This weekend I attended a conference that I’ve attended for 10 out of the 12 years that it’s been held. Part of its attraction is the high quality of instruction from experts brought in from all over the world; part is strictly social. Yet, this small conference that started with about 50 people has now grown and been capped at about 800 attendees, and starting to lose its luster.
The organizers wanted to challenge the “big events” in this category, so they paid well for the best instructors, promoted philanthropy during the conference and made sharing and social time the priorities. Word spread, and the event became the gold standard in the industry.
In the beginning…only 12 years ago, we sent our entries in by mail. As the numbers of attendees increased, the organizers switched to state-of-the-art conference software. But with demand soaring, the software crashed several years in a row. Apparently, no other conference in the U.S. experiences nearly all its attendees trying to go online and out-maneuver their colleagues for the best instructors and time slots–all on the first morning that registration opens.
The software problem was solved only to have the venue max out at full capacity. So the event was moved to a larger city, a second schedule of mini-classes was added on top of the daily schedule, and the small (5 local vendors) marketplace was enlarged to a ballroom-sized space in the new hotel. Demand surged.
Since the local organizers never anticipated attendees flying in from all over the world to experience this wonderfully inspiring event, they decided to cap the attendance and not move to an even larger venue. The thinking went that the cache of attending would be preserved, the logistics would remain manageable and everyone would be happy. Not so.
Grumblings started a few years ago and are rising to a more vocal level this year. I noticed this year that fewer local people are attending. Those flying in for the conference are questioning whether it’s worth the time and money traveling only to get one or two classes during the weekend. Even with a cap, the organizers can’t control whether 100 people manage to register for 8 half-day classes or 800 people are only able to grab one class. And then there is a lodging issue. With only two hotels within walking distance, attendees who spend too much time registering find that the hotel blocks have already sold out.
What’s a brand to do? The organizers have few extra hours and absolutely no space to add more offerings. They’ve even stopped announcing the registration time on opening day to try and be more egalitarian and leave it to luck if registrants are on their internet devices at exactly the right time to get a spot.
Should they move to a bigger venue? Hire more instructors? Use a lottery system–and if so, how many classes would people be allowed?
Meantime, the brand is tarnishing because those who do attend aren’t getting the experience they had in the past, or hope to have based on word-of-mouth.
What would you do if your success was killing your brand?