Small-Town, Not Small-Time

The digital tools that make it possible to engage in virtual conversations anywhere mean that there are very few places left that truly are in the middle of nowhere. Guest blogger Sheila Scarborougha writer and speaker specializing in tourism, travel, and social media, brings us the story of how Hutchinson, Kan., pop. 41,000, became host to a conference previously held in New York City, Los Angeles, and London — and more than held its own. 

If there was ever a barn-raising event using the Web instead of wood, it was the 140 Characters Conference SmallTown in Hutchinson, Kansas. Part of an ongoing series of conferences launched by tech strategist Jeff Pulver, SmallTown explored the effects of real-time Web communications on the people, businesses and agricultural issues tied to rural areas and smaller towns. The format is rapid-fire short talks, similar to Twitter, without PowerPoint.

A small group of people connected to make it happen (here’s why SmallTown ended up in Hutchinson and highlights included using an historic downtown Art Deco venue, the Fox Theatre, to host a very 21st century tech event.

Photo by Becky McCray

Any town can bring in tech- or social media-based conferences; the beauty of them is that while the number of attendees may be small by traditional standards, each person tends to have online networks numbering in the hundreds (or thousands) through their blogs, Facebook presence, Twitter, video channels, podcasts, etc.

Some tips on using a small town venue for digital gatherings:

1) Don’t make assumptions about which places can and can’t host. The 140 Characters conferences, for example, “are usually and most effectively held in theaters; in fact, the very first one in New York was based on the idea of [a Twitter-like] one hundred and forty characters gathering together in an off-Broadway theater,” said SmallTown’s lead organizer Becky McCray, who has also spoken at 140 Conferences in London and Detroit. “All we had to do was bring WiFi (wireless Internet) into Hutchinson’s Fox Theatre, and it was perfect.”

2) A can-do attitude in the host town and venue is critical to landing such events. Several towns in other states were in the running to host SmallTown, but only one place had everyone from top to bottom, including those who would provide critical tech support, leaning forward and asking to host. As Hutchinson booster Cody Heitschmidt said to Becky, “Tell us what we have to do in order to get this event.” She did, and they made it happen.

3) Leverage local ties. Those who planned SmallTown all knew each other, often had grown up together, and understood that this was a chance for their entire region to shine. Technology provider HutchNet Wireless was willing to ask a flat rate and provide on-site monitoring and support throughout. A local caterer provided lunch at reasonable prices. A Hutchinson marketing firm even carved Twitter-themed pumpkins for the kickoff Halloween party. When you’re planning and managing an event, it’s powerful to be able to grab the phone and speed-dial a high school classmate for help.

4) Nail down the technology needs and have backup plans for everything. Organizers went the extra mile to run power supply cables down the floor along the theater rows, with plugs that glowed so that busy laptops and phones had easily accessible (and easy to spot) power, no matter where attendees sat. Registered participant numbers swelled in the final days before SmallTown, so tech requirements had to be adjusted accordingly to support the hundreds of people, who ended up pushing out nine gigabytes of data in the first three hours of the conference. One router went down, but HutchNet’s Roy Williams was prepared and hot-swapped it to keep the Internet access up.

5) Both social media and smaller towns are more affordable; play to that advantage. “Jeff Pulver got the conference speakers to reach out to their own communities and networks to draw attendees and attention,” said McCray. “Not a dollar was spent on traditional advertising.” Smart use of discount codes, incentives and referrals also helped to fill seats. The WiFi and tech support cost so much less in a smaller town; the 140 conference in one city did not have WiFi because the asking price was 10 times what it was in Hutchinson, and organizers could not find a sponsor to cover it.

6) Highlight the whole town, not just the venue. Hutchinson featured a Halloween costume party 650 feet down in the Underground Salt Museum and an afterparty in the Kansas Cosmophere and Space Center. That meant more tweets, photos, Facebook updates and general online buzz.

The impact of a digital event will stretch well beyond the venue or the day itself. Hutchinson hosted attendees from 12 states, who came from as far away as California and New Jersey. People worldwide watched the Internet livestream, staying for an average of 40 minutes each. And the conversation continues on Twitter under the hashtag #140conf, plus blog posts and all of the archived speaker videos.

SmallTown ended up having the 4th-largest turnout for any 140 conference, including all of those held in big cities. Said one attendee after the final speaker, “I’m so proud of Kansas today; so glad that I could be a part of this.”

Sheila Scarborough is a writer and speaker specializing in tourism, travel and social media. Sheís the co-founder of Tourism Currents , an online learning community that helps tourism, hospitality and economic development professionals make sense of the social Web. She is beyond thrilled that SmallTown will return to Hutchinson and the Fox in September, 2011.

A version of this story appears in the Jan. 2010 issue of Convene.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.