When was the last time you attended a conference without having an agenda? Nothing specific to learn, no one specific to meet, nothing to buy, nothing to sell. Who would do that? Turns out, thousands of people would, including me. Since 2005, the Aspen Ideas Festival (AIF) has attracted an audience that attends to swim in ideas and fresh perspectives, and be exposed to new ways of thinking about issues old and new.
AIF is described as a program of events that includes discussions, seminars, panels and tutorials from journalists, designers, innovators, politicians, diplomats, presidents, judges, musicians, artists and writers. This year, Vice President Joe Biden, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Christie Hefner, US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, soprano Renée Fleming, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, David Brooks, Arthur Brooks, Tom Friedman and over four hundred similar luminaries spoke, walked the Aspen campus and hung out with those of us who weren’t on the stage.
While this is only my third year attending AIF, I will say that, for me, this meets my test of an event that is indispensable and irresistible. I will not miss it. Let me share the top five reasons why this event is so powerful for me, with the hope that you can see the application for the events you host.
- The AIF is an ideas meritocracy. There is a strange and compelling equality of thought at this event. In spite of the diversity of the great minds that lead the conversations, every session has an equally fascinating array of ideas, perspectives and insights from the audience. The sessions here are more like dialogues and hosted salons vs. monologues and prepared speeches. All ideas can be expressed and heard—the event is designed as one large conversation.
- The environment is designed with intention and on purpose. Sure, the setting is a beautiful outdoor environment at the base of Aspen Mountain, with flowing streams and beautiful foliage. But it’s more than that: the open space, the unlimited seating, as well as the abundance of places to eat, connect and relax are what bring this environment to life. You don’t need to be in Aspen to take a page from this playbook.
- I feel my best. While there is ample supply of super foods, kale, fresh carrot juice and healthy snacks, it all tastes surprisingly great. Cupcakes, coffee and hot dogs are served too, but there’s a balance, and you can’t help but squeeze in a few healthy bites. I feel more energized and engaged when I’m grazing all day and eating more green than brown food.
- Every session is truly curated, crafted and cultivated to engage, inspire and stimulate—EVERY session. There is a wide range of interesting themes such as “Reimagining Capitalism,” “The Future of Food,” “Mysteries of the Universe” and “Global Affairs.” The real magic however is in the level of integration, the thoughtful selection of panels (most sessions are two experts on a subject debating and discussing key ideas) and allocating at least a third of the time to audience participation, allowing the conversations to continue even when the session is over. Very few events I attend have a direct connection between the main conversation (General Session) and the “breakout” sessions that consume the majority of the conference, but AIF does. There’s a big opportunity here.
- This event leaves an impression on me—a lasting impression. I feel smarter, more inspired and congruent when I leave. In some ways I feel changed: the people I meet, the way I think and what I’m thinking about. An event should be an event, an experience that marks our thinking and, over time, our actions. I don’t know at this moment what I will do differently (I have just returned as you are reading this), but I do feel I am in some way changed as a result of being there. This should be our goal—your event should influence hearts and minds and in some way change the behavior of those you invite to your event. I think that is the responsibility of the organizer of an event.
Now, I know that an ideas festival is not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s not the point. The point is that the Aspen Institute knows its audience, has designed an experience that is remarkable, and has created a community that has life, meaning and connection well before and long after this summer festival.
The experience that is created for this event is possible and, in fact, a sine qua non for your organization. The bar has been set by this event and the myriad others that are changing the game—the expectations of your audience may not be there yet, but why make them wait? Or worse, why let a competitor get there first?
Here’s to new ideas. Better yet, here’s to putting them into action.