The Unconference: Still a Meeting

Image courtesy of Harless Todd, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service The industry has spoken—some permanent changes have come to the meetings business. As the 2014 American Express Meetings and Events Forecast shows, meetings remain under tight budget controls, and the use of technology has forever altered participant involvement. Hybrid events—ones that utilize both “virtual” and “actual” activities—are expected to grow and become more common. Another trend that began as an outlier but has made significant inroads is what is commonly called the “unconference.” Corporate & Incentive Travel Magazine notes that whatever term is used for the unconference, it’s a concept that meeting planners should understand. Defined by Wikipedia as “a wide range of gatherings that try to avoid one or more aspects of a conventional conference, such as fees, sponsored presentations, and top-down organization,” the term unconference first appeared to describe the 1998 xml developers meeting. The format of an unconference may vary widely, but typically the agenda at an unconference is set by the attendees upon arrival, and discussions are participatory rather than led by a single speaker lecturing at the front of a room or hall.

Trends in Meetings Drive Unconference Growth

The unconference has grown in popularity in part because of the overall trends in the meetings industry described by the AmEx report. Smaller, shorter meetings that are regional in scope, incorporate technology, have a lower cost for attendees and planners, and which are put together with much shorter lead times lend themselves to the unconference model. Another trend mentioned in the report is the desire to find non-traditional properties to host meetings. This too has been a characteristic of the unconference. Venues that have never been in the business meetings market before can now offer themselves as potential hosts for these participant driven events. Restaurants, collaborative workspaces, museums—any facility with open space and free Wi-Fi is a potential unconference site.

Different Expectations

Image courtesy of Pedro Lozano The unconference is not intended to be a “free for all” but rather a structured way to allow participants to help shape the exchange of ideas. The expectations of conference attendees have changed over the past 10 to 15 years, and interactive technology has made participation and access to information easier. Venues that play into these different expectations have an advantage over traditional conference facilities. The non-traditional venue is also desirable for unconferences because it sends a message to participants that they’re not attending “the same old meeting.” Planners choose these sites to encourage participation in the dialog and exchange of ideas, recognizing the value of the setting in driving the event.

Every Organization Can Benefit

Some businesses or associations may see the unconference as too unstructured, but even large firms such as Booz Allen Hamilton and major meetings like the Big Data Analytics Unconference have successfully employed the participant-driven model. Far beyond the tech world or nonprofit organizations, the unconference is taking hold and has been called “the future of meetings” by Meetings Magazine. Tapping into the ideas and problem-solving skills of participants while embracing the overall changes in meetings and events, the unconference is an idea that is here to stay.


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