I've recently been reading about the Burning Man Festival (www.burningman.com) held every year in the desert outside Reno. This week-long festival centers around the ritual incineration of a 52-foot-high wooden statue of a standing man, and it draws more than 20,000 visitors to the baking, late-summer Nevada desert. There are no vending machines, lodging facilities, or other human comforts provided. As you might think, this isn't the usual type of convention gathering. But the festival featured some very interesting technology, much of which could be applicable to any modern meeting. It also serves as a manifestation of a very important shift in the reality of meeting planning. First, let's look at the technology.

Hot Technology Technically, the volunteer staff of Burning Man appears to be pretty sophisticated. The event's daily newspaper, The Black Rock Gazette, was created on four PCs linked via satellite to a Kinko's in Reno, where 11,000 copies were printed daily for distribution back at the desert campsite. Live Webcasts, which are now archived at the Burning Man Web site, used two-way satellite technology from Tachyon, Inc. (www.tachyon.net) for uplinking directly to the Web server. This two-way satellite technology may prove very important to those planning live Webcasts because satellite links can provide high bandwidth connections from a wide variety of areas where standard telephone service can't.

But the festival's most intriguing aspect--the "very important shift" I mentioned earlier--is its focus on community-building online throughout the preceding year. This is relevant to us in the association world because any association exists primarily to form a community. That community may do many things, such as providing opportunities and vehicles for personal networking, delivering education and information, conducting lobbying and governmental affairs, and setting industry direction. But the fact is that the association exists in order to build and grow a given community. Without the community, the association's commercial ventures would fail completely.

Any successful commercial venture needs to build an audience for its product or service. And the most cost-effective audience is one composed of loyal, repeat customers. In the age of the Internet, where the competition for your audience is always expanding and where barriers to entry for new competitors are low, the ability to hold on to that loyal, repeat customer base can be easily threatened. One effective way to meet that competition is to focus significant efforts on year-round community-building. And there is no better or more cost-effective tool for this than the Internet.

The example of the Burning Man shows that a solid, loyal community that is built and nurtured online can be directly translated into increased attendance at an event. In the case of the Burning Man, attendance is only for the truly strong of heart, and yet it still draws over 20,000 paying--yes paying, at $100 per ticket--attendees to a scorching desert campground devoid of facilities for a week! Do your Internet efforts build that kind of allegiance to your event?

Oh, and there's one other lesson from watching events like the Burning Man. Too often we tend to look for ideas and inspiration in other events that are just like our own. But the real innovation today is happening outside the realm of traditional meetings. As with so many industries that struggle with technical revolutions, the opportunities and threats will come to us from unexpected quarters. All of us in the meeting planning business need to expand our observational reach, and keep ourselves open to unconventional, out-of-left-field ideas and techniques. This is how we'll stay ahead of the business curve and not end up in ashes, like the incinerated man.