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  • Kristine Metter, MS, CAE

What can associations learn from sports, comics, and Burning Man?

Over the past six months, many associations brought to market a variety of virtual events. They range from simple webinars to more ambitious multiday online conferences, and a few norms are starting to emerge, such as pre-recorded presentations with live chat or live Q&A. I attended many of these events and spoke with colleagues who attended others to get a sense of their experiences. The consensus is that we seem to get content right. Where we miss the mark is networking and personal engagement.

So, I started thinking about who does experience right and who has super loyal fans. I landed on three groups: sports, comics, and Burning Man. I took a look at how these events have made (or are making) the transition to delivering top-notch participant experiences virtually. Spoiler – they haven’t nailed it either.


Most professional sports leagues have restarted with players battling it out in empty stadiums and arenas. They have tested various methods of putting “people” courtside or behind the home plate through low tech cardboard cutouts to slightly higher tech video screens. They have tested fake crowd noise piped into the stadium or included it on the broadcast television feed. I say neither of these has worked very well because they are inauthentic. You just can't replace a live crowd booing a botched call.

On the slightly (emphasize slightly) promising side, the US Open Tennis tournament begins later this month, and ESPN plans to place cameras where fans would have been sitting in the front row in hopes of providing viewers a unique experience. They also plan to let one fan ask one question during the post-match interview, another interesting attempt at engagement. But really, just one fan gets to ask a question?


I have never attended a Comic-Con, but my impression is that participants go all-in, wearing costumes and lining up for hours for certain panels. Earlier this summer, San Diego’s Comic-Con went virtual with Comic-Con@Home. Just like several association conferences, they waived the registration fee, opening the event to everyone. However, attendee reviews of the event were mixed. Some of the panels were thoughtfully curated, and Keanu Reeves got consistent raves for having great charisma, enthusiasm, and energy. He was described as genuine, humble, cool, and delightful.

On the downside, the staff at i09 gave negative reviews for the lack of support for artists and vendors, especially the small, indie artists. They also dinged the event for having a clunky website and multiple tech issues. And finally, they reported a lack of opportunities for fan engagement. All this sounds just like the struggles we are having with association conferences and their associated trade shows.

Burning Man

Burning Man, the immersive desert-based event each August, is going virtual in 2020. For this pivot, they are developing a set of “multiple parallel realities” they are calling Burning Man in the Multiverse. The eight Universes, a virtual Temple, and the namesake finale focus on social interactions and aim for deep, authentic experiences that are true to the 10 principles of Burning Man.

The universes will range from 2D to full virtual reality, and many will draw from immersive theater concepts with a goal to take you entirely away from daily life. For those who attended Duncan Wardle’s keynote during ASAE’s annual conference, think about how Walt Disney built Disneyland as an immersive version of Fantasia.

“The sense of awe and scale is tricky,” -Ed Cooke, builder of one of the official universes

The virtual Temple offers a pre-event opportunity to engage by inviting participants to create an offering before it opens and include personal text, images, or audio. Once the Temple opens, everyone can explore their and others’ offerings throughout the digital space. Again, the focus is on taking you away from home and into a shared experience.

The plans for the finale “Burn Night,” scheduled for September 5, are still developing, but it will feature a 24-hour live stream of burns igniting by time zone. Participants are encouraged to host a local (and COVID-safe) burns. This concept reminds me of growing discussions about spoke and hub conferences where local or regional in-person experiences can supplement the larger digital event.

We've seen from sports and comics that personal engagement is no easy task, and finding the secret sauce requires authenticity and frictionless technology. I’m holding my breath that Burning Man can pull off its ambitious Multiverse experience and I hope they have several successes that can guide us as we continue to evolve our virtual conferences.


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