Explorations by Kenley Neufeld

Make Library Conferences Better

By on March 18, 2010

Kenley at SXSW InteractiveI’ve been attending library related conferences for the last 16 years – mostly ALA. I attend to connect with colleagues, contribute to the associations, or attend programatic activities. Recently I attended SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas and I came away with many ideas on how to improve the conference going experience. SXSW Interactive was five days long at The Austin Convention Center, the Hilton, and the Radisson – so relatively small if compared with the American Library Association events, but not if compared with ACRL National Conference, LITA National Forum, or Internet Librarian.

Let’s start with registration. I registered online about six months before the actual event. It was intuitive, easy, and clear. What was different? They integrated a social network tool. Every registrant became part of a community where you could add friends and share short Twitteresque messages. I could search for other conference goers based on geography, business, interests, etc. Totally awesome networking tool. Secondly, as part of registration we were encouraged to upload a photo that would then be included on our attendee badge (if we forgot or didn’t take this step, a photo was taken upon arrival). For the record, early registration was $395.

Because badge pickup involved photos, one had to wait a minute or two for the badge to be retrieved and/or to have a picture taken. This allowed for a higher energy level at registration as people’s names were called out after the badge was ready. High energy is good and sets a tone. Happiness! The attendee badges also included personalized QR Code (Quick Response Code)  for easy sharing via iPhone app. Despite this option, I saw most people sharing business cards.

Signage around the Austin Convention Center was ubiquitous and customized to the event. Other conferences do this as well, but what was different at SXSW? Each panel or speaker had a table plate in large bold letters (last name only) so it could be seen from the entire room. Secondly, a table tent with the session hashtag was also included for easy tweeting and following the backchannel. Excellent!

The schedule was available online, iPhone app (64% attendees were iPhone users), and in print (upon arrival). I was so impressed with the online schedule I made a video – SXSW Schedule Tool. The technology behind the tool was developed by The Social Collective. Big bonuses with the schedule tool: when you mark yourself as attending, you can see all the other attendees who have done the same.


When viewed on the iPhone app, it tells me that x number of my friends (see above) are also attending. Changes in the schedule are sent via email notification if you’ve marked yourself as attending. All the days followed the same block schedule – first session at 9:30am with 30-minute passing times between sessions. Consistency is very nice. Finally, in addition to the hashtag table tent, the hashtag was also included in the print and online schedules. Awesome!

The technology was superior, as it should be. Free wifi was abundant, including on the trade show floor and hotel based sessions. The satellite wifi routers were abundantly clear and added throughout the event. This is a no-brainer. In addition, a charging station was availble in the main lobby hall (sponsored by Chevy Volt) and power strips were scattered throughout the convention center. In this day, power is essential.

Final comments. Within 2-days of the conference ending, I received an email acknowledgement and request for completing an evaluation. The conference planners will add my name to a drawing for a free registration for next year if I complete the evaluation. How cool is that?

Final, final comments. SXSW Interactive is a party atmosphere, but also provocative, intelligent, and thoughtful. Many parties happen at night and alcohol is not uncommon in the conference sessions (and a party tent is open most of the time). Swearing from the conference speakers is not unusual. Of course, this is also a conference where 80% of the attendees are under the age of 40 (I’m older!). Nonetheless, there is much we can learn from this and my hope is we can use some in our library related conferences.

What do you think? What experiences do you have from other conferences?