Rise of the Non-Conference: Connections are Forged Beyond Convention Center Walls

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You know the feeling. Gathered around a campfire with friends and a strong cup of coffee or a flask of whiskey, the grip of the daily grind loosens. Conversation flows freely among the trees. Stripped of your to-do lists and unanswered emails, you find it easier to hold the gaze of the person sitting next to you.

Out of the fresh air an idea is born. A perspective is shifted.

Such is the draw of new community-driven, immersive outdoor summits and retreats designed to help creatives, brands and media wring out their digitally saturated lives and cultivate the kinds of experiences no amount of clicking and scrolling can produce.

A key example is the Outpost, a synergistic amalgam of trade show, retreat and festival brought to life by innovators who saw an opportunity to create an event to be everything traditional conferences are not: curated, collaborative, aesthetically pleasing and conducted in the environments where each brand’s products are meant to be used.

Exploring the borders of what is normally considered outdoor culture, the Outpost organizers intentionally fuse industry staples with elements of food, art, technology, music and design.

“We’re taking a much wider view of the space,” says Outpost CEO Ken Manning. “We have this eclectic mix of people so that you’re getting ideas from other walks of life that you wouldn’t have come away with from an ordinary conference.”

Bobbilee Hartman dreamt up Lodged Out, an unplugged haven for makers and doers, with a similar vision. Nestled in the forest, the retreat blends outdoor activities with hands-on workshops led by entrepreneurs and artists while leaving room for bonds to form beside a fire. Commonality is not found in their mediums or industries, but via an intrinsic desire to create.

“I want to attract people who see themselves as creative and aren’t tying themselves to an identity,” she says. “It’s not only that they’re unplugged, but that they’re seeing and listening to people in a different way that’s so powerful.”

Of course, finding distance from our digital selves is no easy feat. We exist in a world where communities form underneath our fingertips, with ideas expressed in hashtags at all hours of the day and night. This isn’t all to our detriment. In fact, it seems as though some of the most meaningful work is done when the energy of the Internet is brought out into the open air.

REI has grown a mighty movement of outdoor movers and shakers through social media, but they’ve also thrown their weight behind a unique series of immersive three-day retreats. Held in outdoor playgrounds from New Hampshire to the Pacific Northwest, REI Outessa brings together a diverse group of women for a weekend of choose-your-own-adventure style recreating. Brand-supported activities run the gamut from “Kayaking 101” to “How to Start a Fire” and allow attendees to create their own itineraries based on experience levels and interests.

Outpost, Lodged Out and REI Outessa each offer a different set of experiences, but sing to a similar tune. Indicative of more than our growing aversion to fluorescent lighting and forced business interactions, events like these signal a turning of the tide. As technology tries to consume us, we’re actively seeking ways to lessen its grip. We’re craving time away from our screens and tapping into a primal need to gather, using the ideal backdrop of the wild places where the echoes of our communal past still resonate.

Image by Peter Amend. 

xx Kalin Stewart

This article was originally published in RANGE Magazine Issue Eight.