The massive snowstorm that hit the East Coast this week caused the American Society for Association Executives and the Center for Association Leadership to cancel its February 10–12 Technology Conference and Expo at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. However, all was not lost. Through a remarkable display of technology, organization, and enthusiasm, some attendees and sponsors who were already on site and snowbound have created their own unofficial event, the live and virtual Untech 10 unconference, which begins today at the Renaissance Washington D.C. Downtown Hotel.

ASAE expected about 1,100 attendees at the conference and had sold out the expo floor with 117 exhibiting companies, says John Graham, president and CEO at ASAE, who confirmed that ASAE did have cancellation insurance and coverage under a force majeure clause. “Although this event was insured, we will suffer a loss,” Graham says. “There are some forces we just can’t control and sometimes the best thing we can do is to cancel an event, especially when safety is the top priority, no matter of any financial loss.”

The 2010 conference will not be rescheduled, and all registration, exhibitor, and booth fees will be refunded in full, Graham says. It’s the first time that ASAE and The Center has canceled a major meeting.

Welcome to the Unconference
While the weather may have stopped the official event, leave it to the technogeeks to find a way to let the show go on for ASAE Technology attendees who arrived in Washington before the latest storm hit, and for others who want to learn while safe and warm at home.

Several fast-moving attendees and sponsors have organized a free hybrid unconference, which, as of 6 p.m. on Wednesday, had 195 people registered to attend either on-site or virtually. The new unofficial conference, Untech 10, will have 12 sessions today at the Renaissance beginning at 11 a.m. (all of which will be streamed live), and another nine online-only events are planned for Friday. In addition, several face-to-face networking events will be held in Washington tonight, including sponsored happy hours and a Young Association Professionals dance party. ASAE has no official involvement with the unconference, but some staff may attend, says Graham.

It all got started, says Maddie Grant, CAE, partner in social media consulting firm SocialFish and one of the main organizers of the upstart event, when she got a call from Aaron Biddar at ThePort Network, who said he could reserve a room at the Renaissance that would hold 200 people, and offered to pay for both the space and Untech 10’s audiovisual needs. He asked if she thought they could pull off a last-minute unconference. “I immediately said yes and we put the wheels in motion,” she says.

Grant and her partner at SocialFish, Lindy Dreyer, began spreading the word through their network, first via Twitter, then through the ASAE listservs. “We obviously did not have access to the registration list,” Grant says, “but we figured if we asked everyone we knew to tell everyone they knew, it would work.” They also sent out a quick TwitPoll survey to see how many people said they would show up in person. “Once we got 30, we knew it was worth it,” she says.

Sponsors also climbed on the promotion bandwagon. According to David McKnight, CEO of Omnipress, which produces educational meeting materials online or in other formats for associations, organizers gauged the interest among the stranded ASAE Tech attendees “the old-fashioned way,” via Twitter and a blog post, and by e-mailing those who they had invited to the official show. Seeing an obvious interest, conference organizers announced a new Twitter hashtag for those who wanted to follow the emerging un-event’s progress, changing it from ASAE’s #tech10 to #untech10.

Grant says much of the credit for the unconference goes to what she calls “an amazing group of ‘sponsor planners,’” of which Omnipress is one. ThePort Network, which offers social media solutions, is handling all the hotel logistics and also sponsorship offers, which came pouring in. NFi Studios took on the post-unconference reception—there will be both a live and a virtual happy hour—and also has offered to reimburse local cab or metro travel for association execs who want to brave the snowbound city streets to come. Peach Tree Media is in charge of the live stream all day Thursday, February 11 (making the whole day available via webcast). Avectra offered the use of its WebEx account for webinars on Friday and handled some on-site signage. Grant’s company, SocialFish, is in charge of promoting the event.

Early on February 10, organizers quickly set up an Eventbrite registration site for those who could attend in person. Dryer and Grant asked Omnipress (whose platform also hosts Engage365, a community for association and corporate meeting planning executives interested in social media) if it could put together a conference hub site using its Conference 2.0 technology to aggregate all the scheduling, speaker, and attendee-networking information. According to McKnight, the site is designed to be flexible—each session has its own wiki page, for example. The conference hub site isn’t able to host everything Untech 10 hopes to do, such as live streaming video, but it can provide a link to the video stream, keeping all the content and discussion organized in one place.

“Since this is an unconference,” Grant says, “we've grouped speakers to talk about particular topics (as per their original Technology Conference sessions) in a more open, discussion-oriented format.” Anyone who could not be present could submit details for webinars they would like to present on Friday. All that information will be aggregated on the conference Web site.

McKnight says the experience so far has taught him just how powerful community can be. "When there is a desire to collaborate, not even Mother Nature can get in the way,” he says.