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Mind altering: turning your congress into a festival

Festivalisation may sound like a gimmick, but there’s a serious side to it, which might determine whether your congress lives to see another ten years. James Lancaster reports…

The traditional architecture of an association congress hasn’t changed in years.

Pre-congress city tour, tick. Reception to break the ice, tick. Opening ceremony with keynote speech, tick. Parallel sessions 10am – 5.30pm, tick. Gala dinner at a fancy venue, tick. Day Two: more of the same, tick. Closing ceremony with keynote speech, tick. Post-congress tours of the city, tick.

It’s all very familiar and, for a certain demographic, no doubt rather reassuring. It’s also a bit boring. That’s what event planners, keen to improve the delegate experience, think anyway.

Enter ‘festivilisation’ – a new addition to the meetings industry lexicon.

The word refers to the process of making traditional meeting structures more engaging, more immersive, and more tailored to the individual, and it takes its cue from the festival scene.

The oft-cited exemplar is the SXSW (South-by-South-West) festival, in Austin, Texas, which – despite its position on the cutting edge of meetings design – is actually more than 30 years old. The event, which started life as local music festival, has become the world’s leading festival for the interactive, film and music industries, attracting a staggering 400,000 people over 10 days. It now incorporates a 25-track conference that covers a diverse range of topics affected by digitalisation, including: style and retail, health and medicine, media and journalism, food, government, sports…

Its USP is a blend of creativity (including a liberal sprinkling of film and music), technology showcases, and big-name keynote speakers. Johnny Cash, Barack Obama, Melinda Gates, Spike Lee, Nile Rodgers, and leaders from digital giants like Apple, Amazon and Facebook have all spoken at the event. Significantly is has a fluid approach to programming that recognises the synergy between the arts and technology and other sectors and encourages cross-pollination. It is open to ideas.

Other examples of the festivilisation of events include girls and women’s advocacy conference Women Deliver and student tech festival Campus Party, both of which have achieved great engagement levels and a passionate and loyal ‘following’.

It would be reckless to assume these events didn’t pose a threat as well as an opportunity to associations. They have reimagined the conference format – and people have responded with enthusiasm. That should probably sound alarm bells for associations intent on using the same conference template ad infinitum.

But what is the secret to their success?

Well the infusing of music and entertainment certainly helps people drop their guard and make new contacts. If nothing else it gives people something to talk about. And there’s no doubt creativity also increases energy levels, which helps delegates engage with workshops and lectures. Famous speakers who leave delegates feeling uplifted and inspired are an added – if expensive – bonus, too.

But is there something more subtle going on?

Antonio Novaes, asset development director at MCI Brazil and director of Campus Party, said the most crucial component of festivilisation was helping people ‘forget about their daily lives’.

Antonio Novaes, MCI Group

“Behind the concept of festivilisation is time,” he said. “We are putting our audience through a gateway where they are getting time. They forget everything outside the event. That is what you have to do as a planner, make that happen. But how do you do it? Because everyone is so busy, everyone has WhatsApp messages and emails to deal with on top of daily life. So how do you get the attention of delegates? Well at Campus Party we created a huge ‘happening’ – not a fair, not a conference. Campus Party is just Campus Party, we don’t have any competitors. When you produce an event like this you have to make it unique. In that way you can give people a sense of belonging and ownership. And it is important as an organiser to put yourself outside the event.”

One of the clever things Campus Party does is hand the process of deciding which posters to showcase back to the delegates themselves. They turn the whole thing into an online competition, where students take to social media to vote for their favourite video presentations. This not only creates huge pre-show buzz but also a sense that this is their event. Simple, but clever.

Of course, tech is another key driver in the festivilisation of events.

Because the opportunities for information sharing are so great on social media and in open-source publishing, meetings are no longer primarily seen as disseminators of information, but interpreters and presenters of information. Increasingly meetings are places where ideas, already in the public domain, are explored – and that requires interaction. So festivilisation can be seen as a way for associations to rethink the value proposition of their meetings. It’s about doing something with information rather than have someone stand on a stage and simply impart it.

For many associations, the idea of festivalising the annual congress might sound fanciful. But the process is best seen on a sliding scale. It doesn’t have to involve wholesale change. Associations can adopt elements of the festival experience, which could greatly enhance the delegate experience.

The International Ornithologists’ Union transformed its traditional scientific congress of 1,500 avian researchers and conservationists into the IOCongress and Vancouver International Bird Festival.

It wanted to raise public awareness by breaking out of the conference hall.

The seven-day congress and festival went beyond the traditional programme and gathered some 8,000 ornithologists, conservationists, and ‘birders’ in Vancouver, Canada.

The event began with a ‘bird parade’, with hundreds of people wearing locally made bird costumes, and the unveiling of limited edition stamps from Canada Post in honour of the event.

Meanwhile the expo featured 1,000 scientific posters, 80+ exhibitors and, in a break from tradition, opened the door to both delegates and the general public over a six-day period.

The centre-piece of the expo was the ‘Silent Skies Mural’ which featured portraits of endangered bird species painted by professional artists and local school children.

In addition, a speaker series open to the public featured 2017 Whitley Award-winner Purnima Barman and acclaimed science and nature writer Jennifer Ackerman.

Because of the unique program and collaboration with local partners, the event received 54 million media impressions, 245,000 Twitter impressions, more than 150 press mentions, on-air coverage on four local broadcasting organizations, and press mentions in nine international online media outlets.

While the phrase festivilisation is fast becoming common currency amongst meeting planners, there are those who raise a sceptical eyebrow at its practical application.

Christian Mustchlechner, former director of the Vienna Convention Bureau and now a consultant to the meetings industry, says it should be the end point of a process not the beginning.

Christian Mutschlechner

He said: “If you’re a typical medical or scientific association your basic problem starts with the speakers. In most cases they will be used to lecturing in universities, with students who have to be there. A captive audience. If you don’t train them how to embrace a wider audience, how to be empathetic, how to be convincing public speakers, then festivilisation is the least of your worries. Speakers can kill your conference before you’ve even got started, so that’s the real challenge. As for festivilisation. I am not sure about the term. For most associations I think ‘edutainment’ might be more appropriate.”

Festivalisation or edutainment, associations stuck in a comfortable groove have much to think about.