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Gathering the Tribe: Why user conferences are on the rise

Breathe in. Warrior 1 Pose. Warrior 2. Chaturanga. Breathe out.

This isn’t your typical way to start the day with professional colleagues, but then again, this isn’t your typical suits-and-breakouts kind of convention. This is a user conference, where connection and experience are just as important as industry learning and product immersion. From gatherings for a few hundred in pristine mountain settings to thousands converging at the Salt Palace, more Utah tech companies (and some not-so-techy companies) are hosting user conferences—and seeing positive results.

User whats?

“User conferences are a great way to bring together exceptional education, training and networking for your customer base,” explains Stuart Gold, vice president, corporate events, field and partner marketing at Domo, a cloud-based business management platform.

BambooHR’s event and customer marketing manager, Brenda Travassos, concurs. “User conferences provide an avenue through which customers feel valued and heard. By bringing users together, mutual respect, loyalty and lifelong relationships are formed. User conferences are becoming more common as Utah tech companies are realizing now more than ever that their customers and customer loyalty are an integral part of success.”

Bottom line, user conferences are a platform for companies to offer their clients in-depth training and interaction with their company’s latest products and services. Where it’s relevant, organizations like human resources software company BambooHR ensure their conference training is industry-certified as continuing education. Others like Domo organize entire breakout tracks focused on different disciplines, such as marketing, sales, operations and product training.

Companies are paying acute attention to what their attendees will take away from the experience. Along with their internal leaders and experts, they’re bringing in headliners like Former First Lady Michelle Obama (at Pluralsight Live), former Netflix chief talent officer Patty McCord (at BambooHR’s Elevate Summit and O.C. Tanner’s Influence Greatness), Pixar’s Ed Catmull and Chicago Cubs’ Theo Epstein (at Domopalooza), and many more.

As for the fun and connection? Companies are mixing it up with everything from morning yoga to evening cocktails with industry experts. And don’t forget the entertainment, whether that’s low-key fun and games, or all-out star-studded events like Domopalooza’ s concerts featuring Jason Derulo, Macklemore, Miguel and Kesha.

O.C. Tanner Influence GreatnessAn ideal setting

When it comes to venue, the experts say it’s important to find a location that suits the attendance numbers, as well as the needs of your event. Both BambooHR and O.C. Tanner hosted their first conferences at Snowbird Resort, which provided not only right-sized meeting space for their groups of 300-plus, but also an atmosphere that echoed their conference themes. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the resort offered guests built-in attractions with the resort’s tram, alpine coaster, restaurants and more.

Pluralsight Live welcomed its approximately 1,500 attendees to The Grand America in downtown Salt Lake. With versatile space for large group meetings and breakouts—and well-appointed lodging—the venue offered the support and flexibility the event required.

Domopalooza has rocked it at The Grand America for the past three years, but will make the move to the Salt Palace next year to accommodate its growing crowds. “We attribute the growth of Domopalooza to the value our customers, prospects and partners realize from attending,” says Gold.

Domo is not the only company to make the leap to the Salt Palace’s expansive space. “We are seeing an increase in trends with user groups looking to host events at the Salt Palace Convention Center,” says Daniel Hayes, general manager for the convention center. “We have 515,000 square feet of exhibit space, and those 5,000-person user conferences are looking at taking 75 to 100 percent of that. Because of the tech infrastructure we have in place, we can accommodate tech user groups well.”

Expanding the reach

Garrett Clark, director of operations for Silicon Slopes, an organization supporting Utah entrepreneurs and businesses, sees the trend toward more user conferences as a signal of Utah’s increasing economic strength. “There’s a correlation with a strong startup community and a growing company ecosystem. Once you’re established, have a big customer base, and have the marketing spend, you can do these conferences more and more,” says Clark.

Pluralsight, which provides online developer, creative and IT training, is a prime example of company growth prompting user conference development. “Our community has been growing rapidly and our users have clearly indicated that they wanted a full-scale event to learn, gather practical insights and make connections with other conference attendees,” says Heather Zynczak, Pluralsight’s chief marketing officer. “We saw a tremendous opportunity to bring experts, learners and executives together with a line-up of the who’s who in technology.”

For O.C. Tanner, a global recognition and engagement company, its Influence Greatness conference is an expansion of the company’s long tradition of Executive Recognition Summits held in major cities in the United States and Canada. With its first-year user conference a sell-out success, the company is looking forward to building on the event next year.

“User conferences can provide a more relevant, targeted and high-touch experience, including focused content, hands-on workshops and sense of networking that broader conferences just can’t offer,” says Dan Martinez, director of marketing at O.C. Tanner. “Our conference is a great way to connect with our attendees and really be the service provider we pride ourselves on—one that is with them, catered to them, and ready to provide any insights, tips, solutions or connections that help them reach and exceed their goals.”

So, if your company is on the grow, you may want to invite your expanding tribe to enjoy some quality time with your team and industry experts at a conference of your own. Just remember to make it all your own—if cobra pose isn’t your thing at 7 a.m., then go ahead and focus on the after-hours mixer.

Pulling it Off

How exactly does one throw a killer user conference? By paying attention to the details.

Pluralsight held its inaugural conference this fall, and Heather Zynczak, chief marketing officer, shares the company’s initial takeaways: “Start early and plan in advance. Think long-term—set aggressive targets for that first year, but understand you’re establishing an annual tradition that will build progressively year over year. Remember that the user conference is a customer event. How will they benefit from what you’re planning and producing?”

Brenda Travassos, event and customer marketing manager for BambooHR, agrees that the key is to start planning early. “User conferences take months to plan and execute, and can be mindboggling and time-intensive. Start with a good team and C-level buy in. Always be willing to roll with the punches but stay on target with your goals and your budget. User conferences aren’t always about elaborate parties; they can and should promote relationships to advance the mission of the company.”