What makes for a great business conference? While the magic formula may be a mystery, here are some things have struck me lately. I'm a professional keynote speaker on customer service, company culture, and innovation at 20+ business conferences, summits, and company events each year, and some of them, including the one I'll focus on in this article, NextCon, a sold-out conference in Scottsdale, AZ held first in October this past year, nail it in particular areas that, when you get them right, can lead any business conference to succeed.
Educate and support attendees, rather than push corporate products.
It's all right if a conference includes a dose of product introduction and promotion, but the best conferences keep the balance leaning toward sessions that help attendees do their jobs more effectively without mention of the host company's products or services.
At NextCon, even though the host company had one "product reveal" (its new operating system, NextOS), the event focused on how attendees could improve all aspects of their businesses-sales, marketing, customer service, company culture, etc.-without any overt sales pitches.
This was clearly by design. It hit home for me almost immediately when Yaniv Masjedi, Nextiva's CMO, kicked off the conference by highlighting a quote from Melissa Proctor, the CMO of the Atlanta Hawks, who also spoke at the event. "Melissa told me," said Masjedi, that "'No one manages your career but you.' Remember that while you are walking these halls. This conference is for you."
Don't forget to make your event...eventful.
An event needs to be an experience: something that is exciting to experience, and shareworthy on social media. At NextCon, incoming attendees received a greeting from XBert, the Disney-style, human-sized Nextiva mascot who roamed the halls-and they could have their selfie taken with him (I did!) as well. Once the audience was ushered into the ballroom, they were greeted by the pounding of what sounded like THE DRUMS OF GOD, booming and thundering and thudding through all corners of the ballroom (this turned out to be a synchronized and highly-energetic drumline). And one ubiquitous presence inside and outside the exhibit hall was entrepreneur and former Miss Arizona USA, Erika Frantzve, doing video interviews with exhibitors, attendees, and speakers and, as an emissary for her home state, making everyone feel at home.
Pick a meaningful location.
For NextCon, the ideal location was Scottsdale, even though most technology and business conferences tend to be held on the coasts (when they're not in Vegas). Why? The conference's sponsor and organizer, Nextiva, is Scottsdale-based itself, and its own growth (it's been on the Deloitte 500 list and is now pushing the $125 million mark in revenue) is symptomatic of the fact that the Scottsdale, Phoenix, and general Arizona business scenes are growing apace. By holding the event locally, NextCon was able to highlight some interesting local businesses (for example, Tuft & Needle, the famously innovative mattress company).
Nextiva CEO Tomas Gorny, himself an expatriate from a larger, coastal city (LA), told me that Nextiva is "all in" about putting Arizona on the business map. "The Arizona business communities have helped put Nextiva on the map, and NextCon allows us to help expand our city and state's public profile." To Gorny, this is only fair: "Without Arizona's workforce and our business partnerships, Nextiva wouldn't have experienced the same success. NextCon aims to give entrepreneurs and businesses with an annual opportunity to gather with other businesspeople to connect and learn."
Focus charitably on the larger community.
An event with a philanthropic impact resonates even more with its attendees. NextCon was designed as a non-profit event, with the goal of benefitting the greater Phoenix community. One way that this was pulled off was particularly exciting: Nextiva's philanthropic arm, Nextiva Cares, supported a number of local organizations via a social media campaign during the conference. Audience members were invited to use #NextCon16 on social media, and Nextiva Cares would donate $5 to a local charity for each use. Nextiva put a display screen in the middle of the main hallway where guests could see donations as they racked up in real time.
How'd it turn out? Pretty great! By the end of the conference, uses of #NextCon16 resulted in $20,500 donated to local organizations.
Treat your speakers well.
For conference speakers, audiences are key, but being treated professionally is a big positive as well. NextCon got this right, and many conferences can take a cue. The backstage setup was a well-oiled production. There was a green room with nice bright lighting and professional makeup for all speakers provided by Tamara Bickley. Even better, the schedule ran on time and the sound and visuals were extremely crisp thanks to rear projection, top-flight stage lighting, and what seemed to be a particularly crackerjack audiovisual crew.
Even though I've given you important pieces of the puzzle in this article for putting together a great business conference, the last thing I would suggest is that every conference should be the same. I don't actually think that's a risk, if you focus on the elements highlighted in this article: your attendees, your community, and your speakers. Since those are unique to every event, your event is sure to be as unique as those three elements are. Follow this approach--this set of priorities- and I'm sure your event will rock it.