By Ronnie Wendt | Images Courtesy of THAT Conference
Clark Sell once imagined a family-friendly conference that supported work-life balance and helped shape the next generation of “tech geeks.”
The software developer was tired of the traditional conference and trade show format. IT and software events often take industry professionals away from their families for up to a week at a time. While families could tag along, the conferences took attendees to destinations that were not very family- friendly or were cost-prohibitive for entire families to travel to.
When families did come along, it created a push-pull feeling for attendees. They knew they needed the education and networking opportunities, but wanted to be with their families instead.
Sell felt there had to be a better way. “I wanted an event that connected the Midwestern tech community, but beyond that, I wanted to connect the whole person, their kids, their spouses, the whole family,” he says. “I wanted them to be part of our [conference] family.”
Today, his dream is a reality. THAT Conference was born out of Sell’s passion to build a family-friendly technology event. Dubbed “Summer Camp for Geeks,” the conference offers presentations for professionals while also providing over 30 student workshop sessions, some of which kids lead. The science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sessions for kids feature hands-on, activity- based learning.
GROWING THE DREAM
Sell started THAT Conference in 2012 with $5,000 of seed money and a dream. He began placing cold calls for additional funds.
The first event, held at Kalahari Resorts & Conventions in Wisconsin Dells, attracted 400 attendees, cost around $90,000 to host and closed in the red. But Sell kept pressing forward, and each year, both funding and attendance grew. The 2019 conference drew 1,700 participants, including 1,100 professionals, 250 spouses and 350 children.
“Early on, sponsors told me we were crazy and they would not do this,” Sell recalls. “There are still some companies today that tell me it is inappropriate to send professionals and their families on a ‘family vacation.’
“We tell sponsors that there are two halves to this event: the professional side with a keynote and educational sessions, and the family side, and they have to cater to both,” he adds. “We tell them to expect children and spouses to come to their booths. We’ve had interesting stories come out of that. We’ve had kids get internships and kids who have purchased software from vendors because they are a 13-year-old programmer with an app.”
Sell adds that treating the entire family as first-class citizens contributes to the event’s success and growth. He explains, “For us, the 2-year-old is just as important as the 50-year-old. They are not off to the side. And if a sponsor doesn’t want spouses and children involved, I politely tell them they are not invited.”
SESSIONS FOR ALL
THAT Conference offers three types of sessions for attendees young and old.
There is the long-form workshop, which is a multi-hour event that covers a specific subject or skill; a short-form presentation, which spans an hour; and Open Spaces events, which are unstructured sessions.
“A long-form session for a child might be a science project, or involve building or coding a robot,” Sell says. “If you’re an adult, the long-form session might take a deep dive into some nerdy thing that is the latest and greatest, or take an educational format to build a specific skill.”
THAT Conference organizers curate the long- and short-form sessions.
“We put out an open call for speakers and anybody can submit, even spouses and kids,” Sell says. “On the family session side, we curate pretty heavily. We look at topics covered in the past and the kids who presented before. We want to give everyone a chance to speak. On the professional side, there is an open vote on suggested topics, then we curate after that.”
Open Spaces are available to all ticket holders during the event. There is a schedule board hanging outside each Open Space room. Attendees write a topic on a sticky note and put it on a specific time slot on the board. They come to the room, arranged with chairs in a circle for the appointed time to talk.
“Anybody can walk past that board and say, ‘Cool, I want to be part of that conversation,’ and that conversation has no other agenda other than what’s written on a sticky note,” Sell says. “There might be a handful of people in attendance or there might be 50, like there was last year when a kid put on a magic show.”
THAT Conference offers fewer sessions to incorporate longer breaks for networking into the day.
“If the time between sessions is too short, attendees become hyper-focused on sessions,” Sell says. “We do 30-minute gaps because it allows people to connect with each other and the speaker while the topic is fresh in their minds. They don’t feel like they have to run to the next room to make sure they get a seat.”
FUN ACTIVITIES FOR ALL
Hosting the event at a Kalahari convention center makes sense because it offers something for everyone, says Sell. The Wisconsin Dells resort has a 125,000-square-foot water park; indoor adventure playground with go-karts, an arcade, a ropes course, etc.; and a full-service spa.
However, Sell reports it takes more than a family-friendly venue to create a fun event for the entire family.
Every THAT Conference kicks off with the annual family reunion, which is a hog roast for attendees and their families. There is a game night in which attendees and their families play board games until the wee hours of the night. The conference even rents out the water park for an evening, and all attendees have the opportunity to splash and play.
“We have a happy hour, too, but we offer different things throughout the day to bring everyone together and help them connect. We try to keep it fresh. And we’re always learning on the family side because we have such a diverse group. What is fun for a 6-year-old might not be fun or interesting to a 16-year-old,” laments Sell.
The conference’s overarching objective is to foster union throughout the Midwestern technology community and build the next generation of technology professionals. Every session and family activity pushes toward that goal.
“I am grateful for the opportunity THAT Conference brings to help people connect,” he says. “My parents always said to leave the house better than you found it. I hope THAT Conference leaves the community and their families better than they were before.”
NAME: THAT Conference
TYPE OF EVENT: An inclusive, multi-day event for anyone passionate about learning and sharing all things mobile, web, cloud, Internet of Things (IoT) and technology
LOCATION: Kalahari Resorts & Conventions in Wisconsin Dells
NUMBER OF ATTENDEES: 1,700 total (1,100 IT and software development professionals, 350 kids and 250 spouses)
GOAL: A family-friendly event that supports a philosophy of work-life balance
- Kids welcome. Some young people even teach classes for their peers in the student track.
- Open Spaces speaking opportunities. The main seminar track is heavily curated, but people interested in speaking can do so during Open Spaces, which is an open-mic opportunity.
- A family reunion kicks off the conference with a hog roast.
- 30-minute networking gaps exist between seminars.
ATTENDEE GIFTS: A tree from the Arbor Day Foundation