I've recently been reading about the Burning Man Festival (www.burningman.com) held every year in the desert outside Reno, Nev. For those who aren't familiar with this week-long festival, it 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. Clearly, this isn't the usual convention gathering, but the festival featured some interesting technology, much of which is applicable to any modern meeting. It also demonstrates an important shift in the reality of meeting planning. First, let's look at the technology.

Uplinks from the Desert Outside of the laser-light special effects and assorted pyrotechnic entertainment, some of the more intriguing aspects of the Burning Man festival were the tools used to build its virtual community. The first is an on-site newspaper production facility that produced the Black Rock Gazette, the festival's daily newspaper. The second is the live webcasting technology from Tachyon Inc. (www.tachyon.net). And the third is the ongoing community-building of Burning Man's Internet efforts.

The Gazette was created on four PCs with high-resolution monitors linked via satellite to a Kinko's in Reno, where 11,000 copies were printed daily for distribution at the desert camp site. And the live webcasts, which are now archived at the Burning Man Web site, used satellite technology for uplinking directly to the Web server. For those unfamiliar with satellite usage, uplinks are usually handled by standard telephone land lines, and only the downloads use satellite technology. The Burning Man team, however, found itself isolated in the desert, far away from any land-line connections. So instead, they went high tech with a two-way satellite Internet link from Tachyon. This innovation 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.

Burning Web But the festival's most intriguing aspect, the important shift I mentioned earlier, is its focus on its online community. In the age of the Internet, communities are built and grown online, and the event itself, in this case immolating a gigantic stick figure as an expression of artistic vision, is merely the culmination and physical gathering point for the real day-to-day community, which exists online.

According to the Burning Man Web site, "Burning Man does not advertise itself in any conventional sense. Its method of propagation has been person-to-person, and, in recent years, this communication has principally occurred on the Internet. Many groups distributed over a large geographic area now meet in real time and real space--precipitated into social contact by Burning Man and the communication tools provided by modern computer technology." And remember, this festival draws more than 20,000 paying visitors (each paying $100 a ticket) to a scorching desert campground! Do your Internet efforts build that kind of allegiance to your event?

Oh, and there's one other lesson from watching events like Burning Man. Too often, we look for inspiration in events that are just like our own. But the real innovation today is happening outside the realm of traditional meetings. All of us in the meetingbusiness need to expand our observational reach and keep ourselves open to unconventional ideas and techniques. This is how we'll stay ahead of the curve and not end up in ashes, like the incinerated man.