The word ‘festivalisation’ gets thrown around quite a bit in the events industry, as a way to describe business events – such as conferences and exhibitions – incorporating the kinds of fun we traditionally associate with music festivals.

B2B organisers are beginning to see the value in creating a sense of community around an event, and engaging audiences with unique experiences they can share over social media and beyond.

But ‘festivalisation’ is not a one-way street – it is part of a wider trend that has seen events from across the festival, conference and exhibition industries cross-pollinating.

This month, we take a look at two recent high-profile examples of this cross-pollination: first, the European Meetings and Events Conference in The Hague, Netherlands, which took a healthy amount of inspiration from the festival world.

And secondly SXSW, a gargantuan crossover beast that touches all corners of the events industry across two weeks in March.

A choir performs at the closing keynote of EMEC 19 in The Hague

What can conferences learn from festivals?

Access attended the European Meetings and Events Conference (EMEC 19) from 9-12 February on behalf of our sister magazine, Conference & Meetings World. But the extent to which the event was informed by the festival industry was striking.

The opening dinner of the conference, rather than offering us a sit-down meal, supplied a series of food trucks, each with a different stipulation. One asked us to order our food in rhyme, while another would only serve us if we were in the company of someone from Poland or Canada.

“One food truck asked us to order our food in rhyme.”

Elsewhere, a series of ‘learning journeys’ got us outside the convention centre and around The Hague. Some visited an orchestra to learn about leadership from a classical conductor, while others visited the zoo for a lecture about ape management. 

Access attended a crisis management wargame, which put us in the shoes of an imaginary company which had been hacked by Anonymous. We played out a scripted storyline which forced us to deal with an escalating crisis on the fly, exercising our diplomatic and persuasive skills to the fullest.

The ‘design thinking’ conference track had us sitting on the stage, looking out across the main auditorium of the World Forum

“The focus for EMEC 19 was to bring people together and create a sense of community,” says EMEC 19 project leader Sven Boelhouwer. “This was the thinking behind the opening dinner, and the learning journeys which preceded the conference. We encourage people to connect with those who share similar interests and aspirations.”

With a range of social activities both in the build-up to and during the conference, EMEC 19 very cleverly constructed a sense of community around itself. It meant that delegates already knew each other by the time they sat down for their first keynote and led to a massive uptake of engagement on social media.

It was a far cry from the anonymous conference experience which many organisers fall back on, where delegates will grab a coffee, sit down next to strangers they don’t speak to, and leave with some vague new ideas about sustainability or Brexit. “EMEC 19 was about changing the game,” says Boelhouwer. “I hope more conference organisers will take these kinds of risks when putting events together.”

The Daily’s Rukmini Calimachi and Michael Barbaro in conversation at SXSW 2018

What can festivals learn from conferences?

More and more festivals are also beginning to learn from the conference and exhibition industries, which have typically had a heavy focus on businesses rather than consumers. A number of festivals, such as Gothenburg’s Way Out West, have incorporated keynotes and panels into their event programmes.

But none have embraced it to the extent of SXSW in Austin, Texas, which has grown from a music festival with 700 attendees to a huge conglomeration of separate festivals, conferences and exhibitions.

SXSW 2019, which ran from 8-17 March, featured 25 different conference tracks on topics as diverse as blockchain, food, sports, journalism, retail, cannabusiness and virtual reality. It featured eight exhibitions including an art programme, gaming expo, virtual cinema and trade show. 

“SXSW 2019 featured 25 different conference tracks, eight exhibitions and five separate festivals”

To top it all off were five separate festivals: an interactive festival, a film festival, a comedy festival, a gaming festival and, lastly, the music festival. Quite a dizzying array of culture and business, all rolled into one uber-festival umbrella brand.

For some, including Laurie Kirby of festival/conference organiser FestForums, the conference tracks are the most important part of SXSW. Kirby comments: “There are many useful panels that introduce best practices for organizers of events. I derive a lot of my agenda for from what I see is happening at SXSW, in areas such as cryptocurrency, sustainability and the legalization of cannabis.”

Perhaps, then, conference elements at festivals can set themselves apart with the diverse array of topics they cover, and the often much wider audience they are able to reach. Festivals are the sector of the events industry with the most mass appeal, and if that popularity can be channelled into constructive learning, everyone benefits.

Kirby says she expects the trend to continue, too: “Virtually every festival that wants to grow is now providing edutainment, education and an opportunity for learning as an added benefit, to stay competitive in the festival marketplace.”


All the industry’s a stage

Mega-events like SXSW continue to blur the lines between festivals and conferences, and indeed between B2B and B2C events as a whole. While each sector still targets a very distinct corner of the events market, the lessons they can learn from each other are valuable, and organisers would do well to keep them in mind.