Want Better Engagement? Make Your Convention Unconventional

3 things you can borrow from the innovative C2 Montreal business event to improve your conferences.

Associations have been hearing this for a few years now: Educational programming needs to evolve. The “sage on the stage” might not be the best way to impart information anymore.

SmithBucklin’s 2017 Circuit publication lists 20 trends, issues, and developments that the company sees rising to the fore this year. No. 2 on the list is the need for more unconventional education. As an example, the report discusses the North American Wholesale Lumber Association’s (NAWLA) Executive Management Institute, which offers industry leaders a chance to address their business and organizational challenges in small-group sessions facilitated by industry leaders. In other words, peer-driven education.

“Monologue is out and dialogue is in,” said Richard St-Pierre, president of C2 Montréal, about the future of conferences. For the last six years, C2 has been bringing together people from around the world to explore how to redefine business through a closer look at the relationship between commerce and creativity.

In the process, C2 is redefining the business conference in a bold way. And while it might not be possible for you to hoist your attendees high in the air and ask them to come up with more creative solutions to their problems, the philosophical underpinnings of much of the C2 experience can translate to the association conference world.

Here are three concrete ways to take what has made C2 such a success and apply it to your conferences.

1. Give participants more of a voice. The rise of social media doesn’t just mean that we all have more ways to kill time—and way more pictures of cute animals and delicious meals to scroll through. It also means that people are increasingly accustomed to providing their opinion and expertise on any given topic.

The bulk of C2 content occurs through master classes, workshops, labs, and brain dates, which involve 150, 40, 8, and 2 people, respectively. Therefore, a large portion of the conference allows participants to voice their questions and offer solutions.

Consider offering more small-group discussions on hot topics for each membership segment. Train member volunteers as facilitators and set these groups free to deal with concrete issues in the field.

2. Make the physical and digital space for connection. “Organizations can do more matchmaking,” St-Pierre said. He notes that conferences are often held in spaces that don’t have enough room for people to gather after a presentation or session. “Create an environment where people can have a physical dialogue outside the conference room, maybe set up high-level tables with a barista nearby. That doesn’t cost millions of dollars, but it changes the dynamic.”

And associations can connect members after the conference. If you are using beacon technology to track attendees, then you know which ones attended the same sessions. Connect them to each other. “You could create a Facebook group, and the community can emerge by itself,” St-Pierre said.

3. Be more intentional about networking. A major benefit of attending a C2 conference are the one-on-one “brain dates” that participants can schedule with one another. Most of this scheduling happens before the conference through the event app. Attendees are encouraged to create their profile and make their offers or requests: what information they can provide another attendee or what information are they looking for. Not all of the offers are business-related, and that’s not a bad thing. Work and life are connected, after all. At the scheduled time, a matchmaker connects the daters.

Sure, it’s more work than just gathering everyone in a room and hoping people connect. But not everyone is a born schmoozer, so taking some extra time to facilitate fruitful interactions could significantly increase the value of your conference.

C2 Montréal is a spectacle—complete with a Ferris wheel and tightrope walkers—but it is very intentional about connecting people. “People want to share their ideas,” St-Pierre said. “C2 is a dialogue among thousands of people at the same time.” And the people like that.