This weekend, I attended the Podcasters Across Borders Conference (affectionately known as PAB) in Kingston, ON.  It was another amazing experience, and I met truly wonderful people, with whom I hope we’ve started long and enduring friendships.  PAB had a different format than the several PodCamps I’ve attended and helped organize, and had a different feel as well.  These differences have given me a lot to think about when planning Podcamp Philly as well as deciding what I expect to get out of the process of planning and attending conferences in general.   Here are some of my thoughts:

Paid attendance versus unpaid is not the most important metric.  PAB is a conference with a modest registration fee, but I don’t feel this had any significant impact in the “type” or “quality” of people who attended or spoke.  The speakers were pretty terrific across the board, the attendees were fantastic, and the location was beautiful.  This has also been true of the PodCamps I’ve attended, where admission has been “free”- although obviously, everyone is paying for their own travel costs.   Paid versus unpaid attendance doesn’t seem to have a significant impact on attendance, on the quality of presenters, although the Boat Cruise, meals and amenities at PAB were great, and helped keep the group together as a whole most of the weekend.

A choice of sessions to attend is important, but too many choices isn’t good, either.  PAB had a set speaker schedule, set panels, and one session at a time, over two days.  The topics were applicable to everyone from newbies to more experienced community members, but this also meant some sessions were not as engaging to some people as to others.

By contrast, at Podcamp NYC, we had 12 sessions going simultaneously, and I think this was really far too many, and caused logistics issues for people trying to get from one place to another easily.  As I plan PodCamp Philly, the trick will be to have enough sessions available to give people a choice, but not so many as to cause logistics issues.

Session Attention Deficit Disorder -In a conference where there is only one session going on at a time, people are more likely to stay put, even if this session is not “speaking” to them.  This is the social expectation- the Social Contract- “We set up this conference for you, and you paid to attend, so come listen to what these people we selected for you have to say.”  And I felt compelled to do so, not wanting to miss anything, especially since this was my first year at PAB.

Yet, this caused some interesting behavior from the attendees.  There was a lot of chatting and twittering happening during some sessions, which was fun, but perhaps a little silly and juvenile at times.  And probably not 100% fair to the speakers to deal with a crowd of active side-participants in the back of the room.

These mini-side agendas did fill the need to network and talk- people didn’t leave to use the “podcamp” room to do mini-sessions as intended, but stayed put and chatted in real time during the sessions.  This meant each speaker got to speak to every person attending, not just a portion of them, yet it also meant a fair amount of the back of the room was practicing partial attention techniques most of the time.

PlayDate Time  What I took away from this experience is that there’s an almost primal need for people to “network” and chat during these events.  The”networking” time-or as I prefer to call it- the PlayDate time-is almost always the best part of the event.  People need to learn and to talk, but creating the conversation is something that’s difficult to organize from the outside.  Some of the best conversations I had were over meals, taking a walk around town, and in smaller groups- creating a deeper connection and a sense of intimacy.

Yet how do you get someone to sponsor an event, or to justify going to a conference where the sole agenda is to place a whole bunch of new media people inside a confined area with food & drink and wait for the chemistry to take it’s course?*

This doesn’t sound compelling to people who are just entering the new media, or want to learn about all this “stuff” that isn’t being taught in any systematic way in school.  You can’t take a course that will teach you about blogging or twitter in any meaningful way at the local community college, or university, for that matter.  And the only way to really learn about this stuff is to attend a New Media Conference like PodCamp, or BlogPhiladelphia (July 12 & 13- I’ll be there!)

Mixing Knowledge and PlayTime I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s gotta be a mix between learning, talking and playtime at these conferences, and that the “perfect” mix is largely up to each individual to find on their own.  There has to be a way to feel free to go “create” or talk or discuss things, without feeling like you’re missing what you came to the conference for in the first place.

Talking over meals works well, as do group “flickr” walks, trips to the bookstore, and more.  People need downtime to consolidate what they’ve learned, maybe even sleep a bit, and even create new groups of friends- Two friends need to grab a random two or three people and chat about anything that comes to mind- get to know them and what they do.  I got to meet Neil Bearce– one of the masterminds behind Bum Rush The Charts- this way.  A few of us decided to try a little thai restaurant rather than the large group of 40+ causing headaches for the waitstaff at a local restaurant, and a smaller group of twelve or so at another.  I probably wouldn’t have had a chance to hang with Neil otherwise, and I thought it was simply amazing- one of the people I wish I knew better already, and hope to know better in the future.

As I try to sort through my crowded brain this morning, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what makes a conference worthwhile, and which parts seem less useful?  How much “free time” do you need versus learning time?  How much are you willing to spend on such a venture and why?  It can be expensive to go to conferences in far-flung cities, especially if you’re not sure what you’ll get out of them, or who you’ll meet, but that has been part of the adventure for me as well.  What are your metrics for deciding which conference to attend and why?   What makes it a must versus a “that’d be nice?”

*I keep flashing back to Mike Meyers on Saturday Night Live doing the “Coffee Talk” sessions where he’d throw out a topic and say “talk amongst yourselves-I’ll give you a topic- Rhode Island- Neither a road nor an Island- Discuss.”