Where do you get the most enjoyment from your conference attendance? Do you like going to sessions and learning about new things? Do you enjoy more of the social aspect of meeting friends and networking with your peers? Maybe it’s something else entirely?
It’s The Big Show
When you look at shows like Cisco Live, VMworld, or Interop ITX, there’s a lot going on. There are diverse education tracks attended by thousands of people. You could go to Interop and bounce from a big data session into a security session, followed by a cloud panel. You could attend Cisco Live and never talk about networking. You could go to VMworld and only talk about networking. There are lots of opportunities to talk about a variety of things.
But these conferences are huge. Cisco and VMware both take up the entire Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. When in San Francisco, both of these events dwarf the Moscone Center and have to spread out into the surrounding hotels. That means it’s easy to get lost or be overlooked. I’ve been to Cisco Live before and never bumped into people I know from my area that said they were going, even when we were at the same party. There are tens of thousands of people roaming the halls.
That means that these conferences only work well if you can carve out your own community. Cisco Live has certainly done that over the years. There’s a community of a few hundred folks that are active on social media and have really changed the direction of the way Cisco engages with the community. VMworld has their various user groups as well as VMUnderground constantly pushing the envelope and creating more organic community engagement.
You Think You Know Me
The flip side is the smaller boutique conferences that have sprung up in recent years. These take a single aspect of a technology and build around it. You get a very laser-focused event with a smaller subset of attendees based on similar interests. It’s a great way to instantly get massive community involvement around an idea. Maybe it’s Monitorama. Or perhaps it’s OSCon. Or even GopherCon. You can see how these smaller communities are united around a singular subject and have great buy in.
However, the critical mass needed to make a boutique conference happen is much greater per person. Cisco Live and VMworld are going to happen every year. There are no less than 10,000 – 15,000 people that would come to either no matter what. Even if 50% of last year’s attendees decided to stay home this year, the conference would happen.
On the flip side, if 50% of the DockerCon or OpenStack Summit attendees stayed home next year, you’d see mass panic in the community. People would start questioning why you’re putting on a show for 2,500 – 3,000 users. It’s one thing to do it when you’re small and just getting started. But to put on a show for those numbers now would be a huge decision point and things would need to be discussed to see what happens going forward.
Cisco Live and VMworld are fun because of their communities. But boutique conferences exist because of their communities. It’s important to realize that and drastic changes in a smaller conference community have huge ripples throughout the conference. Two hundred Twitter users don’t have much impact on the message at Cisco Live. But two hundred angry users at DockerCon can make massive changes happen. Each member of the community is amplified the smaller the conference they attend.
Anyone that knows me knows that I love the community. I love seeing them grow and change and develop their own voice. It’s why I work for Tech Field Day. It’s why I go to Cisco Live every year. It’s why I’m happy to speak at VMUnderground events. But I also realize how important the community can be to smaller events. And how quickly things can fall apart when the community is fractured or divided. It’s critical for boutique conferences to harness the power of their communities to get off the ground. But you also have to recognize how important they are to you in the long run. You need to cultivate them and keep the focused on making everything better for everyone.