So how do they do it? How do the volunteer organizers of World Domination Summit pull off a top-notch, world-class event – including tripling the attendance in the past year?
Perhaps we should start with what in the world IS the World Domination Summit? While you’re likely to get a few thousand answers when you ask the attendees, to my mind the event is a gathering of creative, innovative, entrepreneurial-minded folks from dozens of countries that takes place over a long weekend in Portland, Oregon every July. It just wrapped up its third year. Yup, its third year.
Year one – 2011 – saw almost 500 people gather for two days of speakers, workshops and casual networking meet-ups. 2012 that number doubled to about 1000. This year, the attendance was 2800, filling the historic Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland for two days of presentations along with several other smaller workshops and meet-ups where attendees got to listen to and interact with authors, speakers, literary agents, entrepreneurs and other creative folks.
And every one of them seemed to be in a damn good mood all weekend long!
The event was started a few years ago by author and blogger and world traveler Chris Guillebeau, who had been mulling over the idea of gathering some of his blog readers together for a couple of days of listening to interesting speakers, exchanging information and learning. He hoped he’d get 50 people – and ended up selling out almost 500 tickets, with demand for much more.
After the first year – in which he admits he lost around $20K – he realized he needed to get a little more organized on how to actually run a successful event. Well, the event was successful from the attendee’s standpoint, but when the organizers lose twenty grand, something has to change.
As the preparation and organization for year two of WDS wound down, they realized they’d have about $100,000 left over. What to do with the money? After all, the idea was not to make a profit (although they didn’t want to lose any), but to help people out in their endeavors. It was decided to give the money back to the attendees, and at the end of the event each person got an envelope with a $100 bill and a note urging them to put the ‘funds to good use. Start a project, surprise someone, or do something entirely different – it’s up to you.’
Of course, there’s a large social media component to the event, with an online searchable database so you can connect with and learn about other attendees, as well as overt promotion of the event hashtag #wds2013. Loads of tweets and events, packed with thousands of photos, showed up continuously throughout the weekend. As I’ve observed many times before, events and social media fit together like hand and glove – they’re made for each other.
Many attendees have posted photos on their Flickr accounts, including this cool collection from Mike Rohde, which gives a good representation of the event through his creative note-taking.
Now that the third year of WDS is over, what made it such a successful event?
From my vantage point as a twice-attendee (2012 and 2013), I think there are two keys: first, it’s absolutely non-corporate in any way shape or form. There are no logos anywhere (except WDS), and no mentions of any underwriters. I admit I really appreciate that aspect. Second, it comes off as a genuinely helpful gathering of like-minded people who simply love getting together.
At the Saturday morning keynote from presentation expert Nancy Duarte, I sat next to a woman named Vicki and asked her why she came. “I’m addicted to inspiration,” was her response. I’ve been reflecting on that ever since. Addicted to inspiration. We all want and need inspiration – and the World Domination Summit gives it – in spades.
The speaker line-up ranges from well-known authors, writers and radio host to not-so-well known people who simply have a great story to tell. In between there are interesting highlights of attendee stories, the Unconventional Race, lunch meet-ups, indie-movie screenings, yoga breaks, wide-ranging workshops and much more – all topped off by a private party in downtown Portland at Pioneer Square, which got passers-by wondering just what the hell was going on behind the fences!
At one of the gatherings, entrepreneurial expert Andrew Warner interviewed Chris and they spent time discussing the money aspect of the event. Surprisingly (or not), there are no secrets. As Chris said, there are 2800 people attending, most of whom paid about $500 – do the math (it’s around $1.3M gross). But as he said, renting the halls, producing the various pieces of swag, offering catering for mid-morning snacks, renting Pioneer Courthouse Square et al – it all adds up. The event was expensive to produce – and all of the speakers are non-paid volunteers (what wasn’t clear is if their travel and lodging were paid for; I’d be curious to know that).
In other words – the World Domination Summit is unique in a true sense of the word: there’s nothing quite like it in the world. Attendees feel like they’re ‘in’ on something that no one else is.
- Be unique – do something that is unlike anything else.
- Don’t taint it with corporate sponsorships, which ultimately take away from the uniqueness.
- Offer a wide variety of speakers.
- Surround the event with mini-gatherings to spur more networking.
- Have a great sense of humor about how everything works – and be ready for things to go sideways.
- Be open about all aspects of the event.
Check out the complete set of #WDS2013 photos provided by event organizers here.