Engagement + Marketing

Totally Radical

The World Domination Summit and Awesomeness Fest have two things in common: oddly compelling names and a commitment to helping attendees live a purposeful life.

World Domination Summit
Portland, Ore. July 5-7

An event called the World Domination Summit might call to mind a gathering of des-pots creating sinister plots, or perhaps an image of Dr. Evil from the “Austin Powers” trilogy. In reality, the World Domination Summit (WDS), held for the second year this past July 5–7 in Portland, Ore., is a gathering of artists and entrepreneurs, students and retirees, stay-at-home moms and travelers, bloggers and lawyers.

“Most of our attendees seem to be self-driven and looking for a way to live on their own terms,” said J.D. Roth, a WDS organizer and founder of the personal finance blog getrichslowly.org. “I think the common thread is that each of these folks is seeking to find meaning or purpose outside of the ‘American Dream.’ They want to pursue their own dreams on their own terms.”

So what exactly does a summit that encourages attendees to pursue their own dreams look like? “At many conferences, the content and structure is dictated to the attendees,” Roth said. “They’re not active participants. … With WDS, our goal is to have the attendees actively participate in the creation of the conference, which gives them a sense of ownership.”

The Heart of Every Story

To that end, WDS organizers ask participants what sort of content they’d like to see and hear — with the results this year ranging from workshops on topics such as how to get a book deal and becoming a better photographer in 60 minutes, to keynote-style speakers like Quiet: The Power of Introverts author Susan Cain (watch a snippet of Convene’s interview with Cain at convn.org/susan-cain) and new-media expert Chris Brogan. And attendees don’t just sit through sessions, which this year took place at the 2,276-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall (aka “the Schnitz”) in downtown Portland and various venues nearby. WDS 2012 participants also built a house, jumped off a bridge, swam across the Willamette River, and headed out on a number of self-guided walking tours of the city with other attendees.

When first conceiving WDS two years ago, founder Chris Guillebeau set out to create an event that would be focused around a central question: How do we live a remarkable life in a conventional world? It may seem odd that his method for answering that question — convening a meeting — is in fact rather conventional. But Guillebeau, whose “Art of Nonconformity” (AONC) project at chrisguillebeau.com chronicles his writing on “how to change the world by achieving significant, personal goals while helping others at the same time,” hoped to draw remarkable people who would focus on the values of community, adventure, and service.

And while WDS is partially traditional, with general sessions and breakout-style workshops, its content is anything but typical. As part of this year’s program, for example, Escape From Cubicle Nation blogger Pamela Slim demonstrated martial arts and “cubicle escape,” LaunchBooks Literary Agency founder David Fugate sought to demystify the publishing industry for potential authors, and The Fire Starter Sessions author Danielle LaPorte offered what her website calls “a modern-day pep talk and soul-centered Q&A for people ready to shine brighter than they ever have.” About six weeks before the event, attendees were able to sign up for scheduled workshops on a first-come, first-served basis. Other official activities, including yoga in the park and various afterparties, were open to everyone.

Although participants listened to and learned from scheduled speakers, they were strongly encouraged to tell their own stories and be inspired by one another. “Inspiration was at the heart of every story,” life coach and WDS 2012 attendee Farnoosh Brock wrote in a post recap-ping the event on her blog, at prolificliving.com. “Stories like overcoming breast cancer and living to play it in a humorous song on the guitar, or building a water charity that helps deliver clean water to the poorest villages of Africa. … Stories of waking up to a miserable career after 20 years of service to a company and turning things around because it’s never too late. Stories of not taking no for an answer and not playing by the conventional rules and systems; stories of finding solutions rather than playing a victim all your life.”

Growing Pains

The summit’s location is a key aspect of that experience. Aside from the fact that both Roth and Guillebeau live in Portland, Roth explained that the city has the perfect character for the ideas that they want WDS to embody — it is filled with people living unconventionally and trying to break out of traditional molds. WDS’s website even jokingly boasts that “The city of Portland itself will be on full display, from food carts to craft stores. See hipsters and other people with no obvious means of employment in their native habitat.”

In just its second iteration, WDS doubled in size — from 500 attendees in 2011 to 1,000 this year — with tickets selling out five months in advance and a waiting list of more than 800 people. Two hundred people without tickets showed up just for the unofficial events associated with the conference. WDS has plans to expand again, care-fully, next year. Organizers are mindful of growing pains. “How do we keep a sense of community as the conference grows?” Roth said. “How do we make sure each attendee feels included and is able to share their unique skills and experiences?”

Of course, there are also logistical issues — including concerns this year about WDS being able to serve double the number of people as well as it had the previous year. Organizers found that the opening and closing parties — complete with blogger dunkings, a senior-citizen marching band, sumo suits, and, of course, Portland’s famous Voo-doo Donuts — were easier than they expected, but that coordinating workshops was more difficult. “When you double your attendance, you’re not just doubling the work on workshops,” Roth said. “You’re quadrupling it.”

It’s not as though WDS’s organizers are meeting professionals by trade. Ten planning-team members, who spend the entire year working together on a volunteer basis, come from various walks of life. The Portland-based members do have specific roles — Roth is the speaker liaison, for instance — but everyone helps out where needed. Another team of volunteers also comes together as staff during the weekend of the event itself.

While few details have been released about WDS 2013, the conference’s website offers some clues. Attendees can expect that main-stage events will still be held at the Schnitz, but breakouts and smaller sessions will occur in nearby hotels. Perhaps thanks to Susan Cain’s influence, there will again be a Highly Sensitive Person Lounge, with soothing hammocks and green tea for introverts and other participants who need time to them-selves. And private, attendee-organized events will include yoga in the park, a 5k run, and “our attempt to set some kind of Guinness world record.”

Although registration for WDS 2013 won’t open until January, potential attendees are encouraged to put their names on a waiting list on the event’s website to get the first news about the on-sale date. It would be prudent to do so — WDS 2012 sold out in just 13 minutes, and organizers expect similar demand next year.

The $100 Investment

First conceived of and essentially operating as a nonprofit event (although organizers have not filed for legal status), the World Domination Summit lost approximately $30,000 its first go-round. But with a marked increase in attendees and higher ticket prices this year, organizers found themselves with money left over after registration closed.

There was a debate over what to do with the funds. Save for next year? Donate to charity? Start a foundation? But when an anonymous donor came forward with a gift for a WDS-related project, the team realized it would have roughly $100,000 to work with — or about $100 per attendee. WDS distributed that amount to each person at WDS 2012, asking them only to “do something amazing” with the money.

“Already we’ve heard some great stories about how this money is being used,” WDS organizer J.D. Roth said. “We look forward to sharing some of these stories at WDS 2013.”

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Awesomeness Fest
Riviera Maya, Mexico
Nov. 2-5

Imagine a conference where speakers and attendees have a simultaneous, truly collaborative experience, making real and lasting connections. Somewhere tropical and gorgeous, with a program that raises thousands of dollars for people in need. It would be, in a word, awesome, right?

That’s why they call it Awesomeness Fest — an annual nonprofit, four-day experiential conference for social entrepreneurs that debuted in Costa Rica in November 2010. “What makes Awesomeness Fest so unique,” said Kara Zigay, an Awesomeness Fest representative, “is that we don’t separate the speakers from the attendees. There is no backstage.”

A Certain Amount of Exclusivity

Held this year on Nov. 2–5 at the Paradisus Playa del Carmen La Esmeralda resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico, Awesomeness Fest annually draws 250 to 300 attendees, ranging from writers and musicians to marketing directors of Fortune 500 companies — all looking to affect the world in a positive way. Past speakers have included Lisa Nichols, bestselling author and one of the stars of the self-help book and documentary The Secret, and Tiffany Persons, founder of Shine on Sierra Leone, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life for communities in Sierra Leone.

“We always want to focus on attracting amaz-ing speakers and participants,” said Vishen Lakhiani, the man behind Awesomeness Fest. “The magic is really created by the mix of the people who attend.”

Lakhiani is co-founder and CEO of Mindval-ley, a company that “invests in businesses in the field of human potential,” according to its website. Awesomeness Fest was inspired by annual company retreats that Lakhiani hosted for Mindvalley employees along with thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and personal-growth experts, during which participants would gather in exotic locales to exchange ideas. Soon, word spread outside Mind-valley, and more and more people in the world of social entrepreneurship showed interest in attending the retreats. So, three years ago, Lakhiani created Awesomeness Fest, a place for spiritual leaders and innovators, teachers and entrepreneurs, to meet and make crucial connections.

To ensure quality interaction among attendees and speakers, a certain amount of exclusivity is necessary. “Making sure that the right people are there is always a priority,” Lakhiani said. Attendees must apply for an invitation to the event, then make it through two rounds of phone interviews with Awesomeness Fest staff. “We generally ask people what they’re looking to get out of the conference,” said Caela Gillies, an Awesomeness Fest employee. “We answer any questions they have, and basically see if they’d be a good fit.” The types of people Awesomeness Fest organizers search for are those who are passionate about personal growth; whether they’re yoga instructors or independent filmmakers, if they’re working to make positive change in their communities, then they meet Awesomeness Fest requirements.

Vision, Self-Mastery, Connections

Each year, Awesomeness Fest — a mix of “learning, presentations, parties, networking, and excursions,” Lakhiani said — encompasses three major themes: vision, self-mastery, and connections. “We select the speakers and the elements of our program very carefully, to find the best angle for all our main themes,” Lakhiani said. “We incorporate TED -style talks on personal development and entrepreneurship with very powerful individual or group exercises that help improve self-mastery and build deep connections with the other attendees.” Past sessions have included “Change Your Frequency, Change Your Reality,” in which “intuitive medium, healer, and facilitator for consciousness” Christie Marie Sheldon described to attendees how to create positive change by adjusting their inner energy; and “Go Big or Go Home,” during which entrepreneur and surfing aficionado Joe Walsh told the story of following his vision and founding a surf camp in Costa Rica. And, instead of getting on a plane and moving on to motivate another group of delegates at another conference, Sheldon and Walsh stayed for the duration of Awesomeness Fest, participating in team-building activities like sunrise yoga and surf lessons, and attending theme parties and beach bonfires — creating genuine, elevated networking opportunities.

Those connections are key to the Awesomeness Fest experience. Once you attend, you become part of the official “Unique People tribe” — which continues on past the conference via communication through a private Facebook group, accessible only to past attendees. “It’s the whole experience of belonging to the tribe that aims to change the world,” Lakhiani said. “A big evolution in the event since its inception three years ago is that it has become a movement.”

He added: “Movements need to be owned by their tribe, so starting from last year, Awesomeness Fest is a nonprofit event.” The event raised $30,000 in 2011 for charities of the tribe’s choice, including the Pachamama Alliance, an indigenous-rights organization; AIESEC, the world’s largest youth-run organization; and Shine on Sierra Leone. And the movement is spreading. “We’re finding that as the event and brand become more recognized,” Lakhiani said, “we have a larger pool of people who would like to get invited and attend. Our hope is to eventually expand Awesomeness Fest and host a second annual event in Asia.”

As the tribe begins to grow, Awesomeness Fest organizers continue to innovate. “We’re placing a greater focus on experiential and interactive presentations this year,” Lakhiani said, “and working in more time for networking and mingling among the attendees.” Location will also be important, as this year’s conference was slated for the Mayan Riviera; according to the Mayan calendar, the world will enter into a new age in 2012. “We want to focus on the overarching theme of entering into this new era as the best possible version of yourself,” said Lakhiani, who plans to focus on “creating break-throughs at this critical transition period.”

He added: “Many people have come up with epic business ideas, found business partners or clients, and made lifelong friendships at the event. We want to make sure to create a space for these incredible connections to happen.”

Hand Selected

Awesomeness Fest isn’t the first event to discover the benefits of exclusivity. Laura Brunow Miner, founder of Phoot Camp — an annual invitation-only photography retreat and workshop held at various campgrounds, RV parks, and estates throughout the United States — requires potential applicants to submit a self-portrait and a short essay, giving her “a pretty good feel into the identity of the person,” Miner said. “The No. 1 most important thing to me is relationship building, so having an application process allows me to be pretty dang sure that the people who come are going to be amazing.”

Each year, Miner receives more than 200 applicants for the two-day, 35-person event, and from them she chooses roughly 10 to 15 new attendees; about two-thirds of participants are returning artists. “I Google them like crazy and do tons of research,” Miner said. Because of the number of applicants, she’s added a $20 application fee to cover processing time. Another reason it’s especially important that Miner be selective about delegates is that Phoot Camp is an attendee-led event. She said: “People who attend the event then volunteer to lead different sessions.”

A frequent speaker, Miner has seen this model work from the perspective of both organizer and attendee. This year, she spoke at The Do Lectures, an annual, invitation-only ideas festival at Fforest, a luxury campsite in West Wales, U.K. There are 100 attendees and 20 speakers at The Do Lectures, and all of them eat, sleep, socialize, and learn together over the course of three days.

“The difference between The Do Lectures, where people have to apply to attend, and a normal [conference] is I’d just kind of hang out with the speakers at a normal one,” Miner said. “There were probably plenty of interesting attendees there, but I didn’t have time to meet them or give them the chance to have a conversation.” By specifically choosing attendees, the value of networking skyrockets. “At The Do Lectures everyone there was really interesting. It didn’t really matter who you were talking to, you knew they’d be interesting because they’d gone the extra step of screening attendees.”

To watch The Do Lectures, visit youtube.com/dolectures.

Katie Kervin

Katie Kervin was formerly assistant editor of Convene.