My mother always told me to cure hiccups by taking a deep breath and holding it. My wife swears by a spoonful of vinegar and peanut butter (no joke) to get the diaphragm in sync. When major hiccups emerged at the end of EventCamp Twin Cities 2011 (ECTC11) last week, organizers combined controlled breathing with strong medicine to turn an almost comically bad moment into a learning opportunity.
This was the second year ECTC set out to drastically push the limits on what hybrid meetings can achieve on a shoestring budget. ECTC11 had general sessions and breakouts in Minneapolis, concurrent “pods” of local participants in Amsterdam, Philadelphia, Toronto, Vancouver, and Silicon Valley, as well as about 350 individual virtual attendees. The traditional broadcast model of virtual meetings is anathema to much of the #eventprofs Twitter network that spawned the EventCamp conferences, so the ECTC system included a Twitter back channel for virtual participants, a real-time Skype connection for the pods, and streaming video for both.
Intermittent technical glitches during the conference came to a head during the closing wrapup, as ECTC co-chair Sam Smith spent an excruciating 15 minutes trying to get comments and feedback from the pods. With Smith calling on individual pods over a video line that had a 20-second delay, most of the interactions went horribly and irretrievably out of sync. As Smith tried to interview Carlson Marketing pod leader Ruth Wikoff-Jones, most of her answers came back one or two questions late ... or the entire Amsterdam pod responded by waving to their videocam. He called on Wikoff-Jones again, and a crisp answer came back right on cue—in the voice of Mike McAllen in the Silicon Valley pod.
One on-site participant compared the sequence to Laurel and Hardy. “This is the best,” a bemused Smith said at one point. “Are we capturing all of this? I hope so.” And later: “All right, this is an experiment.”
While the on-site tech team scrambled, Smith remained remarkably cool and patient. In the end, some limited information was exchanged. For many organizations, the story (and the experiment) would have ended with a reluctant but definite decision that hybrid formats aren’t ready for prime time.
But then we saw how serious the ECTC community is about building a learning lab for meetings. Within 24 hours of the session, Smith, tech guru Brandt Krueger, and several other participants had talked among themselves about what had gone wrong and how future meetings could prevent the problem. Now, those lessons learned will be featured prominently in ECTC’s post-conference case study—an educational resource for all of us—and in the design of next year’s conference.
In his keynote just before the wrapup, BizBash Media CEO David Adler described EventCamp as an opportunity to play with new ideas without trying them out on our clients’ meetings. Scant minutes later, the wrapup proved his point. In less capable hands, Smith’s 15 minutes of pain could have been a devastating setback for the industry’s adoption of hybrid meeting models. But the ECTC team held their breath, took their medicine, and turned a very tough moment into a win, by wringing every ounce of learning out of the experience.
And meanwhile …My six-and-a-half–minute talk at ECTC was titled How Eventprofs Can Save the World. We’ll post it to The Conference Publishers’ Web site as soon as the video is available.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.