The value of small industry events

Any run-of-the-mill industry event calls itself a failure when just 24 attendees show up. An audience of that size tempts any keynote speaker to flee. The so-called “welcome” reception seems more like a wake for an unpopular deceased. Throughout, a deadly calm fills every room.

Some events of that size, though, sparkle with life. Potential for real, meaningful contact is rich. Interesting conversations last longer. You get to know people better.

The Pacific Northwest BI Summit, held every July in Grants Pass, Oregon, is my prime example. It is the Bohemian Grove of the business intelligence industry. I attended as press for the third time this summer.

“The Summit” really is a summit. For three days in rural Grants Pass, Oregon, attendees are among a few of the BI world’s most interesting experts and some interesting vendors. Four formal discussions take place in the conference room with, this year, four media representatives. Information Management held a live webinar. You’re one-on-one with anyone: on the deck at meals, floating on the Rogue River, croquet on the lawn, or poker at night.

The value is not in numbers, but in the elemental human comfort one finds from prolonged and varied proximity to others. During serious discussions, you notice some who talk a lot without much to say, and others who speak only when there’s something to add. I pay full attention whenever certain people clear their throats, and I catch up on notes while others fill the air. One person in particular is worth watching to see what makes him stop surfing on his iPad.

There’s also croquet on the lawn, and it counts. Did your opponent let you take that shot again? Floating down the Rogue River counts, too. You see the two CEOs reveal their inner pirate. You see the businessman on the beer raft year after year, revealing his inner merchant. You notice who floats in packs, as most do, and who paddles alone. Before long, it’s time for dinner, and you notice a new comfort with those who’d been strangers. Whether you’re actual friends or not with any, your feel for who’s who is better. Familiarity breeds rapport.

The event sprang 12 years ago from the bulging Rolodex of public relations consultant Scott Humphrey. Year after year, counting all experts, vendors, and press, he’s held the number at 24 — which has to do with the Weasku Inn’s capacity, so old world that Clark Gable vacationed there.

At any event afterward, you spot people from The Summit first in any crowd.

This year, it didn’t take long for me to see that recognition at work. The day after Summit closed, a new small event opened. SPARK!, on the northern end of Silicon Valley, is the second in a series from Radiant Advisors — first in Austin, TX, and over the next weeks or months also in Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. It’s low on exotica — none but a faint French accent at the Hotel Sofitel registration desk — but it shows big promise.

For one thing, it’s got what sparked the Summit: good friends. There in SPARK!’s first session was Shawn Rogers, the popular ring leader of several industry institutions and the Summit’s poker dealer. Other Summit regulars showed up, too: John Santaferraro of Actian and Robert Eve of Cisco.

We sat outside at the end of the first day with a new acquaintance, Linda Sharp, author of Customer Relationship Intelligence. We asked about her book, and talked for a while in simple, unhurried comfort.

Radiant intends to keep it small. People more easily ask questions, connect with people who might otherwise float in bubbles they’ve brought with them, such as from the office. Ad hoc communities form for a day, which makes all kinds of discovery easier.

Perhaps most refreshing, Radiant wants to look further ahead than one usually finds at big, established events, to the future of BI. I say throw gasoline on that “spark.”

I take the small-event ethic with me now: One acquaintance made stronger is worth countless fast-forgotten handshakes and five-minute chats. We all promise to be in touch soon, but many of these promises evaporate before the name hits the address book. Instead, give me two or three days with people I don’t know and I may come up with someone I actually remember and talk to again.

This is the heart of business. Sure, big data and the other things we talk about in this industry are things to behold. But conversation is the glue. That just works better at small events.

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