Gartner’s Symposium/ITxpo conferences are a mammoth undertaking. For the second year, I get to serve as the chair for the European conference, to be held in Cannes November 2-5, 2009. I work together with colleagues organizing Symposia in Cape Town, Sydney, Tokyo and especially Dave Cearley, the Orlando chair.
The series of Symposium conferences is a big event for Gartner clients and analysts. For analysts, it is the flagship opportunity to get in front of clients, gain exposure for new ideas, and demonstrate what they can do. Customers look forward to an intense week where they can hear about a wide variety of IT topics from all of Gartner’s research groups, meet with vendors and peers from other organizations, and talk directly with many of the analysts who produce the research they use all year. Obviously, a lot of effort goes into these events, so let me describe a bit of how it happens.
I will talk mostly about preparations for Orlando and Cannes, the two largest editions. These events are closely coordinated, because they are the closest in size and timing, and the interests and requirements of the potential attendees align most directly. Cape Town, Tokyo and Sydney tend to be smaller events, which allows them to focus more on the specific needs of the local markets.
Formal preparations start when the conference chairs, together with Events staff and research managers define the overall structure and themes for the event. This year, we are putting more focus on the Gartner for IT leaders’ roles around which more and more of Gartner’s research is organized. The conference is divided into specific tracks for each role, plus one strategic initiatives track for content which crosses several or all roles.
A track manager is responsible for the content in each track. Track managers have responsibility for both the Cannes and Orlando events, and also work with the chairs for the other Symposia. While much of the content appears in several venues, there is room for quite a bit of divergence across the geographies. Analysts are encouraged to tailor their presentations for the different locations to allow for local differences.
The larger analyst community gets involved when the Call for Contributions goes out in April. Analysts use an online tool to contribute their ideas for the presentations they would like to develop, along with background information like the target audience and why the topic is important.
Track managers use these proposals to select the content for their tracks, based on the slot allocations determined primarily by the respective conference chairs. Conference chairs divide the the total number of session slots available as determined by budget, rooms available at the conference venue and scheduling across the different tracks. Track allocations are driven by expected profile of delegates and the need to have adequate coverage of every track. We use surveys of last year’s and prospective delegates as to what topics are important, as well as delegate speaker evaluations.
Inevitably, many (if not all) track managers are disappointed by their allocations. There is always far more content than can be presented, so competition for the scarce slots can get intense. Selecting the content for tracks feels like pouring 30 liters of content into 10 liter sacks. There is always good stuff that doesn’t make it in.
The overall agenda starts to take shape in May and June, and is pretty nailed down by July, when the detailed scheduling process begins. This involves assigning sessions and presenters to time slots and rooms. It starts with an intense day sticking bits of colored cards onto sheets hanging on the walls of a conference room. Each card represents a session, and each color a track.
The goal is to create a balanced agenda with few content clashes (where there are two presentations at the same time that would appeal to the same people) and no speaker clashes (with analysts speaking at the same time in two different rooms). We also try to make sure there is something for every role in every session and that analysts aren’t too overloaded with back to to back presentations. Delegates dislike it when there are several sessions they want to see at the same time, and analysts don’t perform as well when they are run ragged from too many pitches on one day.
After the initial planning sessions, the agenda is transferred to spreadsheets and online tools. The next couple weeks are taken up with fine tuning and lots of small changes, based on analyst availability, last minute ideas, content changes, etc. As the weeks pass, it becomes increasingly hard to make changes, as each shift triggers a cascade of other changes to minimize clashes. This information is posted to the online Agendabuilder so that customers can begin to plan which sessions they want to see. Click here to see the current agenda for Cannes and Orlando.
Analysts spend July and August building and reviewing their presentations, which need to be finalized well before the conference. Every presentation goes through a rigorous review and editing process where other analysts examine their peers’ work for accuracy, quality and to contribute new ideas and suggestions. Editors check the content for consistency, quality and format them based on standards applied to all Gartner presentations.
In this post, I have only talked about the analysts, but something as big as Symposium obviously requires work from many more people. This is also a busy time for the people working with sponsors, planning logistics, setting up the thousands of 1 on 1 meetings, negotiating with keynote speakers, reserving hotels, designing the graphics, preparing the IT network, and on and on. It is a lot of work, but is always worth it.