I was really worried about DYFConf Europe.
For one thing, I had a hard time getting people to go to it. I thought I’d be able to hit 100 attendees, and budgeted accordingly (we had 61 registrations.) And unlike the US conference, outside of a few of the speakers I hardly knew anyone who was going to be there. What would they be like? Would they be a good fit? And, worst of all, Oh my God, don’t Europeans hate “American-style” sales and marketing advice?
Then there was the language barrier. I had a hard time ironing out the details with the Swedish-speaking venue staff, and the first thing I was told upon arriving at the Yasuragi Resort was, “They need to talk to you. There are a few problems.”
I learned that there were a handful of people who weren’t assigned rooms, weren’t on the attendee roster, or weren’t counted toward our group meal quota.
I was visibly stressed, and no one should ever be stressed as a spa resort like the Yasuragi.
Things fall apart
It’s only a matter of time until I start hearing complaints.
Because of the rough checkin experience, I figured everyone would start questioning their decision in traveling “all the way to Sweden.” (The #1 objection Europeans had in attending was the distance. As an American who is used to happily spending hours in the air just to get around my own country, I honestly didn’t understand.)
Fortunately, many of the attendees had found their way to the hot springs. At the time I thought that helped smooth over things, because it’s impossible to get that upset while in a hot bath… right?
The stress didn’t go away, and eventually it was dinner time. The moment of truth.
Everyone was happy.
Maybe it’s because most had changed into yakatas, the standard-issue attire that the hotel issues all of its guests. Or perhaps it was the incredible barbecue we were being served, the perfect sunset, or the world’s greatest bartender, Marcello.
Whatever the reason, people were happily mingling over Kirin and teriyaki chicken. And laughing. And all the other things that happen when you bring together smart and passionate people together for a few days of intentional development, both personal and professional.
And so it began. The best conference I’ve ever been to (I know, I’m biased, it was my own) with the best collection of friends and peers I could ever ask for.
Here are the big takeaways. If you helped make this happen, sound off below in the comments with what your own.
Lesson 1: Don’t be conventional
A few days before leaving for Europe, I was panicked. I had completely blanked on ordering name badges. (Though a few weeks before, at the BaconBiz Conf, the name badges consisted of the fill-in-the-blank sort you’d get at an AA meeting and Japanese stickers to use as accessories, so I wasn’t too concerned with having them professionally done.)
But seriously, most people expect a sponsor-branded lanyard with a laminated badge. It’s like Running A Conference 101.
But we didn’t have name badges. And the majority of us opted to strip down to just basic underwear (or “pants”, as they’d say here) and a Japanese robe that’s apparently not called a kimono, but instead a yakata.
Before you ask — NO, this wasn’t that kind of conference!
But there was something really nice about the fact that we were all just human beings hanging out together. Our homogeny of dress led to more familiarity. I didn’t feel that anyone was intimidated by anyone else there, speaker or not.
And because there were no name badges, we were able to totally avoid that sort of squinty scan around the room to see who you’ve heard of (and thus, should talk to) and the rest. People just approached each other and kicked off a conversation, the same way you would anywhere else in the world that wasn’t a business conference.
Lesson 2: Keep people together
I’ve been saying for a while that I’m just waiting for someone to create a conference where there are ZERO talks.
These exist, but they’re usually tightly-knit Mastermind retreats.
But this was a conference, and hardly anyone knew any of the other attendees in advance. They were literally thrown together, forced to stay onsite at a Japanese resort spa. We all woke up together, learned together, ate together, laughed together, sauna’d together, and hot tub’d together.
Most conferences have a venue hotel, a venue where all the talks happen from, and then attendees scatter or form small cliques.
This wasn’t that.
This was like the summer camp I went to throughout high school. The university dormitory we stayed at was surrounded by “lava”, and we weren’t permitted to leave it.
And while I didn’t force anyone to stay on our island paradise, surrounded by invisible lava, no one wanted to leave. People wanted to just continue talking.
If that’s not what defines “successful conference”, I don’t know what is.
Lesson 3: Keep it small
Like I mentioned earlier, I didn’t sell nearly the amount of tickets I was expecting to sell.
And for a conference organizer with fixed expenses, that’s not a good thing.
But next year will be the size of this year’s conference — because it was the perfect amount of people.
We didn’t have a speaker room. Nor did we even have a speaker dinner this time around. The speakers were really just attendees who happened to be up on stage, sharing something that they’re deeply familiar with. (This also came from Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman’s BaconBiz.)
I have a bad penchant for hanging out in my room during certain talks, or at least grouping with a few others in the hallway throughout the event.
This didn’t happen at DYFConf.
Lesson 4: Encourage lots and lots of honest discussion — the business-y “networking” stuff will just happen
I hate the word networking.
Most conferences I’ve been to in the past have had a sponsored afterparty or two at a local bar or hotel ballroom. They’re positioned as networking sessions. You go and network. You talk to people with the same, scripted formula.
I don’t know about you, but the people I claim as great friends didn’t go through that formula.
And what emerged from DYFConf were actual friendships. And the business benefits — partnering on client projects, staying in touch over weekly Masterminds — will probably just happen on their own.
Then there were the inside jokes.
Ask any attendee about the significance of Pepsi’s gravitational field or Malört.
For before the conference, during, and beyond we setup a Slack account for everyone. Before arriving at the Yasuragi, people ended up hanging out touring Stockholm. Days later, people are still carrying on and chatting up a storm. I don’t see this tapering off, either.
Leaving was emotional. Everyone hugged. I hadn’t felt that way since, again, summer camp as a kid. This was a truly transformational experience for me and everyone else. We all learned something, and no one was excluded. We were all equal. Speaker, attendee. Male, female. Whatever.
I miss everyone, and I think many of them probably feel the same.
And one of the attendees (hi Franz) had the gumption to contact the resort and schedule next year! He promptly sent me a calendar invite to attend my own conference in 2017!
DYFConf US, which kicks off late September, has big shoes to fill. But I’d be amiss in saying that I’m not learning this as I go, so I plan on carrying these lessons learned over to the US event and improving on them even more.
There were a few things I could have improved upon — namely, how the Q&A was run and the fact that I skimped on the speaker introductions.
But all-in-all, I’m thrilled with how the conference went. I couldn’t be happier.
2017’s European reunion… er, conference is going to be incredible, and if you’re in Europe (or willing to get there) I hope you can make it. And the next US conference will be just as amazing, but on the other side of the great big pond.