“What’s this conference about again?” my wife asks me, as I pack my suitcase getting ready to head to Event Camp East Coast (ECEC).

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what are the topics that’ll be covered?”

“I don’t know.”

“Who are the speakers?”

“I don’t know”.

“Okaaaaay.  Can you at least tell me what format it is?  Workshops?  Seminars? Panels?

“I don’t know.”

She then gives me that look.  “I’m not having an affair, honey,” I reply.  But of course it sure sounds like it.  “It’s this new thing, an UnConference.  This guy wrote a whole book on it.” I show her the ECEC website for good measure, but I’m sure some part of her still has doubts.  I make a mental note to be sure to bring home my name tag for proof (I have collected them for 20 years now) but am really nervous this UnConference thing won’t have them.

So there you have it.  I drove to Philadelphia for a two day conference without having any idea what the topics would be, who would be speaking, and what the format would be.  Oh, and I also paid for this privilege.

Before you try to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge, I should tell you that, it was one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had.  Aside from coming back with lots of new tips and ideas, I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to.

Event Camp is an ongoing series of conferences held around the country, with very few ground rules.  Each one is organized by different people, with a different focus and style.  This one, Event Camp East Coast, was designed to showcase the UnConference format developed by Adrian Segar, author of Conferences That Work. It was well-organized (in their volunteer time – thanks ladies!) by non-profit event consultant Lindsey Rosenthal of Events For Good, and trade show expert Traci Browne of the Trade Show Institute.

1. What’s Your Name?  Who’s Your Daddy?

It starts out with an interactive registration.  The check-in table is inside a networking area, so after you get your credentials you immediately start meeting new people.

Everyone (all 40 of us) then migrate to the Roundtable session, which is a bit of a misnomer because there was no table.  We all sit around the room on chairs, and are briefed on the 4 Freedoms, and similar jargon to make sure everyone feels “safe” to say pretty much whatever they want, as long as it stays in the room.  At this point I’m starting to feel a bit like I’m in a cult, or some kind of EST training session from the 70’s.  I envision trust exercises where I fall backwards into a group of people I’ve never met, talking about my mother, and lots of hugging.

My fears quickly fade away, however, as we’re all instructed to jot down how we got here, what we want to get out of this conference, and what specific experience or expertise we have that others might benefit from.  We go around the room, and each person says their spiel, prefacing their remarks by telling the group what they do for a living.

The process takes a couple of hours, but it’s extraordinarily valuable.  The ‘group therapy’ environment initially seems a bit goofy, but it’s literally an express elevator for everyone to get to know each other.  Two volunteer scribes jot down people’s answers on white board pages, which are posted around the room.

2. The Tribe Has Spoken

We then break for an hour, and then head over to a dinner reception, where those same white board sheets now paper the walls.  After everyone’s had time to relax, eat, drink and mingle, a ton of worksheets are placed on a central table.  Adrian instructs us all to write down any topic for a peer session (which will be held the next day) that we’d like to see.  A little later on we all revisit these sheets and sign up for anything that looks interesting, ranking our interest levels from 1 to 3.  If we feel we can serve as a Facilitator or Expert on a topic we indicate such.

Adrian and his swat team then whisk the sheets away into a room, where they evaluate which sessions have the most, and strongest, interest, weeding out overlapping topics and those without bona fide leaders. And poof!  We have an agenda!  The schedule of topics and facilitators is posted in the morning, and, over the course of the day we have four one-hour time slots, each with 3-4 sessions to choose from.

3. Let the Learning Begin

Some sessions were more workshop-oriented, with everyone contributing ideas in a free-flowing manner, while others had stronger facilitators who clearly drove the subject matter in a more structured format.  Regardless, the key tenet of the day was that the attendees were all 100% engaged in every session.  The reason is clearly that everyone felt a huge sense of ownership because they themselves drove the topic content.  It’s a bit like letting the inmates run the asylum, but it works.

Much will be made by others of the fact that there was no Powerpoint, or other trappings of traditional conferences, but don’t drink that Kool Aid.  That is utterly irrelevant and is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. One of the better classes I attended was given by Carolyn Ray on Conflict Management, in part because she had a ton of content to dish out and she knew her stuff.  She could have had Powerpoint and nobody would have said boo.  Equally effective was a Social Media 101 class by Jay Daughtry of ChatterBachs and Jenise Fryatt of Icon Presentations, where the structure was different, and people literally asked a non-stop barrage of “How do you . . . ?” questions.  So the format has no bearing on the experience.

The day ends with everyone returning to roundtable format where we’re all guided on filling out worksheets detailing the action steps we’re going take after the conference to act on what we’ve learned, followed by a group debrief of what worked at the UnConference and what should be changed.

4.     The Trojan Horse: Why it Works (It’s Not the Reason You Think)

The biggest benefit of this UnConference is the relationship-forming on steroids.  Across the board, everyone agreed we formed more connections, and stronger ones, at this 40 person conference than we would have at a 2,000 person industry expo.  So clearly, size matters, but in reverse.

This format is clearly not for everyone, and there’s a bit too much kumbaya-love-your-brother stuff for most people.  But it definitely works in a way you would never imagine.  The biggest question nagging at me was why.

On the surface it seems to work because of the whole Participant-Driven agenda thing, and there is certainly much to be said of that.  However, you could just as easily have the participants create the agenda online in advance, but the networking would be considerably diminished. Online ordering of medicines can be made quickly and conveniently as there. Ultimately, I think the idea of the attendees choosing the content takes a back seat to the following two dynamics, in terms of why this event was so successful.

a)    Group Immersion. In analyzing this experience, I feel that it was the whole group being together for the Roundtable, and then the course selection process over dinner, that was the ultimate driver of the relationship-building process.  We could just as easily had the group Roundtable (where we get to know each other) lay the groundwork for the networking at dinner, and we would have formed equally strong bonds, even if the agenda had been pre-set the next day for us.

Contrast this to a typical conference, where people simply are not forced into a networking mash-up like this, and its no wonder they don’t form as strong connections.  It was literally impossible for anyone to fall through the cracks; everyone got immediately swept up into the flow of the event and was steadily woven into the fabric of group experience.

b)   The Twitter Effect.  For this group in particular, the majority had long formed bonds online through the EventProfs chats on Twitter, but had never met.  Though this is not a requirement for success, in this instance there’s no question that it significantly amplified the Group Immersion effect above.

Across the board everyone had an amazing experience.  However if we are to recommend this conference format to our clients or bosses, we need to understand the key ingredients needed for success, and make sure we don’t tinker with the formula that Adrian has been perfecting over the years.