Friday, April 9, 2010

Convene On Site: DigitalNow

(The above is from DigitalNow's opening general session on Thursday morning.)

Yesterday afternoon, on the first day of DigitalNow 2010 ("Association Leadership in the Digital Age"), I sat down for an interview with Don Dea, co-founder of the meeting design and production group Fusion Productions — which, along with the Disney Institute, "a recognized leader in experiential training for business professionals," created and continues to produce the conference, now in its 10th year. This year, as in every year since its creation, DigitalNow is being hosted by Disney, at its Contemporary Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida (a.k.a., just down the road from the Magic Kingdom).

I kicked off my interview with Don by asking him whether he felt that DigitalNow had stayed true to the mission that its founders set for it a decade ago. His reply ranged widely, touching on how in the late 1990s associations reacted to the dot com boom (and subsequent bust); how they have matured in the years since; and why DigitalNow is committed to remaining relatively small. I asked Don several more questions — which may possibly appear in a future print edition of Convene — but I thought it might be good to post his answer to my first question here:

Right from the beginning, the critical tenets that both George [Aguel, Senior Vice President of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts] and Hugh [Lee, President of Fusion Productions] articulated I think focused around leadership, focused around management issues, in the context of a digital world. So, from a content perspective, I think that that piece has gotten crystallized. I mean, we talked about it at that time, but what does it really mean?

You know, I think that we’ve been able to really bring that piece to life, I think very clearly over time, and we’ve gotten better and raised the bar on understanding. I think initially, because you also have context at that time — 1999, 2000 — you still had the dot com piece, so there was clearly a very different sense of urgency. You know, people had a very ... there was that piece of fear and uncertainty. You had very clear external variables that people could kind of hang their hat around. So people kind of said, “Hey, there are these people who are out there" — WebMD was coming in, people didn’t know what these things were going to do. All they knew was that people were approaching them and saying either you play with me or you don’t.

And then at the same time, there had been enough traction out there where people saw where the carcasses were. Because at that time, you know, while the dot com period was going up there, clearly people were running out of cash, and then all of a sudden the stories started coming out. “Well, we didn’t know, we gave them our data and they went belly up and now it’s in receivership, it’s in bankruptcy, we can’t get our information, etc., etc.” So I think at that time it was very clear, there was a mandate about, well, “How do we think through that?” I think over time, as we’ve kind of — as the external world kind of continued to evolve and we went through the dot com period, people kind of said, “Whew!” So I think we’ve gone through various cycles, but I think [DigitalNow’s core principles] have always been very clear: focused on leadership, focused on management, in the context of a digital world.

And while that period of time has gone on, you also have not only the external world, you have associations becoming more mature. You have a whole new generation — because there were a lot of people who didn’t know how to talk the vocabulary, things like that. So now all of a sudden you get another generation of people, and both boards [of directors] are getting a little smarter, the staffs are getting a little bit smarter, so now they are experimenting with more and more things. So the content focus, I think, over time has continued to evolve, but I think the basic tenets of it are there.

The other basic elements we talk about, in terms of the conference, the scope of the conference, I think they were very structural pieces that have really stayed very true. There have been times when there’s been pressure to really expand the base, and every time we do that we do get a pushback from people saying, “Well, we’ll lose the personal-ness about the community; we’ll lose the ability to reach out and talk and have that intimate atmosphere — to be able to respond. I mean, we do a lot of things here ... You know, when we do meetings other places, for other organizations, and, you know, other organizations have different kinds of attitudes in terms of how they manage expectations, how they respond, levels of service ... and that’s fine.

[DigitalNow] is really around the notion of being responsive to the community. And that takes a different aura, and we’re very fortunate that Disney has the same set of shared values around content and being very focused to be able to be responsive ... and also live within some of the basic parameters. Because, for many people, Disney and ourselves, it would be probably helpful, certainly financially, to have a broader mix of folks in the equation. But then you start getting into situations where it becomes, you know, many, many more concurrent workshops; you have much larger groups for people to manage. Our advisory group has kind of served to be that soul or conscience behind us.

And it’s not just the advisory group: We do walk around and ask and get people’s feedback. And you know it’s always hard. Because we live in a world where — particularly with those kinds of answers — it’s around a business model, it’s around what delivers value out there. And I think very consistently we would get a sense ... I think we have enough acumen to be reflective and say, “Yeah, if we could only push it up a few, little bit more, and tweak it” — but we just have found that we need to be true to the commitment of what this thing was built around. So the size, the community I think has always been focused around maintaining the community and maintaining the level of responsiveness. I think really the critical tenets [are] the content, and then the community, and then the other pieces are ... they are important components, but I think those are really the critical things and those things have remained true.

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