Creative Commons License photo credit: steevithak

When members of an online community meet face to face, something magical happens. Connections strengthen and bonds are solidified. It helps people appreciate the community even more.

The prospect of organizing an in-person meetup can seem pretty daunting. Is it just a quick hello at a bar or coffee shop? Or is it a bigger event to justify a trip? What city do you host it in? What venue? When? What will people do?  Will you offer food? How much money do you need and where will it come from? What about insurance and legalities? Even if it is a lot of work, there is great value to be had in hosting your own offline event that stands on its own.

But it can also make a lot of sense to do something at a conference that already exists, that is related to your community. For example, if your community is about entertainment, movies or comic books, you could do something at Comic-Con. If it’s about knitting, maybe you go to STITCHES. If golf is the subject of your community, then you might go to the PGA Merchandise Show.

Representing Your Community at the Conference

Your community can have a presence at the conference, which can help to grow your community. Maybe that means that just you and/or other staff members are there as ambassadors, networking as any other conference attendee. Maybe you have a booth or you are a sponsor, if you can spare the money. Update: read my article on conference sponsorship.

Connecting with Members at the Conference

Some of your community may already be going to the conference. But those who aren’t coming now have added incentive. They may have been thinking about the conference but now that they know that community members will there, that’s the push they needed to attend. It may also be easier for people to justify the expense of a long distance trip to attend the conference and meet community members, than it would be if it was just for a community-centric event.

Since they are coming for the conference, that means you don’t have to be everything for them. They’ll be spending a lot of time at the conference, at things you don’t need to plan. You aren’t the source of their entertainment. The conference is. You can organize times to meet up with community members and then they can attend panels and walk the exhibits together.

This will likely lead to other informal, private meetups only for your community members, like a dinner or some drinks. If you run a golf community, maybe your members will want to play a round together.

Suitcasing and Outboarding

Just to be clear, for those who know what these terms mean, I’m not talking about suitcasing or outboarding or, at least, I’m not trying to. What I am talking about is driving people from your community to register and attend the conference, in order to connect with each other. This includes people who might not have been attending the conference at all, had you not suggested it.

I am not talking about taking people away from the conference to some publicly promoted, unofficial party or event. I am not talking about handing out fliers on the trade show floor or doing things that official sponsors would otherwise do. I am not talking about competing with official events or sponsors. If you want to do those things, you need to do them in conjunction with the conference. Otherwise, you’ll alienate yourself. In fact, if a sponsorship or booth is cheap enough, it may be worth it just to buy one to support the conference and that relationship.

What I am talking about in this article is the stuff that most of us do when attending events. We have private dinners and meetups with people we already know, or we get drinks, or we play a round of golf. We attend, seek out like-minded people, introduce ourselves and talk about what we do.

I feel like there is a difference between “attend the conference and connect with people I already know” and “host a big party and walk around inviting everyone at the conference to it.” You can only control people to a certain extent and the actions I am talking about bring people to the event, not take people away from it. That said, different conferences have different policies or might feel differently. So if there is the chance of an issue, you might want to reach out to the conference organizer before you promote the conference to your members.

If they don’t want you, just take that as a hint and don’t send your members to that event. There is probably another event that will want you, assuming you aren’t crossing the lines that I set forth above.

It’s Less Risky Than Doing Your Own Event

It’s definitely not the same as hosting your own conference for a day or more, where you can set programming and hopefully bring a lot of community members together in one place. But to do that, and get a reasonable number of people to travel for it, is actually quite a challenge. This is a more attainable goal with less risk.

If only a handful of members come, people still have a great time because they have the big conference. If no one comes, you can still promote the community by being at the event. But if you are the conference, and only a handful of members attend, that could be a big letdown. That’s the risk that the conference is assuming, which is why you want to support the conference itself and not take away from it.

Doing it this way will also give you insight into how many members you could count on to attend an in-person event. If a ton of members show up simply because you told them that you’d be there, that is a clue that you might be able to justify your own event. Either way, it’s a win.