Conferences Build Communities

Or do communities build conferences? Or maybe better, people build communities and conferences are one way to gather?

Last week, during an industry event, I spent time talking with colleagues about the future of associations and meetings.  There were informal gatherings where you happen on someone in a hall (the origin of Open Space Technology), formal gatherings (open and closing receptions) and communities that formed from individuals who gathered for a meal or beverage.

In the Washington Post Magazine, “Onward, Christian Barterers” caused more reflection on the nature of communities, communities of purpose, and the “model” for meetings.  The author says “It has been tough to get a handle on a recurring theme – other than the promotion of community….” 

This group has “workshops” and “breakout sessions” and a “conference organizer”. They have “norms” (“core covenant which is a basic commitment to the group”) and they refer to what they do as a “chaotic communities” which sure sounds like an “unconference” to me!

This particular gathering had a corporate sponsor - Herr Foods donated the land for the gathering - and a corporate speaker (the President of Herr’s Foods.) [It was interesting to read about Ed Herr, their company’s philosophy and their commitment to the environmental and human parts of CSR

As I read, I reflected on some of our industry’s self-gathering communities:

ECEU (happening as I write this) is an extension of “event camps” held in the US and soon, in Canada. These communities came together because of common connections (meetings/meetings industry) and ease of connections (social media), each developing its own personality and style, methods and communities.

When the former “MIMList” – the industry’s first virtual community – formed in 1999, it took little time before people said they wanted to meet face to face or at the very least have ribbons to wear as identifiers and “meet-up” (not yet an official way of naming electronic-to-face-to-face gatherings) at an industry conference. (Join the Meetings Today community for more discussion.)

In 2003, two industry women decided they’d had enough of the lip-service paid to women and leadership in the industry and convened a self-supported gathering of hospitality industry women that met for its 8th year in 2011. Anyone who has ever attended is invited to the larger community of the whole connected electronically.

In the association world, after an industry organization dropped a popular conference, a group of like-minded people put it back together.  They wanted the dynamic community that had formed and wanted to continue the conversation.

How will we build communities in the future? In what ways will we gather? Will dues-required associations in and outside our industry still have meaning? Will large sums paid by individuals or generous sponsorships dictate what happens at these gatherings? In what ways will we “give back” to communities as a result of these communities?

When asked what kind of people show up for the events about which the author wrote, the conference organizer said “People who have a desire for community and don’t live in one. They want to feel like they’re not crazy. They want to connect wit people with the same ideals.” 

Isn’t that what we all desire?

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