The Ideas-Conference Boom

New York magazine landed in my mailbox this week, with a story, "Those Fabulous Confabs," that comes straight from the heart of the meetings industry.

It’s a gossipy look at the growth and evolution of the TED conference, and dozens of similar conferences, like PopTech and the Aspen Ideas Festival, that have sprung up in its wake.

Audience at TedGlobal 2010

The story covers some of the same ground I did in a story last year, although I was more starry-eyed about the trend. And if you were at 2012 Convening Leaders in San Diego, there’s a good chance you already know what TED’s founder, Richard Saul Wurman, who is quoted in the article, has to say about conferences. (Or you can read Executive Editor Chris Durso’s interview with Wurman.)

The story asks a question about the new conferences which nagged at me:  “Are we running out of things to say?” I’m not sure if editors were just trying to be provocative, but the notion that a few dozen or even few hundred conferences could scratch the surface of what there is to say about sustainability, creativity, or solving global problems, just for starters, is one I can’t take seriously. Organizers’ judgment about who and what is worth hearing may fail, or we may be running out of time to listen to all those ideas, but those are different problems.

What I also found interesting was the short shrift the article gives to attendees. Other than an elite group of speakers and A-listers, ideas-conference attendees are painted as a pathetic and grasping lot. (The story begins with an anecdote about an attempted mugging of a TED conference attendee for his badge.)

The article recounts the value that speakers get from the connections they make from such conferences, and it seems likely to me that attendees —who mostly don’t have a voice in the story — could tell similar stories. The conferences aren’t proliferating simply because they offer content that, in many cases, is available on the Web. Attendees go for the opportunity to connect, and I don’t think they are so clueless they would continue to attend if there wasn’t something to be gained.

I would love to hear what you think.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.