Paul Campbell

The Conference Crash

It’s been two weeks since Úll, the conference about building great products, that we co-run with Tapadoo.

One thing about conference planning that is not often discussed is the huge emotional impact that it has on the organisers, particularly those in the “enthusiast” category of event planning, when the events are planned not as a day job, but out of passion.

People often speak to me of “the conference crash”. The conference crash is effectively a feeling of deep depression or emptiness for the few days after the conference is over. I believe that it is often felt after things like weddings too. It’s easy to see why this happens, but it’s also easy to run into it without being prepared.

Conference planning is an extremely intense task. Hundreds of people depend on the organisers for directions, local advice, hotel booking, day-to-day orientation. Added to the already stressful organisational workload is a cocktail of emotions. People traveling from thousands of miles to attend an event that you planned. People of high esteem on your line up. A complaint comes in and knocks you for six. A compliment for something else nullifies the complaint and causes elation. Everything is magnified.

Suddenly there’s nobody left. The run up to the conference is like an ever increasing crescendo until game day, and now, crushing emptiness, an emotional vacuum, and everyone has gone home. All of the conversations you wanted to have never happened because you were constantly switched on. All of the things you could fix … they’re done. All of that effort, and now simply silence.

The crash comes the day after the conference.

It can manifest itself in different ways, and over the seven conferences I’ve organised, it’s felt different every time. The first time it was a huge sense of loneliness and foreboding. In subsequent years, it was mainly just a feeling of worthlessness, like all of my hard work had amounted to nothing. More recently, it has manifest itself as a niggling doubt that I’m not good enough, but I’ve tried to channel that into determination to do better. Either way, it hits me, every time, in some shape or form.

My Úll co-founder Dermot Daly and I have spoken about the conference crash each year and how it has affected us. This year was particular in that both of us experienced it in exactly the opposite ways.

It hit Dermot hard. He was back to work immediately, dealing with work that backed up during the conference. Having prepared himself last year after year one, he was able to come down slowly, but this year I really felt for him when he described how he felt worse than any of the previous years.

Without strictly planning for the crash, I managed to create an ideal ”wind-down” for myself. The day after the conference, I attended a small after party. It was about 20 people, and we cooked up some steaks and had a few drinks.

The next day, I flew to Edinburgh with Adam Brault, a fellow enthusiast conference organiser. Apart from lively conversation with him, I also got a chance to catch up with Úll speakers Jim Dalrymple and Matt Gemmell, and the conversation focussed mainly on the conference. I wasn’t really in a mindset to talk about much else, and given that I didn’t get the chance to talk to Jim properly while the event was on, it was great just to grab a coffee and chat about what worked and what didn’t.

Quite possibly unique to Scotland, we were able to jump on a train be in Glasgow an hour later, where I caught up with Úll attendee James Thomson and his wife: again, debriefing with an attendee without any pressures of organisation on my shoulders.

After that, the unintended master stroke: a friend’s 40th birthday party, on Islay. Five nights, disconnected from the internet, with the focus entirely off me. The timing was perfect. A complete change of scenery, switched off, time to reflect with friends. Perspective.

The combination of chatting to speakers and attendees in person, just days after the event, followed by a break, really helped me to wind-down, to address the crash directly: by first talking about the event and how it made me feel, and by then surrounding myself with people who were entirely disconnected from it.

The lesson here I think is this: the crash will come. It’s inevitable. If you expect it, you can plan for it. What worked for me was a careful wind-down, chatting to attendees outside of the conference environment, and taking a few days to do something completely different.

Viewing the conference as a process of many months leading up to a crescendo, and planning for a graceful wind-down should certainly help avoid an emotional crash, and leave you hungry for more, rather than regretting you ever did it!