by Tom Isler | October 01, 2006

Camden, Maine


Local lure: International
attendees flock to
Camden, Maine, for the annual
PopTech conference.

Twenty years ago, a group of retired CIA officers and other foreign-service workers decided they needed to enliven Camden, Maine. Each had moved to the postcard harbor town independently, attracted to its cozy village with a population just shy of 5,000. But, during the snowy winter months, after the seasonal shops had locked their doors, Camden tended to be quiet. Very quiet.

In February 1987, the group took advantage of their federal government contacts and organized a conference to discuss foreign affairs. The first Camden Conference was held at a local congregational church and attracted only a few dozen people, but it grew steadily and eventually moved into the 500-seat Camden Opera House. This year’s conference sold out in 36 hours and, to accommodate overflow from the opera house, organizers were compelled to open up satellite venues linked to the proceedings via a video feed on the town’s cable-access channel. The influx of people to Camden, notes Mac Deford, treasurer of the board for the conference, made the town “look like summer in the middle of winter.”

Such a transformation points to a simple fact: Away from the city lights and high-season crowds, meeting planners can enjoy the run of small towns, spreading a group across a cluster of inns and bed-and-breakfasts and offering a refreshing environment for meetings while getting great deals from small business owners who are thrilled to fill their inns and restaurants during the low seasons.

The success of the Camden Conference paved the way for the creation of the Camden Technology Conference, or CTC, in 1997. Some prominent residents, including Robert Metcalfe, who founded 3Com, a Marlborough, Mass.-based provider of voice and data networking solutions, and who shares four patents for the Ethernet; and summer resident John Sculley, former CEO of both PepsiCo and Apple Computer, decided to organize a three-day event that would focus on the intersection of technology and culture and draw an international audience, as opposed to the more regional crowd that attended the Camden Conference.

The CTC had the full support of the town. In fact, a committee recently had been formed to study how Camden could generate more business during the “shoulder seasons” of early spring or late fall. “One of [the committee’s] recommendations was to capture the idea of ‘Campus Camden,’ to use existing infrastructure, both public and private, to attract meetings,” says Roger Moody, who was town manager at the time.

Nothing new had to be built. “We realized that we had a convention center -- there just wasn’t a roof over it. It was downtown Camden,” says Perry Gates, president of the Camden Downtown Business Group.

Despite the fact that none of Camden’s hotels had more than 45 rooms, the town was well equipped to handle meetings of up to 500 people. Eighteen inns and B&Bs combined to offer 279 guest rooms within walking distance of downtown, and hundreds more were a short drive away in Rockport and Lincolnville. The opera house received a $1 million overhaul in the early 1990s and could serve as the main meeting venue. Local harbor-view restaurants would host meals, and the village green could be tented to host a cocktail reception or ice cream social. Everything was within a radius of a few blocks.

The founders of the CTC, which was later renamed PopTech, discovered that visionaries in various scientific fields were eager to flock to Camden, despite the two-hour drive north of the airport in Portland, to ponder the future of ideas and technology while enjoying a weekend of Maine hospitality. But no one was happier than local business owners, who have made a ritual of hanging “Welcome PopTech Attendees” posters in their windows each October.

Matthew Levin, general manager of the Lord Camden Inn, one of PopTech’s “headquarters” properties, says he offers the conference a few complimentary rooms each year as a sign of appreciation for the business it generates.

“We would love to entertain three or four more conferences similar to PopTech or the Camden Conference between Columbus Day and Memorial Day,” adds Levin. “We’re pretty packed in the summer, but we would make quite a good destination in the fall for meetings -- a boutique conference, that would be a good name for it.”

Both the Camden Conference and PopTech were outgrowths of the Camden community, but the conference organizers say nothing would prevent an outside meeting planner from following their model to host meetings in any number of quaint towns.