When it comes to conferences, some of the best learning and connections come from outside your typical circles.
Everywhere you look there seems to be a new conference. I was at one marketing conference last year in Chicago while at the same time another marketing conference was held across town.
And, of course, there are big events like South by Southwest--SXSW, in cool-kid parlance--which brings thousands of people to Austin every year and provides content, learning, and interaction across varied industries and areas of expertise.
But those kinds of huge, much-ballyhooed events aren't the only option. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the inaugural Dig South conference in Charleston, South Carolina. Dig South has figured out how to strike a balance between being too industry- or topic-focused, and being too large and unwieldy.
Here's what's great about a smaller, regional event like Dig:
Variety of Venues
Dig South (which celebrates the Southeast's digital economy and is called an "interactive festival" by the organizers) included several components, just like SXSW, located all across the city. There was a conference with presenters and panels representing a wide variety of topics, an expo that included technology and creative industry exhibits, a sideshow featuring live music, comedy, and after-parties, and a studio tour that provided a peek behind the scenes of different agencies based in Charleston.
The fast pace, variety, and venue changes kept things interesting and made sure the crowd of people you were interacting with was constantly changing. It was also a great way to highlight Charleston and the good things happening there. This wasn't the kind of conference where you get stuck in one venue endlessly rotating from room to room, where only the presenter at the front of the room changes.
Mixing of Industries
Just like SXSW, Dig South brought together people from industries that don't usually have an opportunity to share ideas. The speakers and panels included a number of expected topics like digital innovation, marketing, or e-commerce, but there were also topics as diverse as how to give a good presentation, self-publishing, and what it takes to start and run a nonprofit.
We should all take care not to write off ideas from other industries. I picked up a tidbit from a nonprofit presentation given by Tina Arnoldi from the Coastal Community Foundation that I plan to put into action soon.
Not Too Big, Not Too Small
Conferences the size of SXSW are great because they are so big--but they are also a problem because they are so big. It's almost impossible to get to everything that is going on, and it's certainly difficult to find people while you are there.
Though I am sure the creators of Dig South wouldn't mind it being the size of SXSW, the fact that it was intimate and varied allowed for more robust and meaningful connection. At the same time, unlike some industry-focused conferences, I didn't feel like I was hanging out with the same group of people for three days.
Celebrate the Local
My experience has been that different cities or regions are good for different types of entrepreneurs or companies. Interviews we did recently in the Asheville, North Carolina, area focused primarily on plant-based entrepreneurs and start-ups because of the special medicinal herbs that grow there. Charleston has its own creative vibe and has dubbed itself Silicon Harbor.
Most of the time, the city where an event is being held is merely the backdrop or secondary player. Dig South intentionally positioned Charleston as one of the leading characters over the three-day experience. I bet many of us non-Charlestonites who left there after three days of gorgeous weather, good food, beautiful old buildings, and the robust energy of people passionate about what they do might be quietly considering an eventual move to the beautiful harbor town.
Entrepreneurs are always interested in attracting attention to the city or location they have chosen for birthing their start-up. Dig South provided an excellent model for highlighting a specific locale, connecting people, and being one heck of a good way to spend an early spring weekend.
ERIC V. HOLTZCLAW is a serial entrepreneur who has founded multiple startup companies, including one of the first profitable Internet enterprises. His last company appeared on the Inc. 5000 list three years in a row. Eric advises clients on the “whys” of business – why customers buy, why teams work and the all-important “entrepreneurial why”. He is the author of Laddering and his weekly radio show, The 'Better You' Project, shines a spotlight on entrepreneurs' individual business journeys and successes. Learn more about Eric at www.ladderingworks.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. @eholtzclaw