5 minutes with a conference disruptor

Experientialist CJ Holden, advertising guru Adam Ferrier and strategist Holly Ransom are the co-creators of the s p a c e series of events. With no schedule and no set speakers, the guests make up the program and share ideas among themselves.

CIM spoke to CJ about their mission to disrupt the speaker-audience relationship and offer something different in a crowded events landscape ahead of his talk at the 2020 Business of Events conference on March 19 at Luna Park, Sydney.

What prompted the need for a new outlook? I feel the whole speaker-audience model is slowly dying. Unless it’s a speaker who’s not spoken before, all of us can access ideas on our phones and see keynote speeches and get the essence of what people are talking about.

However, if you’re going to try to step away from the common model and do something different, you have to be careful not to overpromise and underdeliver.

I think the most common mistake is not living up to the brand promise or message. I’ve been to lots of different events that sell you it on one thing and when you attend it’s just like any other conference. That is so frustrating.

The idea for s p a c e? The idea for s p a c e came from two realisations. The first was way back in 2015 and the event I was running had become a little bit of an echo chamber. I was sitting in the conference – on paper it was stunning, but the conversations that were being had, the content on the stage, I just felt was really boring.

I wasn’t learning anything. The people in the room are at the forefront of their industry, surely they weren’t learning anything either? That was when I had a lightbulb moment where we needed to shift from talking trends to inspiring trends.

The second part, who I am and what I’ve always done in my roles is to look at what other people are doing and do the opposite.

So these two mindsets merging together – the power of sharing ideas and that I like to do things differently – I kind of stumbled onto the fact that in the world that we live in, we have so much access to ideas and speakers and thoughts. But what is it that the person sitting next to you at a conference might know that you don’t know?

What’s holding things back? People that trust a little bit too much in the status quo. Just because that’s the way you’ve always done it, doesn’t mean that’s the right way. I hate seeing the ‘that’s the way we do it here’ attitude.

It frustrates me that a lot of conference organisers just see that it needs to be bigger and bigger and they need to sell more tickets. There’s also a margin in creating something small and exclusive that’s very high quality. Not only can you charge more, but people are prepared to pay more as well.

How to begin trying new things? If you’re in a position where they can go out and trial a small version to test it and see if it works, then go back and get buy-in. It’s a really tricky one and it depends on the organisation. My first question would be whether I’m in the right organisation.