It’s Gorgeous Outside. Why is Your Event at that Stuffy Convention Center?

Rather than the benefits of something high-tech like NFC, the spring weather has me thinking about something more elemental: outdoors.

It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that people go to events at least in part (and sometimes entirely) to enjoy themselves. A dose of fresh air tends to help. If your event is happening at a time and location with the right weather conditions, consider hosting at a venue with outdoor options.

Take Maker Faire, an event requiring a great deal of outdoor space, as a quick case study. For those unfamiliar, the organizers describe it as “Part science fair, part county fair, and part something entirely new.” It gathers Do-It-Yourself (DIY) technologists, enthusiasts, their families, and the surrounding business ecosystem for a weekend of technological education disguised as fun. The Economist likens it to “a futuristic craft show.” The next installment of the bi-coastal event is to be held later in May at a venue that some of you holding multi-year contracts with hotels and convention centers may find surprising: the San Mateo, Calif., Fairgrounds. (Disclosure: O’Reilly Media, a previous employer of mine, produces Maker Faire.)

Indeed, at first glance, Maker Faire doesn’t resemble the types of B2B tradeshows for which many of you readers are responsible, but neither is this example too off topic. To put it into terms unambiguously relevant to professional event organizers: the event boasts a lineup of over 75 exhibitors and even more sponsors coming from a diverse set of industries. If previous performance is any indicator, it should attract over 95,000 attendees in two days. Taking a page from the TEDx playbook, the event has been franchised into smaller incarnations all over the country. The data points are in part why I assert that this show and its approach are very much worth your attention.

More than fresh air, outdoor venues get you sunshine, or more specifically, truly inspiring California sunshine-powered exhibits. The upcoming Bay Area faire will include teams of undergraduates from UC Berkeley and Stanford University respectively showing off the Impulse and the Xenith—two solar racecars designed and built by the students themselves. Personally, I wouldn’t prefer see them on the show floor at a venue like San Francisco’s Moscone nor New York’s Javits Center. When Maker Faire visits the East Coast, it takes advantage of another unlikely venue: the New York Hall of Science in Queens. (Sidenote: Somewhat coincidentally, Javits has set its sights on Queens, as we learned from EXPO’s coverage of Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech in January).

When the sun sets, the fairgrounds become home to exhibits impossible to showcase from inside, like those featuring pyrotechnics and lightning sculptures. Yes, lightning. Tesla coil-powered lightning sculptures are another example of how an outdoor expo can opens up your options. By the way, this specific project happens to also be (a) audio-modulated and (b) made by a 16-year-old. If you’re curious, here’s an interview with the young maker.

To those rightfully wondering about important utilities that are more accessible from indoors like power, lighting, and wired Internet access, keep in mind that these venues aren’t completely outdoors. In fact, Maker Faire requires indoor pavilions, circus-style tents, and smaller shade structures for many of its exhibits, workshops, demos and performances. Proximity to shelter is really important if good weather isn’t guaranteed. Still, having just a portion of your event outside will have a huge impact on what you can exhibit and potentially the level of attendee engagement.

If it doesn’t directly conflict with your objectives, try producing an event outside of a windowless venue with poor ventilation and low ceilings. Your exhibitors will have more wiggle room and your un-crammed attendees will thank you with loyalty.

Mark Levitt is a web technologist and conference organizer who has contributed to over 80 events, including Web 2.0 Summit, Maker Faire, O’Reilly Strata and others for 20 distinct audiences. He tweets, sometimes obsessively, as@mjlevitt.