Why the experience revolution will kill the conference as we know it

In a complex world that craves more meaning, the events we experience will start to look very different. Thanks to a few trailblazers this change is already under way…

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
“There was only one problem”
said Dorothy, speaker and co-founder of startup Maptia
“No-one really seemed to have business cards and exchanging emails was somehow less of a priority than hugging goodbye.”

Uh oh.

So much for this being a ‘business’ event.

Speakers Shamash Alidina and Kees Klomp

But this wasn’t such a bad thing.

Our measure of success for last year’s Happy Startup Summercamp? Not whether we’d sold out the event (we had), or how many business cards had been exchanged (zero) but rather the amount of hugging that went on at the end.

This may seem ludicrious to some, but what other metric best encapsulates the impact it had on people? And given attendees hadn’t met before and were together for less than 50 hours this was far from a given.

Thankfully we had nothing to worry about. There were hugs on tap. But more than the meaningful connections that people made, it was the level of transformation people experienced throughout the course of the weekend that hit home.

Below is just some of the feedback we received afterwards.

“I think the Happy Startup Summercamp will turn out to be a life-changer for me.”
Kees Klomp, speakera

“Amazing is spending a weekend being inspired. Awesome is using that momentum to make change. I feel I owe it to Summercamp to make change”
Adam Brooks

“Many ripples of inspiration which will now have their effects across the UK and the world.”
Spencer Heijnen

“I arrived home feeling inspired, refreshed, and optimistic about the future.”
Simon Cohen, speaker

“A wonderful and unique experience. A gift of a weekend.”
Jeremiah Gardner, speaker and author

“Thanks is definitely not a good enough word of gratitude and appreciation. I have never experienced such openness and togetherness.”
Tom Hemmings

“It was an amazing experience and it has impacted me in many ways.”
Natalie Jeffers

“I never experienced a conference with such a good vibe.”
Carmen Brion

So what is a conference?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

A formal meeting of people with a shared interest, typically one that takes place over several days.

Formal being the operative word.

We go to discover new ideas, get inspired and meet new people. However more often than not we hear the same old stuff, leave feeling no different and never stay in touch.

“I’ve spent two decades loitering under the unnatural light of conference centres, swigging rank coffee, pondering which lanyard-scheduled, thinly veiled sales pitch to suffer next.” Jack Hubbard, CEO Propellernet

He’s not the only one.

More and more of us are craving more meaningful experiences and deeper connections than we ever could get in a stuffy, soulless conference centre.

We’ve reached the point where we now understand that nature, not neon, has the answers we need.

Where would you rather be?

The rise of the experience economy

In their groundbreaking 1999 book The Experience Economy, Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore predicted a new age of consumer behaviour and consumption – moving away from good and services towards experiences, ultimately towards those that are truly transformative.

The now legendary Alptitude ‘pretend confereence’ held in May 2015 in France

The now legendary Alptitude ‘pretend confereence’ held in May 2015 in France

Pine and Gilmore argued that businesses must orchestrate memorable events for their customers, and that memory itself becomes the product — the “experience”.

They also state that more advanced experience businesses can begin charging for the value of the “transformation” that an experience offers.

Coffee as an experience

Their theory, now borne out in practice, is best illustrated through our consumption of coffee over the last century or so:

  • Coffee evolved from traders bartering beans (commodity)
  • To ground coffee in a local store (good)
  • To brewed coffee in a local café (service)
  • To today where the ‘Starbucks’ coffee experience includes free wifi, cosy sofas, background music and a unique ambiance. You don’t just pay for the coffee, you pay for the right to enjoy all the associated frills and benefits that come with the coffee shop (experience)
“The experience revolution will help people be happier by nudging them to spend less time and money on having things, and more of their time and money doing things.” James Wallman, author of Stuffocation

So what does a transformative experience look like?

Think of it as shifting ourselves up Maslow’s hierachy of needs. Here’s what we focus on at The Happy Startup School for our events, exemplified at our recent week-long Alptitude retreat:

  • Tribal
    Gathering people around a common purpose and set of values will help to create magic.
  • Emergent
    A focus on making an impact on those participating and allowing them to ask questions and show vulnerability, not teaching them what they already know.
  • Natural
    The best ideas don’t come in the boardroom. Get outside and you’ll get better results.
  • Tech-free
    Leave your Apple Watch at home. You can tweet when you get back to the real world.
  • Memorable
    Create moments that matter. Moments that might lead to a step change in someone. The devil is in the detail.
  • Truthful
    No bullshit. Real stories. Real people.
  • Fun
    Although we’re serious about our work, we keep it light. As this year’sSummercamp as well as the barnstorms and woodland workshops we’ve got a karaoke sauna, a ukulele workshop, the UK’s looniest brass covers band and a host with the world record for the longest hug (quite apt you might say). Silly, maybe, but a guaranteed way to let your guard down and show your true colours.

We’re not alone

A hat tip to our friends and peers that are challenging the conventional conference model and doing things differently. Here’s just a few:

  1. Summit at Sea
    The renowned Summit conference now takes to the international seas.
  2. Do Lectures
    Wales’ finest ideas festival, now has events in the US and Australia.
  3. YYXY
    A backlash against South By South West. 400 people, 1 hotel, no agenda.
  4. AwesomenessFest
    Mind Valley’s series of international events push the boat out, literally.
  5. Camp Grounded
    Summercamp for adults. No work talk. No booze. Camp rules. Lots of fun.
  6. Tribe Wanted
    Transformational events such as their recent program in Bali.
  7. LearningCamp
    Brazilian weekend aimed at those interested in a more emergent learning model.
  8. Dream Valley Projects
    Where innovation meets utopia in the heart of the French Alps.
  9. Startup Extreme Norway
    Similar to Alptitude but on a bigger scale

If you want to be happy, develop meaningful relationships, generate next-level ideas and connect with endless inspiration, get yourself along to The Happy Startup Summercamp this September, Alptitude in 2016 or another pretend conference sometime soon.

Just leave your business cards at home.

Your soul will thank you for it.