business, career, education

Conferences – the good and the bad

I recently attended two conferences put on by Sports Business Journal in Los Angeles (Marina del Rey to be exact). I like the way SBJ does their conferences, so it got me thinking about what I like and don’t like at conferences.

I have probably attended over 100 conferences in my professional career (maybe close to 200), plus assorted training sessions which function similarly. I have been a speaker at least 25 conferences. I have had a hand in organizing over 20 conferences. These conferences have ranged from small gatherings to huge groups. They have covered industries/topics as varied as college sports, accounting issues, real estate, gaming, shared services, analytics, entertainment, media, and technology. Here are my top learnings. I think these learnings can help in a couple of ways – obviously for those organizing a conference to ensure “best foot forward;” but less obviously for those considering attending a conference you can look for these characteristics to see if the conference will provide value.


  • Conferences should be never be “one day” conferences. By extending to at least a second half day, you provide significantly more networking opportunities for the attendees.
  • Conferences should end by early afternoon on the last day, preferably by noon. This tends to keep folks attending the last day’s sessions but gives them time to catch flights home.
  • Plan the run of show to a detailed level and rehearse.
  • Get speaker slides, bios, and other info well in advance.
  • Ensure an active staff to interface with the hotel – to ensure proper room temperature, manage A/V issues, etc. These should be seamless to the attendees because you have put in the time and effort to ensure the event is planned well.


  • Provide ample time for networking, and the inevitable other work folks may need to take care of (calls, emails, etc.)
  • Provide forced but welcome networking opportunities. Get people up and moving in specific sessions that foster networking. Just because they have time for networking (see above) doesn’t mean they will use it for that purpose, so “make” them. One interesting way I’ve seen this done is to integrate personality and behavioral profiles, giving the attendees a takeaway and giving them topics for networking. I’ve also held sessions at conferences where the attendees break into groups that are logical (like by industry) but force them to meet new folks (by ensuring they don’t sit with others from their same company), and have them do some “work” – like identify the top three problems facing their industry and how they can be addressed.
  • For after conference cocktail parties, provide a hook. Unique entertainment, something to keep folks engaged and “loosen them up” and provide something for them to talk to each other about. This tip is especially useful for my fellow introverts. At the recent SBJ conference, a sponsor put on a ping pong tournament. .Great fun, engaging, and gave everyone something to do and talk about while enjoying finger foods and beverages.
  • There is a classic debate in conferences – individual speakers or panels? My view is that a mix is actually always the best. In fact this comment covers this bullet and the next bullet. The problems with a program of all individual speakers include added time needed to manage the preparation, reliance on high profile speakers showing up, and the fact that not all speakers are good at it. The problems with a program of all panels is that you need that many more speakers, they may not be inclined to prepare hoping the other panelists will carry the conversation, you need a good moderator to keep the panel pacing well and holding the audience’s interest. There are also pros to both styles, and I think a mix helps mitigate the cons.
  • The second classic debate is the style of presentation. So interview/free form discussion versus rehearsed presentation. Again a mix is usually best. Prepared presentations can bore an audience with poorly prepared PowerPoint slides they can’t even read, or get lost in a monotone voice. Free form discussion can wander and might never actually address the issues you wanted addressed in the first place.
  • Keep sessions as short as possible. This keeps the audience engaged, and awake, particularly if doing breakouts where they have to move between sessions. If the topics need more time to really be understood/discussed/debated, they are likely perfect candidates for a breakout session. So a rehearsed presentation at a high level gets the entire audience to understand the basics of the topic, and those that want to go deeper can during a breakout.
  • Give the audience a way to ask questions without shouting it out in front of everybody. Often, they will be too shy, especially if a large group. You can use text, email, etc. If you do take questions from the room at large, ensure staff with microphones are sprinkled throughout.

Coming back to what prompted this blog post, I’d like to compliment SBJ for achieving success in their conferences. I’ve been to four now, enough sample size to see the commonalities and know they didn’t “get lucky.” Here’s some of the things they do:

  • Flawless A/V and room and hotel logistics – temperature, meals, etc.
  • They often go with a complete program of interview style sessions, and rarely do breakouts. So they don’t fully follow my advice for variety, but their key to success is a combination of short sessions, mixing up the moderators, and changing between 1-on-1 interviews and panel discussions.
  • They provide time for networking and help facilitate it.
  • They have an iPad with the moderators where questions come in from the audience, and they interject them seamlessly into the discussion.

So if you are in the sports and entertainment industry, check out SBJ’s extensive list of conferences and consider attending. No, they didn’t pay me for the plug! If you are going to other conferences or are asked to help organize one, hopefully you can find success with some of the tips I provided.



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