Coworking Conferences Must Evolve
In the last two years I’ve been to nine coworking conferences, large and small:
- GCUC Los Angeles 2016
- Coworking Europe Brussels 2016
- Coworking Budapest 2017
- CU Asia Chiang Mai 2017
- Techfestival Coworking Summit Copenhagen 2017
- Coworking Europe Dublin 2017
- Coworking Unconference Bansko, Bulgaria 2017
- CU Asia Penang 2018
- Cowork Bremen 2018
I enjoy attending coworking events because I love meeting the people in our industry. Coworking people are so passionate, hard-working, and values-oriented. These events are great places to connect to fellow coworking practitioners, both new and experienced alike. And if you’ve never been to one, I urge you to give it a go.
But sadly, Houston, we have a problem.
The Problem with Coworking Conferences
Coworking conferences are leaky.
Actually, there are a few problems, but we’ll mostly focus on one for this article. And that problem is all about coworking veterans.
It turns out that the most experienced people in our industry are increasingly unlikely to attend any given coworking event. Many coworking practitioners skip the conference circuit altogether, never having anticipated value there in the first place. These days, when it comes to attending coworking events, many coworking veterans’ attitudes run from reluctant at best, to avoidant at worst.
The absence of these highly experienced coworking professionals is incredibly problematic for coworking conferences. As a conference organizer, you want the most experienced people to be in attendance. They are a source of great content. They are what makes it valuable for would be ticket-buyers to attend. But sadly, coworking veterans don’t attend coworking events at anywhere near the rate that newbies do. At least not anymore.
There are two main reasons for this decreasing attendance by the most experienced among us.
We’re talking about this again ?
Coworking veterans are just like the rest of us when it comes to novelty. They need new and interesting content in order to feel engaged. But coworking veterans are becoming more and more apathetic to the idea of attending conferences because the content simply isn’t new to them anymore. They’ve heard it all before. They’ve delivered keynotes on much of it before.
Coworking veterans are bored.
Once a coworking veteran is no longer interested in the content, the next best thing they can do is contribute, teach, and set an example for new and upcoming coworking founders and teams. They begin paying it all forward. And all this paying-it-forward feels wonderful in the beginning.
They officially become coworking thought leaders. Oooooh, aaaahhhh!
But the joy doesn’t always last. I suppose delivering the same messages to a new set of hopefuls year after year gets old. How could it not?
What’s worse, most coworking veterans that contribute or speak at these events are rarely paid for their contributions. Often their travel expenses, such as flights and accommodations, also go unpaid.
In fact, these highly experienced and valuable content contributors are sometimes told they have to pay for their own conference tickets!
That’s not what we’re about.
But boredom is only one piece of the puzzle. The other half of has to do with values conflicts.
The coworking conferences and events which we know and love today almost invariably started as grassroots, non-commercial, and values-driven gatherings of small groups of coworking practitioners. Take GCUC, for example, which started as a very small and unofficial meetup one random day at SXSW, and has grown into a well-recognized international conference with annual events in countries all around the world.
The growth of coworking events like GCUC is a good thing, a natural thing. It is a reflection of the growth and prosperity of our industry.
However, the natural trajectory of any popular and successful event, be it coworking related or otherwise, is to become bigger, more hierarchical, more closed, more commercial, and, if left unchecked, to eventually adhere to its original values in word only.
The OG coworking practitioners hate this. When they feel that an event is no longer about the community and the movement we’re collectively advancing, but about money, ego, and gatekeeping, they jump ship.
The blame game.
Of course, it’s easy to dish out criticism to conference organizers. I’ve heard a good amount from many coworking leaders and certainly delivered some myself, but it’s not necessarily the organizers’ fault.
The truth is, organizing these events takes a lot of time, money, and energy. Add to that the relative smallness of the coworking industry, and a conference organizer can easily be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Think about the tech conferences you hear about. You know, the big ones. Dreamforce, CES, Techcrunch Disrupt. These events raise millions of dollars in sponsorship money and command an attendance of thousands, even hundreds of thousands. In contrast, a larger coworking conference would be ecstatic if they raised between $50-100K with 400 attendees. Comparatively that’s peanuts.
Also, add to that the relatively high expectations of coworking conference-goers. They want delicious food, impressive content, beautiful venues, flawless audio and video, and epic parties. All for less than many coworking spaces charge for a fixed desk membership.
So no, it’s not necessarily the fault of coworking event organizers. It’s also the natural result of being in a small-but-growing industry that has an insatiable appetite for more and better experiences.
However, just because conference organizers have signed up for a tough game, doesn’t mean I’m saying the game itself can be used an an excuse. Instead, conferences and the people who organize them need to evolve.
So meta, bro!
Conferences need to evolve because we’re at an inflection point in coworking. We have become a bona fide industry. We’ve begun to have conversations about things happening to and within the coworking industry itself as opposed to being mere participants in the industry. We’ve moved past exchanging best practices with other coworking enthusiasts to a place where we’re doing things like codifying the varying types of flexible workspaces that have latched onto the term ‘coworking.’
It’s official. We’ve gone meta.
Because of this meta-ness, conference organizers can’t merely build on top of what they’ve done before. At least not if they hope to keep the new coworking veterans around and win back the ones who left. To do that they have to look at the game completely differently and provide as much value for the coworking old guard as they do for the newbies.
Reintegrating and keeping the veterans around will take work, but not as much as you would think.
Here’s a few simple things I think we need to do.
How Coworking Events Must Evolve
Now, that’s something new!
If coworking veterans are bored, un-bore them.
The coworking elite are no longer satisfied with entry-level conversations about community building, marketing, membership structures, and event management. It’s time for advanced content.
Advanced sessions can take many forms. They certainly must be niche and must require some prior knowledge, which each present some challenges, but none that can’t be overcome.
1. Overcoming the challenges of niche content.
It stands to reason that if you plan a topic in advance that is incredibly niche, you run the risk of having too small of a group attending the session. But there’s an easy solution to this problem.
Planning the topic in collaboration with the coworking veterans who will attend the session and making them pre-register is that solution. Using Typeform, Mailchimp, Eventbrite (or another ticket platform), and small conversations leading up to the event, it should be easy enough to plan advanced content with and for the people who the content is for. The rest is just marketing.
The session can be very informal. Coworking veterans aren’t expecting a lavish presentation and light show. They merely want to be engaged with new content that is relevant to them, and they will turn up if it is.
2. Overcoming the exclusivity problem.
Another criticism I’ve heard about advanced content is that it would have to be exclusive in order to prevent the session from turning into another how-do-we-define-coworking conversation or some other inane exchange about community. Yes, we all love community, but no, we don’t need to talk about it at every session. And so the thinking goes: we should bar newbies from advanced sessions.
But, of course, the problem with barring newbies from advanced sessions is: we’re against it! Exclusivity goes against the very fiber of what coworking stands for, at least to most coworking practitioners.
It turns out there’s a way around the exclusivity problem that doesn’t involve excluding people.
The way forward is not to restrict the number of people in the room based on experience, but to protect the conversation that needs to be had. This means three things:
- A fantastic moderator who will keep people on track
- A clear distinction between novice and advanced content tracks on all materials
- A caveat, warning, heads-up, etc., on all materials, as well as verbally spoken at the start of the session, that basically says, “This is an advanced session on XYZ. By being here, we assume you already know about A, B, and C. Regardless of experience level, everybody is welcome to stay, but we will not be discussing or defining A, B, or C. If you insist on discussing A, B, or C, we will kindly ask you to choose another session.”
That’s it. Not so bad.
However, we’re not in the black yet. There’s one more problem to overcome.
3. Overcoming scheduling conflicts.
The last challenge with advanced content is all about scheduling conflicts. During the main conference day at most coworking events, the experienced coworking veterans are usually participating in or hosting panel discussions, delivering keynotes, and are generally interested in mingling with other practitioners they may not have seen for over a year.
That means the first day is out as far as advanced content sessions go. No advanced content on the main day.
Instead, advanced content must happen during the Unconference:
- Run the Unconference as normal, but add a single fixed track for the pre-scheduled advanced content
- The fixed track can be broken into however many advanced sessions are scheduled
- Dedicate a team or a team member to the fixed track/advanced attendees (this is about making the veterans feel taken care of as much as the newbies; also this is to prevent mental competition between the priority of the Unconference and that of the advanced content; we need this person to be 100% in fixed track mode, not partially in Unconference mode)
Now, this does have the downside of preventing veterans from attending Unconference sessions, potentially creating a dearth of experience and insight in the rooms where it’s most wanted.
But I’d like to reframe this problem as an opportunity.
Consider intermediate-level practitioners. They still love the Unconference sessions and already have a lot of experience to contribute. Aside from that, if a coworking veteran is in the paying-it-forward phase of their career, they will likely forego the advanced content in lieu of having the opportunity to convey their valuable knowledge to others. This is a trade-off that can and should be discussed in the planning phase of the advanced sessions.
I was pleased to see the CU Asia 2018 team use a similar format to what I’m proposing during their Unconference day. Instead of running the unconference as normal, the team added a fixed track that was split into two half-days on two separate topics. The fixed track wasn’t focused on advanced content, but their execution of this tactic shows that such a format can be achieved and well-received.
Advanced content is not only achievable, it’s simple to execute and entirely necessary.
No, seriously. You’re charging me to speak?
The next fix we need to implement for coworking events makes me want to scream. So I will.
STOP CHARGING CONTENT PROVIDERS!
If an event organizer asks somebody to moderate a panel, be on a panel, or speak at their event, they should not make them buy a ticket. The speaker is providing value to the event and it’s disrespectful and distasteful to expect value without providing value in return.
In fact, it behooves the event organizer to strategically give some coworking veterans and thought leaders free tickets, if not pay them to attend. Nearly all attendees agree that one of the most important things at any coworking event are the incredible people they meet and the connections they make. Everybody wants to meet the Ashley Proctors, Alex Hillmans, and Varun Chawlas of the coworking world. These are the very people that make going to coworking conferences worthwhile.
What’s more, it stands to reason that a conference would attract more sponsors if the most experienced and influential people people were always there. Coworking event organizers should be doing anything they can to get these people in the room.
At the very least, speakers ought to receive comped tickets, although it’s much better if their travel expenses are also paid for. Lastly, while a mere panelist might not qualify for fully comped ticket, they should be given a substantial discount (perhaps 30–50%).
My final suggestion for coworking conferences is all about prioritizing the expectations and purpose of the events themselves.
Currently there’s a major emphasis on skill sharing at coworking events. They are primarily marketed in a way that conveys an opportunity to learn how to successfully run a coworking space. But I’d argue that’s not the only point of attending, and shouldn’t be the only emphasis, at least not if we want to grow.
We know that people go to other conferences for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with education. So perhaps we can learn from their experience and reframe the brand of the coworking conference into “education+.”
Connection, entertainment, experiences, music, inspiration, fun. These are just a few of the other benefits we could focus on and market for coworking events.
Much like successful coworking spaces intermingle cultural, entertainment, and educational content into their programming mix, coworking events should integrate content that’s seemingly unrelated to coworking, but that actually enhances the experience of attendees.
Now, I might just be a crazy guy that selfishly wants the events I attend to be even better. But these ideas aren’t just mine. Many coworking conference-goers share these feelings, and we’re talking about them at every event. I’m putting this out there in the hope that all coworking event organizers implement some of this feedback.
Because one thing is for sure: the future of coworking events rests in the hands of those who are willing to innovate. And lately there seems to be no lack of people interested in giving it a try. We’re seeing new events pop up all over the world, large and small. And in five years’ time it will be those organizers who are experimental, inclusive, and committed to the growth of the industry and movement that will remain and flourish. The rest will be gone.