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At BizBash Expo: Meetup Founder Scott Heiferman Stresses Importance of Prompting Conversation at Events

Photo: Jeeyun Lee for BizBash

As the morning keynote presentation for the 2011 BizBash New York Expo, Meetup founder and C.E.O. Scott Heiferman spoke about the growth of his online company and what he has learned since starting it in 2002. Unlike many other popular social media platforms, is focused on allowing people to organize gatherings offline, meeting up with like-minded people to discuss topics, take action, or just connect. Heiferman was quick to point out to the 3,000 or so event and meeting professionals convened at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center that the momentum of digital portals like his own is not eroding the importance of functions produced and hosted by corporate and nonprofit entities. In fact, he said, "people are hungry to connect," and "there's something about face-to-face that's really, really powerful."

"There is more opportunity with any event out there to just get the people to talk to each other more. Meaning, there is so much wasted opportunity for that conversation to happen and all it takes often is just giving people permission, giving people license to talk to each other," Heiferman said, after giving the audience two minutes to speak with people sitting around them at the start of his session.

Meetup, which has been utilized by Barack Obama and supporters of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, and even promoted by Oprah Winfrey, sees around 280,000 meet-ups and 1.5 million R.S.V.P.s a month. The NY Tech Meetup, which Heiferman started in 2004, now has 18,000 members and gathers as many as 800 attendees at its monthly event; last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg made an appearance to announce new initiatives from the city. However, the biggest topic for events organized through Meetup is not technology, but rather parenting.

"The lesson here is the future of events starts with really simple community," Heiferman said. "We see these moms meet up, just nine people gathering, and it doesn't turn into hundreds of moms. People are waking up to the power of each other right now and that is the revolution that's going on—everyone has something to teach." From this, planners, designers, producers, and other vendors can learn that events are no longer passive and something as simple as changing the layout of a conference or dinner can stimulate interaction. "Think circles rather than rows ... In whatever sphere you're a part of in this events industry, push people around you or just make it happen yourself, the idea that people want to talk to each other, and design that into whatever you're doing."

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