One of the first conversations many of us events-involved people usually have when organizing a conference or summit is, "What's the theme?" Then words like growth, success, strategies, pivoting, navigating, etc., come up and voila! We have a theme!
For example, Access Intelligence has a 2019 Esports Business Summit with a tagline, "Brands. Media. Tech. Teams. Together." Simplify Compliance's Association of Clinical Documentation Improvement Specialists has their annual conference in May with the theme, Charting the Course. Columbia Books & Information Services held their second Learnapalooza last year—what a great name!—with the tagline, Revolutionizing Association Learning.
I present this as a prelude to a decision by John R. McNeill, president-elect of the American Historical Association and a history professor at Georgetown University, who told Inside Higher Ed that their 2020 annual conference will go themeless. (I'm assuming the 2019 version is already neatly themed.)
"Next year, no one will be tempted to engage in misguided and pointless gymnastics to make a panel appear to fit a theme," said McNeill. "I hope that a themeless AHA will prove to be a maximally inclusive AHA. There will be no cluster of sessions devoted to 'War and Peace,'" a reference to the 2004 theme, "or 'Uneven Developments' (2008) or to anything else."
AHA's dismissal of any future speaker or panel "contortions" to fit a theme—at least under McNeill's watch—may prove popular.
"I think conference themes are overrated, particularly for a multi-track event," said Matt Kinsman, Connectiv's VP of content and programming. "Attendees go by the event name, the speakers and the individual session topics, not the theme. I doubt most attendees could tell you the theme a week after the show.
"For a conference with a general session format where everyone is together the entire time, a theme makes more sense, but I still think that takes a back seat to the audience's relationship with the conference, the individual speakers and the session topics."
I spoke with our graphic designer here, Liz Martin, to get a view from that perspective. She said for SIIA's purposes, the subjects are already niched and a theme may prove superfluous and constrictive. (Our biggest conference, the every-other-year World Financial Information Conference, does not have a theme, she said.) But when a company is broader, a theme could be helpful.
"Sometimes, it's just a fake thing to hang your hat on," she said, recalling one conference she attended where it was almost painful to watch speakers turn and twist to incorporate the theme in their sessions.
In its article on this topic, AssociationsNow says that a key factor could be meeting size. "If you're trying to attract a large audience, where attendees range in age, experience, and job roles, going without a theme lets you cover a variety of topics and ensures you have something for everyone. On the other hand, if you're looking to limit your audience to, say, a group of 100 mid-level managers, picking a theme that they can identify with or that is relevant to them in their day-to-day work could be the better approach."
They add that for a first-time event, "a compelling and relevant conference theme can create buzz and make people eager to register—and to tell others about it."
McNeill said that part of the reason 2020 will be themeless is that so many good ideas have been taken. "Had the AHA known what was coming," he said, it might have held off on using "Practicing History in Unsettled Times" in 2007. He also praised 2015's theme, "History and Other Disciplines," and even this year's, "Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism in Global Perspective."