Conferences that don’t suck, with Adrian Segar [Interview]

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Posted on August 4, 2019

Customercentricity and Customer Experience are hot topics of the event-marketing universe in the last decade. But Adrian Segar has been designing unconferences – or, as he prefers, conferences that don’t suck – for the last 27 years. “If this conference could be amazing for you, what would it be about?“. This is how he starts one of his sessions. But the final result is often unexpected.

Adrian Segar is on every list of the most influential event pros of the planet. Outlets such as The Wall Street journal also quoted him. Today, he tells us what it means to design participant-led conferences.

1 – Who is Adrian Segar when he is not facilitating or designing the next meeting that people want and need?

I’m a guy who’s spent much of his life transitioning from doing what I was good at as a kid and was told I should pursue (learning math and science, leading to a Ph.D. in high-energy particle physics) to the realization that understanding the world through learning about people and working with them is just as fascinating and important to me as understanding it through scientific enquiry. Along the way I’ve had five careers. I worked as a research physicist, owner and manager of a solar manufacturing company, computer science professor, independent IT consultant, and currently meeting design and facilitation.

I have no regrets about these careers; they all made important contributions to my current avocation: making meetings fundamentally better for everyone who attends.

Though I love my work, I also try to contribute to my community and the world through non-profit work. I’ve founded three non-profits, and been on the boards of two or more associations continuously for over twenty years. And I love to travel, eat great food, read voraciously, meditate, do yoga, sing, and dance.  

2 – How would you explain the concept of unconferences for people who are not familiar with it – or participant-led conferences, as you prefer? Can you relate it to what the consumerization era calls Customer-Centricity / Customer Experience?

When designed and facilitated well, participant-driven and participation-rich meetings become what the participants want and need them to be. The design goal is to make each meeting the best possible experience for each attendee. To do this, you need designs that allow participants to learn about each other at the start of the event. Who is there and why they came. Each attendee’s wants and needs that the event could fulfill that would make their time spent maximally useful.

Also, the experience and expertise collectively available in the room that can be tapped to meet the wants and needs that are shared. There are many ways to do this necessary initial work. The best approach to use depends mainly on the number of people present and the length of time they’ll be together.

Such sharing uncovers much information that’s tremendously useful for all the attendees. It allow individuals to find the people present who have answers to their current challenges, who they may want to collaborate with, with whom they can discuss or explore an issue of special interest. And it makes clear the issues that the group as a whole feels interested in. Therefore, it leads naturally to the next phase of what I call the conference arc.

A sticky method

Event crowdsourcing process uses the shared information to build a conference program that optimally reflects the wants and needs of the attendees. I’ve developed multiple design tools to do this that typically involve low-tech methods such as sticky notes and dot voting. The outcome is a conference program that only includes sessions that attendees actually want (because they chose them) led by appropriate attendees. As you might expect, such sessions are rarely broadcast style presentations. Rather they are relatively informal sessions that encourage and support discussion and participation. Interestingly, I’ve found that a simple double-sided sheet of paper, distributed to all attendees, can include all the key process information attendees need to lead and participate productively and effectively in such sessions.

Going personal or conferencing to a larger audience?

After the program is over, I include two closing sessions that are extremely important and rarely appear at traditional events. One, a personal introspective, provides a structured opportunity for each attendee to review what they learned and the new resources they gained, and, most important, determine changes they wish to make in their professional life as a result of their experiences at the event. This session makes it far more likely that the event will lead to professional growth. The other session, a group spective, begins with a public evaluation of the entire conference. It’s done by all attendees, starting with what was great and then moving to how the meeting could be improved. This sharing creates a collective experience of the event. Besides, it bonds attendees through the shared experiences. It explores new initiatives to further improve the meeting and the conference community.

As you can see, this entire design philosophy focuses on satisfying the wants and needs of the majority of the event customers: the attendees. In my opinion and experience, when meeting attendees are happy and fulfilled, the other event stakeholders — meeting organizers and supporting sponsors, vendors, and suppliers — are also happy with the outcomes. So I see these meetings, which I’ve now been designing and facilitating for 27 years, as the ultimate way to provide a customer-centric experience at events.

3 – During your 25+ years successful career, who are the people most drawn to participant-driven and participation-rich meetings? What are they really looking for?

I work predominantly with associations, which are, of course, organizations formed for people with a specific interest in common. Almost everyone who attends a conference has specific challenges that they would like to address. And traditional meetings usually don’t offer significant opportunities for these issues to be safely raised. Participant-driven and participation-rich meetings provide an intimate and safe environment to share and discuss professional issues. It’s sometimes sensitive, with folks who “do what you do” and understand the challenges you face better than any other group.

Although some people intuitively see the value of participant-driven and participation-rich design when I explain it to them, the majority really needs to experience a well-designed event to discover how effective and powerful such meetings can be. I developed my meeting designs for my own professional events. I’ve been convening conferences for over 40 years. It was only after people started asking me to design and facilitate their meetings and I eventually reviewed thousands of evaluations that I found out something. I realized that people loved this format. That’s when I decided to write my first book on meeting design: Conferences That Work. I published it in 2009. Suddenly, to my surprise, I was deeply immersed in the meetings industry.

I also do some work for corporate client events. Crowdsourcing tools can be very useful in creating sessions finely tuned to their needs. I’ll add that I spend a significant amount of time consulting for clients with existing conferences that are struggling. It might with falling attendance, worsening evaluations, or disappearing profits. I help them redesign their conferences to build effective attendee connections. So their sessions are constructed upon truly relevant content, with all the resulting benefits for increased learning, engagement, community, and overall satisfaction.

4 – You often speak about how to facilitate sessions that don’t suck. How important is face-to-face and in-person interaction when trying to achieve this goal?

When people are in a meeting environment where they have the structure and support to get their actual needs met, wonderful things happen! In-person interaction is important because nearly all of us are good at “reading” other people when we’re with them. We don’t even consciously know how we can tell that someone is nervous or excited or suspicious or fascinated from their body language. But this information makes our communication and potential connection much better than if we are “meeting” someone over a video connection. All other things being equal, until we get the Star Trek Holodeck — virtual reality that’s indistinguishable from “real” reality — face-to-face meetings provide better learning, connection, engagement, and community than virtual events.

5 – Is there any specific advice you could share with Event Managers and Executives trying to improve their event-marketing strategy

There’s no question that the event designs I’ve outlined above are becoming increasingly popular, and I’ve written extensively elsewhere why they will predominate at some point in the future. (I have a great track record in predicting future trends, but I’m just as clueless as everyone else at how quickly they will happen!). For hundreds of years, conference marketing focused on the content offered and the status of the main speakers. For event marketers to be successful in the future, the key motivation to tap is people’s deep need for authentic and useful connection around content. My website,, includes articles on how to market to this core need.

My clients are producing conferences that have incredible “sticky” power. Participants love them. They want to return to the intimate environment and community they continue to build at each new event. Marketing these kinds of meetings is hard. That’s because many people have not yet experienced how transformative and valuable a participant-driven and participation-rich meeting can be. On the bright side, that means there’s a huge opportunity for clever marketers. They all can be first to market for these innovative, improved meeting designs in their clients’ fields.

Keep learning! Don’t forget to check these other event marketing lessons to excel in your career:

You can also find what projects Adrian Segar is working on at the moment. Checking his LinkedIn profile and official website.


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