-person events can take advantage of the change in perspectives, goals, and mindsets that the last two or so years of the pandemic have created. Let me share three that I’ve taken with me:
Give people space and time to connect
Place the emphasis on human connection, rather than being a mass of bodies packed into a room listening to session after session that could just as easily have been hosted online. From the open spaces like The Flow to the preponderance of seats, benches, and couches in the lobby areas, in-person interaction was prioritized and it made a huge difference in the way people experienced this event.
Moreover, event planners can enable the person-to-person interactions in other ways:
- Make sure there's snacks and drinks outside of breakfast and lunch. Some of us have gotten used to grazing at our desk all day. Others need a hit of protein or caffeine to keep our focus and energy up. For others, a bag of chips and cup of coffee at a small table in the corner is a convenient way to signal "I've hit my limit on human interactions. Give me space."
- Put as much thought into the soundscape design as you do with the landscape. There's a time for drop-the-bass party tracks. 2:30 in the afternoon isn't one of them. By the same token, muzak over the PA system is both cheesy and distracting. Creating a background of music that helps people think is as much a skill for DJs as any raise-the-roof concert.
- There are never enough plugs at a tech conference. But that doesn't mean event organizers shouldn't try to provide as many as they can.
Open the tent
There are conferences where the cost of entry is over $1,000 even before you factor in travel and lodging. This tends to create an event that can feel both exclusive and exclusionary.
When I was a college student in New York City, one of the perks was the ability to get tickets to any concert or show with available seats for $5. This wasn't some marketing ploy on the part of the production company to show they were "lifting up disadvantaged youth" or "inspiring the younger generation." It was done because experience showed that a diverse audience in the seats affected the performers and created a more exciting, engaged, and powerful performance.
Conferences aren't performances, and it would be unwise to treat them like one. Nevertheless, there's a tangible, measurable benefit to everyone at a conference by making the experience open to folks who wouldn't normally attend. Obviously, each event, vendor, and/or venue will need to find solutions that work for them, but opening entry to broader audiences would help—not just those who would then be able to participate, but those who’d be attending anyway.
The pandemic's not over. Don't pretend it is.
As I mentioned, there's still an existential calculus many of us still do with regard to daily interactions. Whether going out for groceries, sitting in a restaurant, or attending a multi-day event, there's a risk-reward assessment many people need to consider.
One thing event organizers can do to help people feel comfortable with their choice to attend is implement systems to keep people safe. Knowing that choice will be honored by both the event and the other attendees reduces collective anxiety. In just the last few months I've seen a few different systems: everything from regular announcements reminding conference-goers to respect the boundaries set by fellow attendees to color-coded wristbands or lanyards that visually indicate from afar whether that person is trying to keep their distance or not.
To sum up: The best events don't just educate, engage, and excite folks while they're attending. The truth is that with enough glitz and glamor, a conference on the driest subject can feel like an amusement park ride.
The key to a truly successful experience is how keenly people look forward to returning next year. And how, even a few weeks later, they find themselves reflecting as much on the interactions they had as they are on the information they gleaned.
For me, FutureStack was this kind of experience. What about you?
If you want to catch up on the highlights from FutureStack, you can find on-demand videos here: https://newrelic.com/futurestack-22-highlights
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