Key Themes from 2012 Elite Retreat


The conference industry is undergoing a period of profound change. To prosper, even successful conference organizers need to fundamentally reinvent the entire conference experience. It requires thinking of education and networking in new ways. It entails creating events that are inspirational and have a specific purpose, that are immersive and multi- sensory, and that surprise and delight.

Devising the conference of the future requires focus, creativity, innovation, experimentation, and risk taking. Peer- to-peer networking among industry leaders, such as the Elite Retreat, can provide opportunities for personal growth while sparking transformative ideas.


Held in Santa Barbara, California, August 21-23, the first ever Elite Retreat was conducted by Robert Tucker of The Innovation Resource. The Elite Retreat brought together conference industry leaders to discuss trends and mega issues, share best practices, discover ways to add value and increase attendee loyalty, reignite each person’s visionary conference designer, and invent the future of the conference.

In addition to leading conference organizers, the group was joined by award-winning composer Gary Malkin, creativity expert David Moore, and speaker Terry Paulson. Each participant had their own key takeaways and contributed “keepers.” Some of the key themes and keepers from the Elite Retreat are summarized below.

Key Themes

  • In addition to personal passion, attendees share many common perspectives.

In providing an introduction, each participant was asked to describe their background, situation, experience, and challenges. Many common themes emerged including:

  • Passion. Participants, who have extensive experience in the conference industry, shared deep passion for organizing conferences and bringing people together for education and experiences. Participants know that “meetings still matter.”
  • Peer network. Each participant is creative and innovative and has been successful. But on a day-to- day basis, group members don’t necessarily have peers in a similar situation with whom they can share ideas and challenges. For this reason, the peer-to-peer networking of the Elite Retreat and the opportunity for personal and professional growth had incredible value.
  • Purpose. Just providing information to attendees is no longer good enough; people are saturated with information. Conferences must have a clear purpose and provide attendees with a sense of meaning. This starts with organizations and leaders that also have a clear purpose.
  • Focus. Participants attributed previous success to the ability to focus on specific attendees and to orchestrate focused events.
  • Wear multiple hats. Effective conference organizers must be visionaries, leaders, managers, marketers, and executors. They must articulate a compelling big-picture vision, while ensuring that every detail is flawlessly executed. At times, the focus on the executional details overshadows being an innovative visionary. (An exciting part of this retreat was being able to focus on the big picture and innovation.)
  • Business expansion. Several participants mentioned expanding into new areas, beyond traditional conferences. Conference organizers are also offering research or consulting services, or expanding to provide lead-generation services or to organize and manage smaller “councils.”
  • Increased global scope. Several participants mentioned that their organizations now think about organizing events in and marketing to people in multiple countries.
  • Risk taking. Success has been based on constant experimentation and a willingness to take risks.
  • Multiple disruptions are taking place in the conference industry, causing rapid change.

In virtually every industry, significant disruptions are taking place, which creates high uncertainty and in many instances has dire consequences for industry participants. While the businesses of most, but not all, Elite Retreat participants are healthy and growing, changes in the industry merit attention.

Among the major changes mentioned were:

  • Changing demographics. With multiple generations in the workforce, conference organizers must create education, networking, and experiences that appeal to each generation. In particular, younger generations have shorter attention spans and are greater users of technology.
  • New business and delivery models. The TED conference is all the rage in the conference world. This event has multiple short (18 minute), provocative sessions, high fees for attendees ($6,000), and the ability to view content via streaming video for $3,500. As a result, TED—which doesn’t pay speakers—is grossing $23 million per conference. Other industry participants are trying to emulate aspects of TED’s structure with shorter, provocative sessions.
  • New technologies. Social media, conference apps, tweeting, and other uses of technology are becoming increasingly common. These changes affect how people access and share information, as well as how they communicate. Attendees now tweet in the middle of a session. Conference apps with the agenda and site information can reduce/eliminate the need to print programs, which can save in printing and shipping costs. The value of new social technologies is not yet clear, but the consensus is that technologies will change conferences and how they are delivered.
  • Budget pressures. While TED may be flourishing, some conference organizers are confronted with tight budgets and declining attendance.
  • Competition. The conference landscape is crowded and attendees have many options to choose from. Even satisfied attendees may not return if another event appears more innovative.
  • Amid changes and disruptions, conference organizers are attempting to provide greater value.

The quest to provide continually greater value has driven Elite Retreat participants to innovate in multiple ways. Efforts that participants are making to deliver greater value and engender greater loyalty include:

  • Segmenting attendees. By segmenting attendees, it is possible to provide different learning formats that appeal to different segments. Segmenting also provides a way to create smaller, more intimate, more interactive groups even within large events. Conversation areas is a way to allocate space to people with a shared interest in a specific topic.
  • Creative types of networking.Networking is an important part of the conference experience. Creative examples of networking experiences include:
    • Speed dating, a structured form of networking that enables people with similar interests to meet others quickly and easily.
    • Matching up buyers and sellers or people who have expressed similar interests.
    • Having casual “lounges” for networking. Instead of sitting around a conference table or standing with a drink, people can flop on a comfortable couch. This provides a casual environment like the water cooler for meeting people interested in similar topics.
    • Increasing the length and frequency of networking breaks.
    • Having a party where attendees wear uniforms of their favorite sports team, which provides a natural icebreaker.
  • Quantifying value. One attendee shared the example of a “justification tool” that quantifies the value of a conference and justifies the cost. A participant described how her organization asked every attendee to quantify the value of ideas from their conference. All attendees derived more quantifiable value than the cost of the conference, with the top value being $87,000. By quantifying the value it is possible to discuss the ROI of an event.
  • New models. ASAE is incorporating the IGNITE format at many events. This model gives presenters a five- minute session with 20 slides that auto-advance. The presentation ends, with no exceptions, after five minutes. This format works best in a casual atmosphere. Another new model for ASAE is licensing content to be used in a train-the-trainer certification program.
  • Great conferences focus on delivering a unique, compelling experience.

A great deal of the discussion at the Elite Retreat focused on going beyond a conference to create an immersive, compelling experience. Multiple ideas and examples were shared about transforming the experience. Among them:

  • Personal growth. Even though people go to a conference to gather ideas for their company or organization, deep down, they are also interested in personal growth. A great conference is motivating, inspiring, and provides the personal growth that people are longing for.
  • Architect the experience. Creating an immersive, compelling experience is about much more than just planning. It is about architecting and orchestrating.
  • Artistry. Compelling experiences engage all of the senses, as Gary Malkin did. Music and art engage people, tap into their emotions, and cause them to think and feel differently. One idea was to have a conference “weaver” who weaves art into the conference.
  • Setting. Location matters a great deal. The venue affects the mood, mindset, and the entire experience of participants. Don’t underestimate the importance of the setting and carefully think about every detail of location, food, lighting, music, ambiance, etc. (For example, a networking event with very loud music hurts the experience.)
  • Pre, during, post.The conference experience starts before the event and continues afterwards. Part of an immersive experience includes communication prior to the conference, the welcome, the experience at registration, all of the details of the onsite experience, the goodbye (which is often overlooked), and post-event follow up.For example, 30 days after a conference an organization might have a webinar where a speaker reinforces key points and discusses progress since the conference. Or, an executive summary can be produced (such as this), conveying key takeaways that can be easily shared with others.
  • Using pictures and videos. Attendees love to see photos of themselves. Take photos and show them on a big screen between sessions. Also, videos where attendees convey their “keepers” add to the experience.
  • Artists. Graphic artists and cartoonists can capture an event’s narrative in the form of a visual story, which makes the content fun and engaging.
  • Surprises. A great event surprises and delights. It provides attendees with something unexpected.
  • By working differently with the education experience, greater value can be delivered.

Participants see working differently with the educational experience as a key priority. Some of the group’s ideas for working differently in delivering compelling innovation include:

  • Eliciting desired learning in advance. One idea is to contact attendees and vendors in advance and ask what they hope to learn at the conference.
  • Peer-to-peer learning. People learn by hearing about the experiences of others; they want to hear from their peers, who have the same challenges. Interactive discussions among peers are highly valued.
  • An incredible speaker. While people want to hear solutions from their peers, there is still a place for great speakers who can inspire and motivate.
  • Speaker alignment. One idea, to ensure that speakers deliver messages that are consistent with the purpose of the conference, is to arrange a meeting of speakers prior to the event to ensure they understand the conference’s purpose and integrate their presentations so they fit with the purpose.
  • Emcee. A great emcee paces the conference and enhances the educational experience by highlighting important takeaways and reinforcing major themes.
  • Leveraging speakers more broadly. One idea is to not just have a speaker deliver a one-hour presentation, but to have a speaker meet with attendees over breakfast or lunch, or in a small group.
  • Action learning. This involves groups working together to solve relevant learning.
  • Bite-sized learning. This is education delivered in smaller bites. It can include shorter sessions, and focused facilitated conversations.
  • Creating the more valuable experiences requires constant innovation.

Great value and a compelling experience is not a one-time event; it requires continuous innovation. But innovating to create new ideas while simultaneously executing existing conferences is a significant challenge. Among the ideas about innovation that were discussed:

  • Becoming comfortable with uncertainty. Innovation is difficult because people’s brains are judgmental of new ideas and are uncomfortable with uncertainty. David Moore said that a key to innovation is, “Get your brain to be okay with uncertainty.”
  • Mandate innovation. Organizations that deliver the same conference year after year are doomed to fail. An idea is to mandate change. This might be mandating 10 new things each year; or focusing on five ideas that people will notice, or mandating that 20% of the conference experience is different.
  • Create a culture of innovation. Innovation is not a singular event; it is a process and a culture. Organizations with innovative cultures encourage the generation of ideas, focus on the “flow,” understand there will be failures, and celebrate them.
  • Be able to execute innovations. Just coming up with ideas isn’t innovation. Innovative organizations are able to implement innovations. They prioritize their possible innovations and focus on the output and results.
  • Outsiders to the conference business can provide valuable insights.

In addition to peer-to-peer discussions among those who are in the conference business, fresh perspectives can come from those with deep expertise in other areas. At the Elite Retreat, insights came from:

  • Gary Malkin, award-winning composer. Gary’s presence conveyed that compelling events create a sense of fun, relaxation, and trust. They engage the senses. He said, “Music is the sound of life.”
  • David Moore, creativity expert. Everyone is creative as a child because they can see something that isn’t there. But as people become older and worry about fitting in, they suppress their creativity. Leading others to create ideas requires optimism, focus, collaboration, story- telling, and being able to block out the rest of the world. It requires shifting from a mindset of “It can’t be done” to “It can be done.”
  • Dr. Terry Paulson, professional speaker, who talked about the challenges of innovating and making personal and organizational change. He emphasized that change comes first from within, that optimism comes from a track record of overcoming obstacles, and that not enough time in organizations is spent talking about and learning from mistakes. He encouraged focus, repeatedly asking questions, and quoted Wayne Gretsky, who said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”
  • Participants each supplied some of their “keepers” from the Elite Retreat

Robert Tucker asked each person to share some of their “keepers” from the Elite Retreat. A keeper is a sentence or quote that provides a reminder of a bigger idea. Among the keepers that were shared were:

  • Conference organizers need to put teams in place that ensure: 1) learning; 2) networking; 3) inspiration and purpose; 4) an immersive multi-sensory experience; and 5) surprise and delight. Traditionally conferences have focused on 1 and 2, but all 5 will make a better product.
  • Content can be gotten anywhere; experience is what differentiates.
  • What would a competitor do to put you out of business?
  • What comes after what’s next? Not six months or one year, but five or ten years?
  • Think about the person (who), the experience, and then the product. Too often innovation focuses on the idea (the product), without first thinking about who it is for.
  • Build in conference follow-up. Sustain the high from a conference through follow-up.
  • Weave artistry into a conference. An experience is all about the senses.
  • Have speakers review the Twitter stream from when they were speaking.
  • Attendees want to be recognized, loved, and appreciated.
  • Advice from Andy Reid: The coach of the Philadelphia Eagles has told his players that four keys to life are: eliminate distractions, create energy, have no fear, and attack everything.
  • Overenthusiasm for change creates resistance to change.