Release the potential of your attendees by letting them lead your event. Welcome to the brave new world of unconferences…



definition: a loosely structured conference emphasizing the informal exchange of information and ideas between participants, rather than following a conventionally structured programme of events.

You might have noticed that event planners are moving away from the traditional top-down lecture sessions and looking to change up the set-up of their events. By allowing attendees to set the agenda and host their own sessions, unconferences are a potentially more relevant, engaging, and interactive event format.

The term ‘unconference’ arose as people in the technology industry started making conferences that stepped out of the traditional models. Despite a lack of pre-planning on the face of things, unconferences still require a bit of thought and some organisation be a genuine success. There is no pre-planned agenda – but instead participants convene sessions on whatever topic they like on the morning of the unconference, claiming a time slot and location.

For a successful unconference, a venue needs to be chosen that has plenty of space for multiple sessions and groups to operate at the same time. Fully equipped rooms and spacious areas for encouraging creative thinking are essential, as well as enough break-out areas for the attendees to chill out between potentially intense but productive brainstorming sessions.

The unconference format is generally thought to create a space for peer-to-peer learning, collaboration and creativity, principally by the whole group gathering together to create an agenda together. The important part is that all those gathered will have the opportunity to put conference sessions on the agenda and discuss something that they can contribute to.

Essentially, unconferences allow attendees to cover a wider range of less common topics and probe difficult or unusual areas of interest. If you work within a sector that is struggling with event attendance and engagement, then an unconference is possibly a way to revitalise your team. With larger more traditional conferences, there is pressure to focus on more general and crowd-pulling topics, whereas unconferences allow attendees to go niche and explore what interests them.

Here’s what the itinerary of what an unconference could look like:

 Welcome – explain how the day will go as well as any venue house-keeping details

  • Scheduling – setting the agenda for the day
  • First attendee-led session
  • Lunch
  • Second attendee-led session
  • Afternoon break
  • Third attendee-led session
  • Refreshments, entertainment, networking

It’s unsurprising that tech and Silicon Valley businesses found this to be a creative way to generate ideas and encourage free-associating which could drive better results or innovate ground-breaking solutions. But as budgets are being squeezed and with industries being increasingly driven by profits only, there could be an argument that the practice of ‘unconferencing’ is sadly unfeasible in 2019.

But where an unconference could succeed is in promoting an increased focus on wellbeing or to encouraging fast-paced sectors to give their employees a voice once again. Dubbed ‘the world’s first unconference’, The Annual Exchange at the Vox in Birmingham last summer was billed as the first in which attendees from the MICE industry were in the driving seat regarding content. Discussing topics including event recruitment, retaining talent, the psychology of networking, mentoring and time management, the inaugural event was a collaboration between EWL Club UK, The Future in 15 Show, ELEVATE Mentoring and the Event Marketing Association.

The unconference format does not need to form the entirety of your next event. Afterall, attendees might appreciate hearing from experts or listening to their CEO, and relish that opportunity for a bit of passive participation at some point during the day. An unconference could just be for an hour or half day and reap some good results. The chances are you’ve probably attended or taken part in an activity that features at least some aspects of an unconference already.

So much of work life is so tightly structured that a company away unconference is another chance to tackle those burning issues or to allow ideas to grow freely away from the staid office setting. Doing away with keynote speakers or a more rigid conference structure is a risk but is one that apparently pays off for many forward-thinking companies. Why not give it a try?

To read more about what the events industry personnel think of unconferences, visit