As I wheeled my Mini Cooper into the parking area across the street from the Taft School, a boarding school in Watertown, Conn., the beautiful century-old building stood in stark relief to the glitz and glamour of the Venetian in Las Vegas where I had attended the Cvent Association and Corporate Meetings Summits just days before. Instead of a brightly draped, very official-looking registration desk, I entered the building to find friendly volunteers and a desk heaped with conference-related materials. A volunteer checked my name off a list, handed me a name badge and a t-shirt, and personally escorted me to the hallway leading to the dorm room that would be my home for the next 24 hours. Already, edACCESS 2014 was about as different from the type of meeting I’m used to as they come. And it hadn’t even started yet.

Setting the Stage When There Is No Stage

The conference, a three-and-a-half-day event held in early June, gathered about 50 information technology staffers who work at secondary schools and small colleges. They were getting together because they wanted to dig into their biggest IT-related challenges with others who know their pain.

The conference began in 1991, when computing directors at two small colleges in Vermont got together to figure out how they could get the administrative computing solutions that their small schools needed, but their even smaller budgets couldn’t afford. As Adrian Segar, who was one of the three founders, said during an introductory session for newbies, “We wanted to hold a conference, but when we looked around for experts to invite, there wasn’t anyone dealing with our specific issues. We were the experts!”

Related: Participant-Led Meetings: A Case Study

Segar decided to see what resources were available for designing a conference that would take advantage of the collective wisdom of meeting participants and enable them to exchange ideas and network in an environment that would encourage free-flowing exchanges and build relationships. Since it didn’t appear to exist, he then developed—and later went on to write a book about—a conference format he calls Conferences That Work. (Segar also has a new book coming out this fall.)

Having long been champing at the bit to experience this peer-driven meeting format, which Segar also regularly discusses on his blog, I eagerly entered a large, wood-paneled room for the newbie session. The chairs were set in a circle, and the light filtering down from the ceiling-high windows set an almost reverential tone. Which was shattered almost immediately as other participants drifted in, gave a slight start at the room setup, and shuffled around trying to figure out where to sit as they munched on cookies from a food station in the hallway. Does the part of the circle farthest from Segar, the guy with the microphone, count as the back row? Or is it more like the front row because it’s the part that most directly faces the speaker?