“What would you think if the boy in the movie The Sixth Sense said ‘I see dead people’ right at the start of the movie? That would take away the pleasure of discovery, don’t you think?”
George Parker speaks at the opening presentation of FRESH19, the seventh edition of the conference on the organization of conferences.
Movie line structure
The speaker states that conferences also benefit from a movie line structure in which the participants undergo a transformation through a non-linear course of events, with surprises along the way, that helps them to achieve their goal. An additional advantage of a live event is that by experiencing, feeling and discovering, the chance of that transformation is considerably greater.
Using illusions, Parker illustrates how to put our senses on the wrong or desired track. He explains the promotion of communication, creativity and collaboration; the three C’s that form a guideline for this conference. The result is more satisfied participants because, as an organizer, you’re able to exploit the collectively available knowledge, increase the chance of new ideas and offer a more lasting experience.
We are divided into small groups of two or three people (people we don’t know yet) and encouraged to be interactive by telling each other a few short stories and asking each other questions. The result: we quickly get to know our first fellow conference participants.
Another important part of designing a good meeting is creating a three-dimensional experience, Parker adds. This is achieved by stimulating all the senses. With this approach, the lessons learned are better anchored in your memory.
He uses music as an example. It is known that the last thought you had when you heard certain music comes up again when you hear the same music later.
Music is one of the recurring themes during FRESH19, starting with Wout Gooris trio’s Jazz concert, which the participants were able to enjoy during the first evening.
The next day Sam McNeill of SongDivision demonstrates which two factors regularly recur in the creative process of successful musicians, starting with the Beatles. Small changes/simple ideas and a yes-mentality. By way of illustration he plays a medley of hits that are all based on the same four chords on the guitar – thanks to the Australian comedy band The Axis of Awesome.
Immersive sound experience
During the various breaks, the participants experience the 3D immersive sound experience of Ozark Henry. This creative musician and composer creates 3D-sound performances to support brand events. Here, too, the aim is to create an overall experience that supports the message and anchors it better in the memory of the guests.
Our hearing is always on, he stresses. It’s our most important warning system, and sound has a medicinal effect. Alzheimer’s patients, for example, know how to create memories by means of sounds and music from their past.
The technique behind the three-dimensional experience is not complicated, Ozark demonstrates. It’s just a sequel to mono (one speaker), stereo (two speakers positioned on the same line, each with its own sound channel) and surround (four speakers placed in a square, with four sound channels). Four speakers at a higher position are now being added so that a cube of sound is created around the people. Furthermore, a hefty dose of processing power and creativity is needed to send the various sounds into space in the right way to create an immersive sound experience.
On a final note
FRESH19 also ends on a musical note and again in the hands of SongDivision’s Sam McNeill.
The participants take care of the lyrics themselves and sing their song on stage. They can send in the words via the Vevox app, indicating what this conference has meant to them. Based on the resulting word cloud, each table of four to five people has to make their own four-line rhyming lyrics. After McNeill combines the submitted lyrics during an intermezzo, everyone is invited on stage to sing and rap to ensure no one will forget the impact this conference has made on them.
A stroll through Turnhout
The sessions take place at different locations in the Belgian city of Turnhout. All at no more than a fifteen-minute stroll away from each other. Getting lost is difficult as the locations are almost in one line. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side along the way, the organization has installed signage, which will remain on the traffic poles throughout the entire conference.
The Jazz concert and some creative sessions will be held in Headroom. Located in a former concrete plant, it offers the intimacy of a living room concert and is equipped with sixty cinema seats and a studio-quality sound system at the same time.
The plenary lectures usually take place in the town hall: a characteristic fifties building, where you’re welcomed at the entrance by some giants in card game clothes. The city has one of the largest giant associations in Europe and is a self-proclaimed world centre of the playing card. Then, using the monumental staircase with its impressive stained-glass windows, you arrive at the council chamber. The metre-high mural in the room forms a suitable background for a conference where creativity is of paramount importance.
There are two more locations. The Taxandria Museum for regional history and culture is the venue for a session on Hybrid Meetings. The new urban development of Turnova, like the town hall located on the Grote Markt, is the purpose of the excursion and also houses the official conference hotel Corsendonk.
The epic centre is the location where organizer Maarten Vanneste of the Meeting Design Institute is one of the tenants, in this case renamed the FRESH Hall. This is where the refreshment and lunch breaks take place, where the participants can enjoy local and varied dishes with a twist. The attractively furnished room is also the domain of the sponsors and the companies that participate in the programme.
During one of the breaks, a sponsor carrousel takes place, where the participants, divided into small groups, meet a supplier in two minutes and then move on to the next one. An effective method for both parties.
This is how we get to know Sport@ThomasMore, a Belgian sports academy that also performs activities at conferences. Their representative has the substantiation ready –
including brain scans – showing that a twenty-minute walk activates a significantly larger part of the brain, allowing more information to be processed. Because of the walking back and forth between the locations, this conference is well provided for. The walks also offer extra networking time, which usually makes it easier for people to communicate because they do not have to look each other in the eye directly. For those who want even more physical stimulation: there will be a Body, Mind and Soul workshop by Sport@ThomasMore at the end of the last morning.
As mentioned before, the Headroom is the host for a few sessions that are intended to stimulate creativity.
Artist Maarten Bel gives examples of how you can use random objects or persons to look at a particular issue differently and come up with new ideas. How would Donald Trump solve this problem? What are your associations with a plastic rabbit or a feather of a bird and link it to what you want to change or develop? In between, he stresses, no self-censorship, because terrible and great ideas are very close neighbours.
Co-creation is also central to this session and we get the assignment to create an original give-away for FRESH19 in a group and present it visually and verbally. Starting with generating and spouting ideas, then discussing them – with a yes-mentality – in order to further develop the best idea. Kill your darlings is the motto here. A forced combination of a number of ideas into one, in order to give in to each group member, is therefore not recommended.
Consciousness and Confidence
The other session is a crash course in Applied Improv by Bertrand Caudron and Diogo Almeida Alves of The Human Story, whereby it’s all about doing things together with at the very end a short explanation of the function of the various activities. Those goals are the three already known C’s – Communication, Creativity and Collaboration – plus two new ones: Consciousness and Confidence.
The last two we have to deal with immediately when we are asked to walk around and look at each other. When we pass by each other in the second instance, we keep mentioning our own name and finally, at each eye contact, we mention the name of the other participant. This way you let the participants explore the space and get comfortable with each other.
This is followed by various exercises such as passing on/throwing virtual objects with a collective dance of joy with every mistake, a challenge to name seven things that come to mind based on a question that a fellow participant puts forward, conversations without questions and without saying no (we had already learned that creativity calls for a yes-mentality) and finally, collectively form a painting.
The festival mindset
The subtitle of FRESH19 is Conference meets Festival, because there is a generous programme section on festivalization.
Paul Gudgin knows how to present the essence of (successful) festivals in a well-structured way. Having 20 years of experience in festival management and now Professor of Festivals and Events, he is allowed to have his opinion on the matter. In the past, he organized the Aldeburgh Festival, Durham International Brass Festival and the City of London Festival and he was the Director of the world’s largest arts festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, for 8 years.
Location, location, location, is also the adage at festivals, says Gudgin. The venue where the event takes place should give the idea that it could only happen at that location. The value could be the authenticity of the location or something the organizer added. A giant inflatable bolar hat, is one of Gudgin’s examples. The history or functionality of the location can also be a perfect fit in the story of the festival.
In addition, the layout of the location is very important. This also applies in particular to social spaces. At festivals, these may occupy up to 70 percent of the surface area. It is something that a conference organizer only thinks about last, uses far too little space for and, in terms of design, mainly thinks of the logistics of catering, signage and decoration.
It is important to maximize the opportunities for participation, says Gudgin. Splitting up the space is an important tool for this. It should be a good combination of open access and intimate settings, which makes you want to talk to the person next to you.
Not only the location, but also the festival concept itself should have authenticity. According to Gudgin, this can be achieved by playing into the need for niche. Think of a surf film festival, travel book festival or a jazz accordion festival. As Sam McNeill has already argued: giving a small twist to something that already exists is sufficient for a successful creative idea.
It’s an ideas business, Gudgin stresses. He uses the Meltdown festival as an example, a festival which has a celebrity as a curator for each edition. Concepts that tell a story are also effective, often recognized by the name or pay-off of the event. Justice, Money & Power and North versus South Korea are examples that appeal to the imagination.
What is still lacking in conferences is a long-term view. The focus is too much on a first or upcoming conference, while thinking about a series of conferences and forming a vision of the future of the conference in five years’ time is a better basis for success. According to Paul Gudgin, the leading festivals often show organic growth over a longer period of time.
And finally, he emphasizes that festivals and social media go hand in hand. Photogenic decoration or activities and selfie spots are a necessity. Here, too, uniqueness is the keyword, like having yourself photographed with a guitar in a vertical rowboat or a selfie-tower with the performing artists or the festival site in the background.
In the group discussion based on personal experiences, questions and challenges – a recurring theme during FRESH19 – it was observed that conferences that really want to turn into a more festival-like setting must be given a much freer set-up in terms of space (more variety; stimulating mutual contact), programming (easier to walk in or out of sessions) and catering (no fixed break times, but a continuous supply of food and drinks). In terms of logistics a challenge, true, but certainly worth a try.
The highlights from the group discussions are also fed back to the audience and the panel on stage, which in turn led to further questions and deepening.
Conversation & Input
This is how we got to know C&I in the process, organizer Maarten Vanneste explains. Conversation and Input between the participants instead of Q&A between delegates and panel. At C&I, you work in small groups that talk to each other about the knowledge offered. Split friends and colleagues, he gives as a tip. Even if you’re standing at the door with an empty writing board, divide the incoming group by referring each group member to a different table number.
Where Q&A only activates one to three percent of the participants, C&I delivers one hundred percent involvement, says Vanneste. This does not only mean that better use is made of the collective knowledge in the room; closer ties also emerge between participants who did not yet know each other, resulting in more frequent follow-up contacts and collaborations.
One of the participants of FRESH19 adds: “It seems as if after three days I know almost everyone here by name. I’ve never experienced this before at a conference.”
The collective singing starts: Fresh provided three days of passion, learned something from every session, ……