In November 2014, I attended my first SpinCon with some trepidation. For the uninitiated, I am not referring to a conference for fans of the popular cardio workout on stationary bikes. In this case, SPIN stands for Senior Planners Industry Network.
The event was in St. Louis, and the entire city was palpably on edge awaiting the grand jury decision on whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. On top of that, no matter how much I had read about SPIN, I had no idea what to expect, especially from an event that invited people to wear pajamas and slippers. I have never been comfortable in pajamas and slippers, so I knew I wouldn’t blend in.
At the opening session, the hotel manager addressed the group, letting us know he was in touch with the authorities and would be notified as soon as a decision came down from the grand jury. He thought that would be reassuring. Then, he offered some safety guidelines, most of which involved staying in the hotel and locking our doors.
No problem. There were activities scheduled, in PJs or not, from early morning to late at night. Some involved getting in a kiddie pool filled with colorful beach balls, others crafting collage statements from an assortment of magazines. There were keynotes, roundtables, and lots of informal discussions in the grand lobby of the St. Louis Union Station Hotel. One longtime male attendee affectionately described the conference, where the women outnumber the men, as “kind of like a college sorority party.” SPIN’s website describes the organization as “an exclusive—never pretentious—gathering place” for senior-level planners. “We’re professional but also hardwired for fun, smart conversations and venting when needed (with people who ‘get’ us).” It promises radical innovation, collaboration, and opportunities. Surprisingly, it delivers on most levels, though not in expected ways.
It is an in-crowd thing, but those who “get it” seem to love it. No one is more passionate than founder Shawna Suckow, who started the organization in 2008, never planning for more than a simple LinkedIn group. From there, it grew and evolved, mainly by word of mouth.
“Every year is different,” says Suckow. “We try to explore and reinvent what we are doing. We try crazy things. We take chances and present education. There is something here that everyone can find that they need. That’s the heart and soul of what we’re about.
“Our event is more intimate. We have longer breaks and activities at 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. We’re playing around with times and nontraditional formats.” Changing the usual pattern of conference timing is a subject Suckow discusses at other industry conferences (including Collinson Media & Events Marketplace events, where she is a frequent presenter).
Echoing the earlier comment, she adds, “Our discussion circles recreated that time in college when you sat around all night talking about issues. We’re really about helping each other. Ours can be a very lonely industry, especially for those who work from home. We’re dealing with many pressures and don’t discuss our imperfections. I hope our attendees go away thinking about the level of perfection they expect of themselves. It’s unsustainable.”
Most meeting professionals would agree, but whether they are ready to embrace this unconventional conference is still being determined. What is clear is the lingering effect on those who brave it. “People walk away changed and stay connected,” Suckow says. “The culture is changing. People are becoming more open to discussing personal challenges. They want to know how they can take care of themselves. They can talk about their frustrations with other meeting professionals. ”
Where does it go from here? “I want to reach more people,” she says. “I want this to catch on. This event will change people and help them get refocused.” Spoken as a true missionary.