Conference Burnout

With Conference Success Comes Burnout

From 2015 to 2019 Mark Scully’s Learn Inbound conferences have had continuous year on year growth. Before his conference, there were no world-class inbound marketing events in Ireland. He set the standard, but at what cost to him?

“Those few weeks of planning and executing the event are incredibly hard on the body. The lack of sleep takes its toll. It will mentally drain you. It’ll knock you in every way possible. It’s taken me weeks, sometimes months, to get back to normal.” I’ll delve into this more later, but first a little more background on Mark.

Learn Inbound logo - Interview about conference burnout with Mark Scully

Mark started his career as an in-house digital marketer. He sought out marketing conferences to attend:

“I was keen to step up my knowledge and become more passionate about marketing as a whole,” he says with his soft North of Ireland accent.

He had no intention of getting into the events game but still noted that the events outside of Ireland had a “different standard of speakers, different quality of the experience and a different kind of community vibe that I hadn’t seen locally in the Dublin market or Ireland.”

A Chance Tweet That Led to a Career in Events

Then one day as he was scrolling through his Twitter feed and saw an opportunity. “A big name speaker based in Europe put out a tweet saying that he would be in Ireland and was there any marketing events for him to speak at. He got no responses.” Mark couldn’t let this chance go, so he told him that he’d an event for him to speak at. Then he hustled. “I thought it couldn’t be that hard to organise a meetup. I put something together in seven days, we had fifty people at it.” That’s when the event addiction set in:

“You get an excitement when you see people turning up for an experience that you created.”

It took him sixteen months before he created another event. “The reason why I didn’t do anything for that length of time is because meetups are forgettable. I needed to create a brand. A brand can have a human connection and can create a community.” His exposure to international events taught him that he had to invest in top name speakers, “I decided to take that chance.”

That decision saw him secure Rand Fishkin (Founder of Moz and Sparktoro), Oli Gardner (Co-founder of Unbounce) and Joanna Lord (CMO of Skyscanner) to name but a few.

The Threat of Conference Burnout was Always There

He’s hosted 18 conferences in four years. That’s a lot of lanyards. Producing that level of output with the lean team that Mark has means that stress is always ebbing away in the background but it was in 2015 that it crashed to shore:

“Burnout really kicked in when we shifted from a free event to a paid event in 2015. It’s a completely different game when you’re trying to charge people for an experience that they have had before for free. The conversion rate is so much lower, then you face questions like, ‘Why are you charging me for this?’ People don’t care or understand the associated costs. We had to take all of that feedback but we still had to get on with things.”

He couldn’t shrug the criticism and, in some ways, felt that he was trapped in a prison that he created. Even now the residual effects of that year have taken deep roots.

Mark Scully from Learn Inbound

“There’s always a fear of failure, you’re always going to wonder, how are people going to react if this does not work out. How are you going to deal with the fact that people turned up for an experience that is not quite what you sold to them. What’s going to happen if your speakers don’t have a good experience? They are meant to be your brand advocates and if they don’t have a good experience then word gets around in the industry.”

The Fear of Becoming Irrelevant

The community he’s created had him tethered to a rhythm that he could not extricate himself from.

“I was always scared and in fear, but I had to be ready to go again because people developed an expectation from the brand. I couldn’t take a moment to pause to reflect on the positives.”

“As an organiser most of the things that you’re going to see are the negatives. Those are the things that get stuck in your mind. You’re going to put more time into those than you ever would the positive, because ultimately all event organisers are trying to be perfectionists. They want to deliver the best experience possible because they know that the industry is competitive, they know that to keep that audience they have to deliver it time and time again. That’s a hard job.”

Dreading the Lead Up

It’s a cruel irony for a lot of event organisers that the conference idea that they’ve created and got motivated for is also the one that they can’t wait to be over with when it eventually arrives.

“Leading up to it I felt emotionally drained. In my mind I just wanted it over with. All the excitement that people around me felt, I don’t feel. All I could see was a number of challenges. Things that haven’t be completed. I was just desperate for it to finish, all I could think of was the other side.”

“I was awake forty hours during the two day conference. I couldn’t sleep, I was mentally destroyed on every level, my mind was racing.”

“I’d wake up and write down things that needed to be done.” He was self-aware enough to know that he couldn’t maintain this approach long term. “Around that time I was saying to people, don’t allow me to do this again! Please try to hammer some common sense into me or at least force me to take a different route with this. Force me to treat this differently.”

Combating Conference Burnout

For Mark it’s all about understanding his triggers.

“I’m an introvert. Events drain me a lot. When you’re already shattered, it’s not a place I’m comfortable. It’s weird, I know, but as an event organiser I’m not comfortable at events!”

He recognises that these conditions mean that he has a tendency to lash out as part of his conference burnout. To stop that from happening he puts a trusted person between him and the rest of the team,

“I’m not the most focused person in the world, and at that point my mind is spinning. I’m processing so much information and drinking a lot of coffee so my blood pressure is all over the place. I think it’s best to have someone between me and the team that can communicate things that need to be done so that I can focus on the bigger items like the speakers, the MC and the AV. These are the things that are critical to the event happening.”

He also aims to fit in time away from the event so that he can decompress. “You’ve got to take small moments for yourself. At the last event I ran I wanted to thank the AV team, so I popped across the road to grab some coffee and snacks for them.”

“I was gone for ten minutes, but that was ten minutes to get outside the venue. You’ve got to block off those little time slots and let your team know when you’ll be gone.”

These moments allow Mark to step out of a highly pressured environment to check in with himself and to gain some perspective.

The other change that he has made is to allow himself to believe that he did a great job, but it’s still a work in progress. “What gets me going again is factoring in time to reflect on the positive. I go through every single tweet after the event. I could be up to 6:00am going through them all and responding to ones that haven’t been covered by our team because I want to immerse myself. There are still sometimes when I’m searching for the negative because I don’t want to believe the positive!”

Is Mental Health a Difficult Topic for Event Organisers?

If you’re going through a hard time in your personal life there is solace in knowing that you’re not alone. There are a myriad of podcasts, blogs and services that are there for you. The world of events seems different.

My research into conference burnout resulted in finding blog posts with titles like, ‘The top ten signs that you are going through burnout.’ That’s helpful from a diagnostic point of view, but not from an emotional point of view. Conference organisers do chat to each other, but the topics are usually around choice of speakers or other logistical issues.

“Conference burnout is not discussed because I think people are afraid to share what’s going on with them. Some might see it as weakness. Organisers don’t usually talk about the mechanics behind the scenes. The more insights you get into people at a similar type of level as yourself, the more you think that what was weird and strange is probably more common than you think.”

“It would be nice to see people speak more openly about this because we’re all in this together.”

Mark believes the fear of talking about conference burnout is probably financially driven. “People don’t speak about it because those that are investing time and money into it are sponsors and speakers who may skip over your event if they think you struggle. The reality is it makes people sound that bit more human, sometimes that can be enough to build a brand.”

Learn Inbound takes place this year on August 15th and 16th.