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Jeff Dewar

Quality Insider

How to Plan a Delightful User Conference

Enchanting users with a quality experience

Published: Monday, July 8, 2013 - 11:38

Not all user conferences are created equal. I’ve been to so many I’ve lost count. Some are simply boring with over-filtered information, and others are pure marketing events. Then there are a few that enchant, delight, and add true value for attendees. And I know why.

As I began writing this article I was sitting at the metrology keynote address at HxGN LIVE, the Hexagon international conference which was held the first week of June at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Hexagon is a global provider of design, measurement, and visualization technologies, with $3 billion in sales, and 14,000 employees. 

In my estimation this user conference easily achieved the number one position of all I have attended. 

First, let’s dispense with the obvious prerequisites—you need a good conference venue, good food, fun entertainment, lots of mixing, and an attentive and well-managed staff. Then you need a conference plan that focuses on the needs of your user more than it focuses on promoting your products and services. That’s the easy part. The hard part comes once you have all that covered.

Tell stories

Hexagon’s CEO, Ola Rollén, is a rock star. With a boyish grin, teasing humor, and clearly in love with all things that relate to a point cloud, he opened the conference by doing something remarkable: He told stories. Some true and some fairy tales to make a metaphorical point. I’m still chuckling recalling his story about a people overthrowing their government, decapitating the leadership, and forming a new nation, with their first task being to create a new flag. It was a spectacular story about how Hexagon empowers its customers and society and infinitely more interesting than a series of PowerPoint bullets.

A wonderful aid to storytelling is the use of video within presentations. Hexagon has the resources to make lavish use of video, which they did with Hollywood style, but effective use of video in presentations is within easy reach of any organization. 

CEO Ola Rollén delivering the opening keynote address.

Open, frequent, and casual access to executives

Hexagon’s executives like the press, or at least they act like it. Considering that Hexagon’s users rely on the media for third party commentary of industry trends and product information, what better place to give the media a close look at the company and its users? CEO Rollén’s luncheon with the media this year saw him show up in jeans and black golf shirt, answering any of the questions we wanted to ask him in a chatty and engaging fashion. One journalist asked what member of the military told Rollén about the need for ruggedized smart phones that can also scan the terrain, and Rollén’s response was playful: “Well, I’m certainly not telling you.” (Big laugh from the group.) “But I can tell you that our strategy is to…” as he launched into a surprisingly frank description about how they evaluate potential projects. 

Last year at the conference, Hexagon Metrology’s North American president, Angus Taylor, hosted an afternoon round table with members of the media, which started off talking about metrology products, and morphed into a philosophical discussion on management style, leadership, developing talent, internal communication, and so on. Brilliant. 

Contrast this with other companies that actually try to keep the press at bay in formalized press conferences, afraid they will ask a question that is uncomfortable, or one for which they do not have a scripted answer. 

The reason I include the press angle, is that it is a general reflection of how companies view their customers. For example, if they keep the press at bay, well, you can expect that they’ll try to keep touchy questions from customers private, or at least try to pre-screen questions that a larger audience might hear. 

Invite third party moderators

Instead of using internal people to moderate round tables and panels (who know all the questions not to be asked under penalty of death), use the media! Our own Editor in Chief, Dirk Dusharme, was asked to moderate a series of interviews at the metrology keynote. Dirk, a veteran journalist and an accomplished on-air talent, host of Quality Digest Live, Gauging Quality, and TechnorazziLIVE productions, was in an ideal position to add a dimension of reality, and honesty, to the on-stage discussions. After all, isn’t that what a journalist is, an “honest broker?”

Quality Digest editor-in-chief Dirk Dusharme (left), and Joe Calkins, co-founder of New River Kinematics.

Broadcast live

Those of you who are regular followers of Quality Digest know that we are big into video, and that our hallmark is live video. Even though the majority of viewers watch the recorded version, the authenticity and realism of live cannot be understated. At Hexagon’s conference, the keynotes, panels, and other presentations were streamed live. 5,000 people around the world watched CEO Rollén’s live keynote address (no doubt including some of their worthy competitors). At one point, Rollén asked the conference audience to wave our illuminated wristbands at “home viewers” watching live. 

See one of Quality Digest’s live broadcast from the conference, a round table discussion on “the future of metrology.”

Make the attendee badges do some work

Although it may seem a minor point, Hexagon’s approach to badges puts them to work in a surprisingly effective way to encourage networking through two simple mechanisms. 

First, a person’s position or title at their company is purposely omitted. Not only does it increase opportunities for conversation, it goes a long way to put everyone on an even footing. A vice-president could be chatting with a technician and neither of them would know it, until after they got to know each other a bit. 

Secondly, Hexagon’s five divisions are each assigned a different color, so when I saw another person with a green badge in the elevator, I felt a bit like I was seeing an old school mate which created a fun moment and a good excuse for introducing ourselves and networking.

Name badge for all attendees. The term “Media Partner” is given to all media personnel attending the conference.

Use social media to guide your preparation

Making lavish use of social media leading up to the conference gave Hexagon the ability to make better decisions about how they would structure the final details of the event. The message was clear, the attendees wanted networking and sharing of stories of what others were doing. The opening keynote pulled in Twitter comments for all to see, further cementing Hexagon’s commitment to employ social media to lead, and to be led by, social media commentary.

Social media commentary leading up to the conference, shown during a keynote.

What didn’t I like about the conference? Well, let’s see, there was that crazy cocktail reception in the disco on steroids, with too many floors, and pounding music so loud I couldn’t hear a word from the people I was trying to chat with. But I’m a Sinatra fan. Otherwise, for Hexagon’s 2013 user conference, it was a very good year.


About The Author

Jeff Dewar’s picture

Jeff Dewar

Jeff Dewar is CEO of Millennium 360 Inc., Quality Digest’s parent company. During his career he has presented quality-related topics to thousands of people on six continents, all but Antarctica.



S&C letters have deliberately been taken away, maybe to remind us all that - in not so a few caes - silence is golden. I recently was at a Goran Bregovic's concert in Triest, who knows him also knows how lively his music is, how he makes people dance and sing. Well, this time I've seen many many people yawning, and I was among them. They said of french kings & queens that after having eaten good food for too long they needed to turn to poor and raw food, it is what some hell-breakers cooks are doing, they abandon sophisticated novelle cuisine and go for traditional dishes. Is that what an enchanting quality experience means? Wouldn't it be the same as walking one step forward and two steps behind? Or is it that the true actual drug is boredom and its counterpart, change?