by Barbara Peterson | July 01, 2017
From the blurb in the conference brochure, the event promised to be a cross between Cirque du Soleil and a Silicon Valley boot camp. There would be rappers and performance artists to entertain, light displays to stimulate the senses. "Thought sessions" engaging the audience would replace stodgy lectures from the podium. Aspiring tech tycoons would get a shot at pitching their startups. "Chaos, but in a good way," was how one organizer summed up the vibe.

If you're thinking this must be Austin's iconic South by Southwest confab, guess again: This was the Murmuration Festival in St. Louis, which debuted last September in the city's budding tech quarter. For three days, more than 10,000 attendees got a condensed version of that noisier and longer extravaganza to the south, with the requisite mix of performances showcasing regional talent along with a roster of high-level tech-industry speakers. Corporate sponsors from the St. Louis area were prominently featured, and their support paid off: To boost attendance, a number of events were free.

Brian Hall, chief marketing officer of Explore St. Louis, says a main goal of the event was to showcase St. Louis' budding Cortex Innovation District, one of numerous "Silicon Alleys" cropping up in cities that can offer a less-expensive alternative to the California namesake. It also gave valuable exposure to what St. Louis has to offer meeting organizers. "This was very good for the St. Louis brand," Hall says. "We called attention to how affordable our destination is, for both meeting planners and attendees."

What's been dubbed the "festivalization" of meetings is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but in the last few years the trend has increased, with more than two dozen of these mash-ups held annually around the U.S. and Canada (for a list of some of the biggest, including one in London, click here). Attendance can easily hit the mid five figures and even top 100,000 on occasion. And the trend works both ways: Some events that started out as a music or film festival have added a tech or innovation conference, which can reel in higher-paying corporate attendees and sponsors. Others tack on a festival to inject new energy into an already established conference.

The Gathering, an annual brand confab, appended a music festival to the agenda at its most recent iteration, held in Banff, Alberta. The Collision Conference in New Orleans, which in two years has grown to 20,000 attendees from the tech and media worlds, took this a step further: This year, the business meeting was held over a weekend, sandwiched between two Jazz Fest events, a move that encouraged delegates to extend their stay in the city.

Even a single-night event such as the Grammy Awards can morph into conferences: After decamping from New York some 15 years ago, the Grammys have turned into a week long series of business sessions and related events in and around Los Angeles (although music's top event is set to make a return visit to the Big Apple in 2018).

But it's not just the monster events that are glomming onto the concept; organizers of smaller conferences are betting that a fizzy mix of business-networking opportunities and cutting-edge entertainment will draw attendees who might otherwise skip another boring-sounding convention. That's raising the larger question: Do conferences now have to be more like festivals to compete for conferees? Do even mid-size and smaller meetings need to jazz up their programs with musical talent and film screenings to stay relevant?

"This all comes down to knowing your audience," says Joan Eisenstodt, of Eisenstodt Associates, a Washington, D.C., meeting planning consultant, who agrees that the festivalization fad has prompted many an organizer to take a fresh look at the traditional conference agenda. Bringing in entertainment and other services outside the usual menu of offerings might require a different skill set, she notes. "You may need to tap another kind of expertise in an unfamiliar field," she says, adding that the extra effort might not advance the overall goals of that event. "Remember not long ago when we were all throwing lasers at people?" she jokes. "To add something just because it's cool doesn't mean anything  to many of today's attendees."