What makes a great event?

Thanks to @cyberdees for pointing out this Quora thread. Some really valuable insights from Robert Scoble on what make a great event and food for thought re: Mozilla Festival and other events in the pipeline. We’ll unpack this at OKCon and Wikimania Haifa.


  1. The quality of the people around me. TED is off the charts on this one. I remember standing in the lobby and getting to talk to Bill Gates while many other interesting geeks, entrepreneurs, movie stars, etc stood nearby.
  2. The quality of the speakers. Panels suck. One or two panels at a conference is OK, more mean the content will be lightweight and that the conference organizer just wanted to get a ton of people onto the program (which works to get a crowd, look at SXSW).
  3. The focus of the content. If I’m trying to learn, say, Ruby on Rails, I might pay to attend a conference on that. But if they start talking about Objective C I will feel that the value is less than it could have been.
  4. The small details. Is there enough coffee? Is the signage clear? Is the room air the right temperature? Is the food great and plentiful? Are seats comfortable? Is there power and good wifi?
  5. The expo hall. Is it packed with interesting vendors, or is it sparse?
  6. Does it nail something about the time it happens? For instance, this year the iPad is taking off, so having an iPad developer conference is going to be way more interesting than attending a Windows developer conference.
  7. Is there a community that it exposes or helps form? Other answers mention this, but do you see people hanging together at evening events, or during lunch, or does everyone just go home?
  8. Was there at least one speech that just inspires? The real key, I’ve found, is to have that speech be the first one. Then the conference will seem magical.
  9. Is there real, significant, news discussed? When I’m at a conference where there is real, significant, news revealed it always is easier to talk about with other people.
  10. Does it start, or expose, a movement? Maker Faire, for instance, gets 70,000 people to a fairgrounds to share their love of making things. That’s one of my favorite events because you are able to learn, hang out with, and share with people your own love of that topic/movement.
  11. Does it get you away from work? The best events make you travel or make you get away from work. TED, for instance, makes it impossible to sit in the front row and use a device. I’ve found that really helps build a common memorable experience.
  12. Does it end with a bang? The best events end with a great speech, or some other event to send you on your way. Research shows that the last experience you have is the most memorable one. That said, I find if you don’t start with a great speaker the whole event won’t go well, so don’t put your best speaker at the end.
  13. Do they do something “beyond?” Most conferences are the same. 18 speeches, two panels, two keynotes, two dinners, etc etc. But TED has music that leads into every session. PopTech does a really cool book. They go beyond the usual.

The most memorable events I’ve had, though, are the ones where I had a small, intimate group of people who had some sort of “event within an event.”

At LeWeb last year Loic had a speaker dinner where he took us to an extraordinary meal. At TED I had dinner with a movie star and an exec from Microsoft. At LIFT we had a speaker weekend with skiing and hotubbing that was extraordinary. At FooCamp I ate apples with my son, the two guys who started Google, and four other people. At SXSW this year I took a bus full of geeks to BBQ for Sunday afternoon.

These are the experiences that make an event magical. Can you scale them to all participants? No, but you can make intimate experiences available to all. LIFT always has a fondue dinner in Geneva for all participants which is quite fun.

Anyway, watch http://plancast.com and ask yourself “why do certain events get popular?” Invariably the popular ones are ones that nailed all the stuff above.

One comment

  1. Matt · June 24, 2011

    this comment is interesting from a different perspective – more about making events accessible and inclusive – i think it is pretty important though for making events ‘great; http://en.citycampbcn.com/2010/10/help-us-make-citycampbcn-accesible-to-everyone/#comment-3