Big Ideas

How “Conference Refugees” Can Inform Your Event Strategy

Sociologist Josh Packard's research looks into the decline in trust in large institutions, like churches. His insights can help your meetings thrive in the future.

Josh Headshot[1]While his book Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are Done With Church but Not Their Faith is about congregants who stop attending church, Josh Packard, Ph.D., has a larger and more secular audience in his sights: conference-goers. Packard, who co-wrote Church Refugees with Ashleigh Hope, is a sociologist, professor, and researcher at the University of Northern Colorado, focusing on institutional participation in America. “My research,” he told Convene, “is simply about why people join and then ultimately end up leaving voluntary organizations.”

Does Packard’s work suggest that the events industry is at risk? For sure. Packard shared  how “conference refugees” — who find the hallway more appealing than the breakout room — are pointing the way for meeting professionals to adapt.

Where do you see similarities between the way people experience a church service and a face-to-face event?

There are some consistent things that come up between the two, primarily [around the question] of the ultimate value in this experience. Not so long ago, I think that the value in that experience is that you’re getting connected to some expert information that you couldn’t get otherwise. In other words, the value is on the stage.

And that’s not the case anymore?

No, and let me give you an example. I was just at a religious conference, and it was incredibly dissatisfying. I could have downloaded the podcast of [the speakers] talking for two days instead of having to drag myself all the way to Denver to go to this thing. We [the attendees] never talked. I remember thinking, They don’t understand. They think they’re the biggest and the most important resource here. [The organization hosting the event tends to] think, for lack of a better term, that they are the brand, but they’re not the brand anymore. The brand is all the people sitting in the seats. It’s not that we want to convene people and say, “Okay, run around haphazardly and hopefully strike up conversations.” There’s still a role for that guide or that expert on the stage to convene people around topics that matter and problems that they’re facing.

In your book, people whom you call “the dones” share how attending church didn’t seem necessary in their lives. What connection can you make to conference attendees?

We started digging into the other research around institutional engagement, as well as our own data, as people were self-disclosing that they didn’t find any value in big institutional expression. We realized that this is more about an era or time that we live in, and much, much less about generations. It’s not that generations don’t matter — we’re going to see a little bit more of this with younger folks than older — but it’s certainly not the thing I would hone in on, like, we need to create a different conference experience or different voluntary institutional experience for younger people. People want authenticity and stuff that matters — at all ages. They’re not so concerned about style as much as they want those other core [elements] — community, conversation, participation.

How do you think event organizers can reach those people who aren’t interested in traditional conferences?

We need to start paying more attention to what people want as opposed to what they don’t want — which I think is one of the things that academics tend to do, spend too much time as critics and not enough time devising what would be good solutions. What are people bringing to the table as opposed to what they’re taking away from the table? A lot of the people who are opting out are some of your most highly engaged and energized people. They’re opting out precisely because the conference is low-hanging fruit, and they want meat.

What do you mean by that?

We’ve watched institutions decline and institutional engagement and trust go down over the last 10 or 20 years in all sectors. We’ve also seen this simultaneous rise of the alternatives. As people trust their hospitals and drug companies less, we’ve seen this rise in homeopathic medicine. As people distrust their schools and their school boards, we see this rise in the home-school move-ment. The innovation is already out there. I would advocate for meeting designers to understand where is the bleeding edge in terms of truly inno-vative and meaningful content.

People still care about education. They still want to know what they should be doing with their business, and they still want to connect with one another to help solve problems. If you’re not providing that, these people who are opting out first — because they’re entrepreneurial at heart and they’re innovators — are figuring out other ways to get that. Maybe it’s online. Maybe it’s in small and regional gatherings. It’s already happening. The task of the innovative meeting planner is to figure out what to do next as much as the task is to go out and find out what’s already happening.

People don’t care about [rituals and institutions] as much anymore. They’re looking for the kinds of rituals that return value to their business. Part of that is because of the changing structure of the ways and reasons why they’re there. The nature of work is shifting and becoming more contingent. You’re having fewer and fewer [attendees] who are working for companies that are footing the bill for them to come to this conference. It’s not because people have changed, it’s because their situations have changed. Forty percent of the workforce is going to be contingent labor by 2020 [according to the U.S. Department of Labor]. They’re coming on their own dime, increasingly.

What that means is that they don’t have these big expense accounts. They don’t have the institutional knowledge that they used to have when they had one employer who had been around for a long time. A lot of people out there are not lost, but they’re a little bit confused. The waters are murky. They’re looking for people to help them navigate. 

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.