NPAC 2008: The Good, The Not-So-Good, And Everything In-Between

Following yesterday’s post which focused on blogging related issues at the 2008 National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC), I wanted to take a moment to put together some of my thoughts and observations on the rest of the conference…

Good Experience #1: Quality Of Fellow Panelists

From the moment I was contacted to take part in the blogging
session, I was pleased with the caliber of organizers involved with the
conference. My session manager, Frank J. Oteri, is at the top of the
list of professionals I admire and respect in this business. Although I
had never met any of the other speakers in the session, it was a
pleasure getting to know all of them. Moderator Monica Reinagel went
above and beyond to get the session organized and develop a clear
message. Dave Urlakis from Steppenwolf Theater was a real gem in the session; his combination of wit, humor, honesty, and brevity contributed a real spark to the session.

Likewise, from the moment San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman
made his opening comment, I thought to myself "I like this guy" and it
only got better from there. Joshua has a level head on his shoulders
and has the necessary vision to see how his component of the business
works hand in hand with the growing "blogosphere" (sorry to use that
term Joshua, I know you hate it but I can’t think of anything else that
works better). Lindsay Dreyer from danceruniverse.com rounded
out the panel with some fascinating insight into how a cooperative blog
can be successful using a non-traditional platform.

Good Experience #2: Conference Materials and Convention Center Employees

Although the convention center facilities were lacking (more
on that later) the majority of employees I encountered were helpful,
polite, attentive, and left me feeling like they sincerely wanted to
make my experience as pleasant as possible. The same is true for NPAC
and conference workers/volunteers. The vast majority of tangible
conference material was of good quality and I especially liked the name
bag pouches which made it easy to stow away the inevitable flood of
business cards. For those who love to collect conference schwag or just
feel comfortable lugging around a bunch of stuff all day, the
conference provided a black nylon tote emblazoned with the conference
brand. It is now in the trunk of my car along with my other grocery
bags (you can always use one more).

In-Between Experience #1: Networking

Arguably, the best parts conventions are the networking
opportunities. That held true for NPAC 2008 although the opportunities
were somewhat curtailed due to the number of organized inter-conference
social events. The hotel lobby proved to be one of the most convenient
and amiable locations for socializing and there were plenty of late
night events to satisfy even the most hardcore social hounds.

For future events, it would be nice to restrict the amount of
inter-conference social events to a single evening and encourage more
cross-pollination for the remaining days. This would reduce the work
load for conference planners and cut down the amount of stovepiping
between service organizations.

In-Between Experience #2: Town-Hall Caucuses

I was only able to attend one of the town-hall morning
caucus sessions and my observations were mixed. I definitely enjoyed
sitting at the table with 10 other conventioneers from a cross section
of disciplines but the bulk of discussions seemed hollow. Although the
sessions were charged with creating an agenda that activates the
performing arts community in America on the local, regional, and
national level, most of the solutions seemed to border more on
unrealistic dreams rather than tangible action items.

At the same time, it is fair to say that based on the opinions
expressed at my table, what I’ve read at other blogs, and the official
convention blog, my perspective on this seems to be in the minority.
For instance, my impression is that the majority opinion seemed to
center on "Messiah-centric" solutions in the form of creating some
national figure to step in and solve everyone’s problems.

That may be oversimplifying things a bit but look at the
evidence. When asked "What should we do about arts advocacy and
communicating our value at the NATIONAL level?" a solid 50 percent of those participating in the discussion felt that the best
solutions were to "organize a national media campaign with celebrity
spokespersons, catchy slogans (e.g. "Got Milk"), unified message, and
compelling stories" and "create a Department of Culture/Cabinet-level
position which is responsible for implementing a national arts policy."

The cabinet-level post suggestion is perhaps the most
nonsensical suggestion in the bunch (do we really want arts policy
dictated by a political appointee?). Solutions such as this only serve
to reinforce a negative stereotype that the arts community needs
someone else to convince the cultural consciousness that it is
worthwhile (and therefore incapable of rising to the occasion via
internal resources): "We’re good for you and you have to like us." I fear conversations like these only serve to damage the art and postpone systemic change throughout the business.

Conversely, grassroots oriented solutions were far less popular
among participants even though most evidence from non-performing arts
related nonprofit sectors indicate those efforts produce better
results. In particular, it would have been good to see a larger
discussion about the value of government affairs officers but that
didn’t happen on the day I attended (by that I mean mini-lobbyists not
the grant-only oriented variety).

Not-So-Good Experience #1: Conference Facilities

Npac_2008_06
On my last day at the conference (Friday) I had the
opportunity to talk to a number of vendors and the vast majority were
very upset with the quantity and quality of foot traffic in the
exhibition hall. They also complained that the size of the exhibition
hall was three times larger than they needed and they were still spread
out over much of the floor space. I have to agree that the space was
huge; in fact, convention center employees were using Segues to get
around the floor and that can’t be a good sign that conventioneers
would be willing to explore all of the booths and exhibits.

To add insult to injury, the exhibition hall was located on
the top floor of the convention center which meant no one had to travel
through the hall to get to meeting rooms or the hotel. As such, once a
conventioneer picked up his or her registration kit, there was no
reason to step foot in the hall again.

On top of all that, the exhibition hall was noisy, hot, and
the concession prices made movie theaters seem like a bargain. If there
is another NPAC on the horizon, I hope the planners will consider these
points in order to select a more appropriate venue and avoid repeating
the Denver mistakes.

Not-So-Good Experience #2: Numerous Technical SNAFUs And Shortcomings

I’ve already written about
the anti-blogger/anti-wireless design of the Denver Convention Center
so I won’t repeat myself here on those points. At the same time, there
were a number of little issues that resulted in entirely frustrating
experiences. For instance, in addition to the lack of reliable wireless
access in meeting rooms, most of the sessions I attended (including the
one I participated) didn’t have enough microphones for everyone on the
panel. That might seem like a trivial issue but it wasn’t as though
there were a dozen panelists; quite the opposite, most sessions had
four panelists or less.

In our session, sliding the microphone back and forth resulted
in a distracting amplified annoyance. It also prevented any hope of
achieving a relaxed, fluid feel to the session as panelists were unable
to respond to each other without a gap in the conversation. As a
session attendee, this issue resulted in many panelists not speaking
close enough to the microphone which made it difficult to hear what was
being said.

Not-So-Good Experience #3: Copious Waste

Although the quality of convention materials was by and
large fantastic, opportunities to reduce the amount of unnecessary
waste abounded. For example, the 3" three-ring binders only held a ½"
worth of conference material and many of the color pages would have
looked just as professional printed in black and white instead of
wasting ink on single color printing.

The "library" was especially unsettling. Located in the
exhibition hall, it was a place for vendors and performing arts groups
to leave their respective marketing materials. Although it was nice to
peruse the offerings, the stacks and stacks of full color glossy
material was enough to send poor Al Gore into a catatonic state of
environmental shock. In hindsight, I wish I took a picture so you could
see the "Super-Size" nature of the display for yourself (if anyone has
a pic, please let me know).

Conclusions

All in all, most of the negative issues above can be
corrected without any additional costs or demands on limited human
resources for those involved with planning and managing the conference.
That’s a good thing because some of the problems in Denver have the
potential to become show-stoppers if not properly addressed by the time
the next NPAC rolls around.

For those interested in the handful of pics I took during the trip, you can visit the photo album here.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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6 thoughts on “NPAC 2008: The Good, The Not-So-Good, And Everything In-Between

  1. Drew,

    I quoted your “Messiah-centric” solutions from above in my post today, “A Grassroots Internet Strategy Needed for the Performing Arts.

    I think you are on the mark. That for some reason that it does not strike many people in the performing arts that there are alternative approaches for building and engaging new audiences and supporters. I’ll write more about a grassroots strategy next week and I look forward to your thoughts and those of other readers.

    Thanks Doug, I’m glad you found some of the material useful. There have been several folks who sent an email this morning on the topic and they all had very good points of view, I hope they, and others, will take the time to post their thoughts as comments since it only serves to move the conversation forward.

    I’m looking forward to reading more about your perspective. ~ Drew McManus

  2. Thanks for your thoughts in today’s blog on NPAC. I agree with much of what you had to say, but feel compelled to share my different perspective on one point.

    I can see how the “library” tables of marketing material would seem to be wasteful; however I would suggest this is not so much the case. I doubt any organization prints extra materials in order to provide it for the conference. Indeed, we agonize over how many to print of everything. If we print too many we waste money and paper. If we print too few, the punishment is even greater of lost opportunity.

    I suspect that many, like me, get loaded up by their marketing directors with a stack of material that already exists around the office to schlep to the conference. This is done so that we can participate in the exchange of ideas with our colleagues, bringing those back to our staffs. It is very difficult for any of us to see our peers’ marketing material in any sort reasonable industry overview. By participating in this exchange I swapped about 25 pounds of DSSO material for a similar 25 pounds of unique marketing pieces from probably 200 different arts organizations which I can share with my staff. The value of this is incalculable to those who design artistic programs, write copy, structure pricing, and design graphics. We can’t get this anywhere else and the efficiency of doing it in this manner seems pretty elegant to me.

    My $.02,
    Andrew

    All good points Andrew and I hear the same thing from others. I suppose it’s all part of a larger discussion about the relevance of hard copy marketing materials. ICSOM had a similar situation at their conference last summer where they encouraged players to bring marketing materials along with them and the tables were piled high.

    I think it would be more productive to begin instituting digital submission guidelines that will slowly replace the need to bring hard copies. At the very least, groups could bring a single display copy and conventioneers could then download digital copies of what they found intriguing. This would also allow them to separate organizational marketing material from vendor materials.

    It won’t happen overnight (nor should it) but it does need to happen. ~ Drew McManus

  3. Greg Sandow mentioned the “national media campaign” idea on his blog yesterday, and I commented on it there. Rather than rewrite the same ideas, I’ll just copy and paste what I said:

    Not just a silly idea, but a terrible idea. The premise of those media campaigns is that the product is good for you, and that consuming it will make you better. Milk is healthy, and adding more milk to your diet will make you healthier. Running a similar campaign for classical music would have the same sort of premise, but that attitude that classical music is better for you than the alternative plays into the perception of elitism and is just plain offensive and untrue. Any sales pitch which relies on telling prospective audiences that classical muic is better than popular music is counterproductive.

    None of which is to say that classical music doesn’t need a national media strategy-just that it shouldn’t be an “outreach” or “public service” style campaign. Nor can it be based on generic “classical music is awesome” messaging. You don’t ever see “soft drinks are great!” ads, you see ads for individual products and the combined effect is to persuade people that soft drinks are great. Advertising a whole genre or category plays as desperate.

    Greg also pointed out today that the suggestion of a cabinet post puts the horse before the cart–you can’t get the political will to add a cabinet post without solving the problem that the cabinet post is intented to solve.

    -Galen

  4. The library of materials is always useful, for the reasons Andrew suggests.

    There were several other snafus: (1) having live musical performances in the Exhibition Hall right next to where the NEA consultations took place; (2) The sound system in the very large Wells Fargo Theatre was really not adequate; (3) when I got my registration materials, no one bothered to show me that the back of my name badge contained the Town Hall caucus schedule I was supposed to follow; (4) there’s always a problem for some first-time attendees who don’t understand (or don’t have explained) the procedure for exchanging concert ticket vouchers for the actual concert tickets.

    My experiences with the live performances in the exhibition hall were mixed but the noise issue was certainly something that drove people away (myself included a few times). In general, I felt bad for most of the groups performing live as the vast majority I witnessed barely had more than 10 people watching/listening. I don’t think it was a lack of interest but a number of performances were scheduled during sessions. I missed the caucus info on the back of my name card too and was therefore unaware of Thursday’s events. Prioritizing events amongst conferences would have been more useful although it would likely mean more back room fighting over which conference gets the better times/locations for their respective sessions. ~ Drew McManus

  5. Many of the points you make in your NPAC summary are those I observed as well, Drew. I’m going to harp on the convention’s awkward lack of technology just once more, not to be annoying or ungrateful, but because some of your readers will be planning their own future conferences and might view our comments as a cautionary tale.

    There I was, ironically moderating a panel titled “New Technologies/New Opportunities,” and in addition to the lack of WiFi and any connectivity, five of us shared two table mics. We slid them back and forth while attempting to avoid snagging the tablecloth or tipping over water pitchers, and hunched over them in odd positions. Given the already sizable budget for the convention, it was a mistake not to contract out for reliable lavaliers (lapel mics). Production, sound quality, and overall professionalism matter a great deal at these gatherings, and people on both sides of the dais get frustrated with feedback and amplitude problems. Not to mention spilled water on the table 🙂

    More importantly, I was disappointed that [most of] these sessions were not being videotaped for podcast/upload/whatever. For all the warm bodies in the room, many more of our peers around the world would love to have been able to share in the information and ideas, either streamed live, or after the fact. NPAC’s mission is largely about building a cohesive community (which in many ways is an oxymoron among the arts, but hey, that’s for a different essay!), and I think that a large boat was missed by not archiving these panels. Along with the panelist contracts that NPAC sent out, they were smart to ask us beforehand for any [mostly local] media contacts we could offer. In addition, every panelist could have signed and returned a media release form.

    On a positive technology note, something that remains wonderful is the NPAC blog hosted by ArtsJournal. Getting the dialog going prior to the actual convention, and now keeping that light lit, is a terrific way to encourage people to continue thinking and engaging on these topics.

    One conference that does a great job using basic technology is the annual ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo in Los Angeles, which has an attendance of roughly 1500 people. I’ve been a panelist each of its three years, and every time, the coordinators have had the foresight to use the most invisible technology to create a very visible presence and flow. Every base is covered, from WiFi to mics to video to photos, and the result is that the thud of the convention tree that falls in the forest, still resonates long afterward.

    Nothing is local anymore. Yes, we gather together in physical spaces– at great expense of time and money– to share the pherenome-drenched experience of excited exchanges and networking. But in recent years, the world has become one marvelous sticky blob of interaction, and to view it otherwise means not using the vast potential of what the arts community can be. Much that is shared locally, can be shared globally, simultaneously and also after the fact. I think that all conferences should take this into consideration as they work so very hard to bring such good people together.

    Wow, what a fantastic comment Alex, this just might the uber-comment of all time. the observation about the lack of podcasting or videocasting (live or archived) is a great observation. I certainly hope that changes if there is another NPAC event.

    I’m glad you mentioned those media forms as I had forgotten about my experience with them. I actually took the time to go through and fill everything out in painstaking detail (including harvesting contact info) just to get a flippant email from one of the conference managers asking me not to send something in unless I was certain any of the media contacts are interested in doing a story on me. I found this unprofessional and unrealistic especially since the majority of participants were there as part of a panel and not as a solo act so-to-speak.

    Many thanks for the ASCAP link, a quick look at the site indicates that is is loaded with valuable info and examples! ~ Drew McManus

  6. I agree with you about the cabinet position issue. I thought it was a bad idea simply because the United States has a much different relationship with culture than European countries with Cultural Ministries.

    I am afraid the conference attendees desire to make the arts more prominent in our lives would only serve to make the debates more prominent.

    It would, as you mentioned also politicize the arts. I don’t know think that the country values the arts enough to care if a person was appointed who looked to restrict all sorts of activities. The American people aren’t going to stand up and object that a person is undermining elements that have historically been part of the national identity.

    Interest in the arts may be waning in Europe but I bet there would be a national outcry in England if their Culture Minister said they would no longer fund Shakespeare productions and were going to seize the land the Globe stands on to building a mall.

    Would there be a similar national outcry if funding were eliminated for the plays of Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams and the Kennedy Center were being demolished?

    The NEA may operate in near obscurity in respect to national consciousness but I think it is in a better place now than it would be if it were elevated to cabinet level prior to national sentiment valuing arts and culture at that level.

    In regard to the library tables, I have to agree with Andrew Berryman. I don’t think people include having enough brochures to take to conferences in their printing plans. It is better that someone else gets use from them than they end up in the recycling bin at the end of my season. Granted, that is where they end up at the end of the conference.

    I don’t carry many brochures to conferences though do pick other people’s up. I do it as much to take note of who different organizations are presenting as I do for the layout techniques.

    That said, our season brochure print runs are getting significantly smaller every year as we cull bad addresses. Desire for electronic versions are growing. I get 1 brochure request for every 4-5 people who join our email list.

    Good stuff Joe, thanks for taking the time to write all of that out. I’ll probably be on the losing side of the brochure battle for the next five years or so but it will be interesting to see where it goes beyond that. the day when a sizable percentage of marketing firms specialize in deliverables that are digital based, is when that tide will turn.

    I suppose I’m especially sensitive to the issue in the here-and-now as a result of the economic mess this country is in as a result of decades of hyper-consuming. At the same time, I realize that what might seem like ostentatious display has a specific purpose in a setting like a convention. On the other side of the coin, I’d like to see some overt baby steps away from that model the next time around. 🙂 ~ Drew McManus

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