The micro-conference will be the way of the future

Conference season is in full swing and many of you will be attending one of the many conferences that happen between now and the end of November.

A couple of recent conferences have been getting a lot of buzz on social media and they have me thinking about the real value of architecture and construction conferences.  This is a bit of a rant on what I don't like about conferences and what the future may hold for them.

To be fair, I haven't attended a conference for many years.  The last time I went, I wasn't even an attendee - rather, I went as a presenter and got the heck out of there the moment my presentation was finished.  A few years prior to that, I attended a couple of sessions to pick up some CEUs and then walked the floor for an hour to try and see some new products.  Obviously, I haven't put much effort into attending conferences and my experience is reflective of that.

What is Terrible About Architecture Conferences

Sadly, most conferences encourage the behavior I demonstrated above.  I was there to get some CEUs, take a look at some new products (while avoiding the salespeople), and then I wanted to get out.  You get what you put in and I wasn't putting much in.

1. The sessions are absolutely terrible.  They are hosted by people like you and me who aren't professional speakers.  Yeah, you get a bit of information while the presenters are patting themselves on the back, but for the most part the information isn't all that relevant to your work today.  And most architects are BORING when they are speaking about something they aren't super passionate about.  But, hey, you get an hour of HSW out of the way.

2. The social events are at the end of the day when most of us (especially the introverts) are exhausted.  They also tend to be very cliquey, which makes you feel like you don't belong.

3. The conference floor is a complete waste of time.  Let's be honest, this is 2019.  We don't have to walk the conference floor to see the latest in resilient flooring technology.  We have the interwebs in our pocket and all these marketers are constantly blasting us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and at lunch-and-learns.  We already know what is out there.

What is Great About Architecture Conferences

Get ready for a bit of contradiction...

1. You have the ability to present something you are completely passionate about in a session.  You can add excitement and teach others.  You don't have to pat yourself on the back.  You can make yourself available after the presentation to host a discussion and answer questions.

2. The social events are where the real value occurs if you are willing to put yourself out there and strike up a conversation.  This is tough for me and a lot of others, but you have to make an effort if you want to reap the rewards.  Work up the courage to compliment someone you admire and see where the conversation takes you.  Say hello to that other awkward person who looks lost and lonely.

3. Sorry, but there is nothing worthwhile about the convention floor unless you want some logo'd swag.

Where I Think the Conference Market is Going

OK, enough of the rant.  Where do I think conferences are going?  First let's look at two recent examples...

The Young Architects Conference was held in late August.  The speakers looked a lot like the attendees and they were energetic and excited to be there.  It was a small group of people who all had a very specific interest - how to survive being a young architect.  There were no CEUs, no product reps, no middle-aged architects showing off their latest project.  This was a tribe of people who came together to learn from and encourage each other.

The AIA's Women's Leadership Summit was held in early September.  While this conference did provide CEUs, it was also directed at a subset of the profession with the goal of helping women at any level of their career explore new paths to leadership.  More importantly, it was a forum for women to help each other advance their careers.

I think the micro-conference will be the way of the future.  Most people will give up on the massive generic conferences that cater to a previous generation of architects who needed them due to the lack of the internet.  Since we get our product information and CEUs online, the conferences can shift to being smaller grassroots campaigns to help a subset of the profession.  Conferences will, and should, cater to a tribe of people looking to grow.

When you narrow the audience down to a subset, people can find their conference and be a more active participant.  They will engage at the social events.  They will get up on stage and help others by sharing their experiences.  Overall, they will get more from the conference than a couple of CEUs.

The challenge is that we need to keep mixing these different subsets of people so that we don't end up off in our own corners trying to dominate the profession.  We need cross-pollination and mutual support, otherwise we'll end up right back where were are now.

Firm leaders, I encourage you to push your employees to seek out a micro-conference that speaks to them and support their attendance.  This will help keep the next generation of architects engaged in the profession and will push our profession forward in a meaningful way.