Interview with Scott Abel, Conference Organizer Extraordinaire
Last week I caught up with Scott Abel, a well-known content management guru, for an interview. As you probably know, Scott has been actively organizing conferences all over the United States for the past couple of years -- and he's had tremendous success doing it. I wanted to know the story behind Scott's move into conference organization and why he's been so successful with it.
You seem to have transformed into a conference organizer. Why? What's the story behind that?
Well, I have become -- quite by accident -- a conference organizer. I stumbled into it, actually. It all started a few years ago after I took on the role of running the annual Documentation and Training (aka DocTrain) conference. Since then, I expanded DocTrain into an annual series of conferences -- an East and West coast show in the US (and sometimes Canada), and a life sciences focused event held in Indianapolis each June.
Although I still work on a variety of content projects (writing and consulting), the majority of my time the past two years have been dedicated to creating a repeatable process (supported by software) for running conferences. I try to practice what we preach, so to speak, by using the same principles we discuss in our industry (content reuse, related content, XML, syndication) in creating the conference websites and print materials. And, I've gotten pretty good at it. I've helped eliminate about 75% of the manual tasks most conference organizers struggle with.
What was the first conference you organized? Why did you decide to organize it?
The first event I helped to organize took place 20 years ago. The Journalism School at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis started a new organization known as the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (now part of Investigative Reporters and Editors). I helped plan and implement the event, a multi-day conference designed to help journalists understand how to use computer databases and statistical analysis software in investigative reports. I think they chose me to work on the event because I had significant food and beverage experience and knew the hotel industry.
How many conferences is too many?
Today I run half a dozen conferences annually, and assist four others with marketing and outreach. I think there's certainly a limit to the number of conferences someone like me can handle. However, with a little help from computer software and some smart planning, I'm able to manage more events than most folks would dare tackle.
Which is the most popular conference? Why?
The most popular conferences are our Web Content Conference series that I produce in conjunction with the folks at Chicago-based Duo Consulting. I think it's the most popular event series because it has a very wide potential audience. After all, it's not the Illinois web, it's the world wide web. And, every organization likely needs some type of assistance creating, managing and delivering web content.
Attendees come from organizations small and large, and from every industry, including education and government. Typically, attendees of Web Content conferences are either marketing professionals, content creators and/or managers, online community managers, and information technologists. We offer tracks designed for business and marketing pros and a separate track for technologists.
What's the average attendance of each conference?
200 is about average. Some of my events reach 250 or more. Some smaller ones only attract 150 or so attendees.
Do you still do content management, or just conferences?
Well, I "do" content management every day. I manage a global network of content professionals -- The Content Wrangler Community -- as well as my blog, TheContentWrangler.com. Both of these sites are content heavy and require daily maintenance and updating.
Each of the conference websites are run on a micro-CMS called Expression Engine. But, I think what you're really asking is if I still work as a content strategist and the answer is yes. I'm both on retainer with a few firms that have special projects on which I contribute my expertise and I work on a billable hour basis writing web content for several popular software products. I also write white papers and marketing materials for several clients with whom I've worked for the last decade or so.
What's your favorite place to travel? What makes it your favorite?
Traveling is my favorite part of my role as a conference organizer. When I'm planning a conference, I get to travel to new and exciting places to evaluate hotels and resorts, and to explore the area around the potential venue. My favorite places are usually warm climates with lots of outdoor activities. Recently, I've fell in love with Palm Springs, CA. In fact, I'm moving there later this year.
How can participants get the most from a conference?
First, conference participants should have a clear idea what they intend to get from the event BEFORE they arrive. It shocks me how many people arrive at the event and have no recollection which sessions they've signed up for.
Second, attendees should step out of their comfort zone and meet as many new people as possible. You can find folks who are trying to solve similar challenges at conferences and those folks are often willing to share what they've learned if you do the same. Also, avoid multi-tasking during conference presentations. Checking email or surfing the web during a session makes it difficult to pay attention.
Tell me a story about a nightmare conference experience (in scheduling, speakers, etc.)?
I don't usually have these types of experiences. Although, I have had presenters cancel on me at the last minute due to illness or travel snafus. Those things can't be avoided, so they're not so bad.
I did have one of my presenters, Jeff Deck of the Typo Eradication Advancement League, cancel because a federal court judge ordered him not to discuss his topic for one year (part of a plea bargain Teal agreed to after being charged with defacing a public monument). I was able to find a suitable replacement. And I've invited him back to present in 2009 when he can tell his new (and more interesting story) about his experience running afoul of the law.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I see myself living in Southern California and preparing for my future job as Mayor of Palm Springs. Okay, I'm not sure I want to be mayor just yet, but I'm not marking it off the list. I also see myself as an online community leader. I'm very excited by the power of social media and am starting a new project in which I'll lead a community of conference organizers. I hope to grow The Content Wrangler Community and explore the possibilities leading such a community present.
That said, I also see myself taking some time off to focus on my life dream -- becoming a music producer. I plan to work on several remix projects in hopes that one of my tracks might make it to the top of the Billboard dance charts.
Check out one of the upcoming conferences Scott is organizing.
Documentation and Training East
Oct 29-Nov 1, 2008, Burlington, MA
Intelligent Content 2009
Jan 29-30, 2009 Palm Springs, CA
Web Content Tampa Bay
February 17-18, 2009, Clearwater, FL
Documentation and Training West 2009
March 17-20, 2009 Palm Springs, CA
Documentation and Training Life Sciences
June 3-5, 2009, Indianapolis, IN
Web Content Chicago
June 15-16, 2009, Chicago, IL
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.