The nature of the X Change Conference is that each is completely different though all share much that is the same. You never hear the same speech or the same presentation, though you may hear the same problems in many different ways. I had almost no idea what to expect in Berlin for our first European X Change. What would Berlin be like? How many people would we get? How well would the format translate when taken away from its native (and notoriously chatty) American soil? What would the attendees be like? How sophisticated would they be? Would the many non-native English speakers as both attendees and Huddle Leaders be a problem? And, most important, would the conversations be interesting?
So many questions and only three short days to answer them.
Let me start by saying how much I enjoyed being in Berlin. I've never been to Berlin (or Germany for that matter) and I suppose my mental images were more of concrete block-buildings in the old GDR than anything else. Of course, I knew that wasn't the Berlin of today but I had no real American model on which to base a guess. In that, at least, I was right. Berlin is quite different than any city in America. Cosmopolitan, growing (construction cranes everywhere you look), stretches of historic and profoundly beautiful buildings and neighborhoods, and, of course, the striking glass skyscrapers (though Berlin is far from a tall city) of the modern city. There are the obligatory Starbucks (better pastries than in the U.S.) and Dunk'n Donuts, along with an eclectic mix of German, Asian, and Italian food all plentifully awash in local beer. It's a city of high-culture (museums, symphony, theatre) and high-tech (a very cool new media gulch by the river including one of the coolest hotels I've ever seen - Matthias tells me they have room service musical instruments to accommodate the many musical groups they draw), with more green and more bikes than you'd probably imagine.
Quick highlights of my sightseeing: the Sand Cats that charmed my daughters (who had to be forcibly dragged away after countless photos), the Wolf pack and the Hippos at the wonderfully walkable Berlin Zoo; the entire open-house day at the Berlin Symphony including a 14 flute ensemble that featured several man-size flutes shaped like a giant number 4 and that finished with a finger-snapping rendition of Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme; scraping our fingers (but not our heads) on the incredibly low tunnels over the canal as our boat glided underneath to emerge in an ever darkening Berlin sky; the Winged Victory popping up as you suddenly crossed wide lanes; the BBQ boats (great floating inner-tubes with a grill in the center) on the lake behind Matthias' house; and, of course, the winding path of embedded bricks that mark almost all that remains of the Wall.
Of course, I knew the answer to how many people we'd draw before I ever arrived. With a tremendous late burst in registration, we closed the Conference at our maximum capacity of 100 late last week. That was better than I'd ever expected and much better than I'd feared as registrations started very slow - no surprise for our first time in Europe. The upshot was that most Huddles were quite full - with quite a few at or near the limit of twenty that we place on each session. That's a little larger than I prefer, but not unmanageable. And many Huddles were in the very comfortable 13-16 zone. This makes for a diverse but still intimate conversation.
Provided, that is, that people will talk. I had been warned to expect that few people are as talkative as Americans and that Germans, for example, might be a little more reticent. We had people from fourteen or fifteen different countries across Europe, but the largest contingents were from Germany and U.K.
Was it different? It was, a little. I think we probably are a little chattier in the States and it took a little longer for people to get warmed up. I noticed that Day 2 flowed better than Day 1 as people began to know each other (an evening drinking together as we circled Berlin by boat couldn't have hurt) and talk more consistently. But even on the first day, the differences were minor. In every Huddle I attended, a majority of folks participated and often quite extensively.
As for the attendees, I'd say that it was more representative of our first or second X Change than the event as it is today in the U.S. We had more consultants than we typically get in the U.S, and the experience level was more varied. We had more folks from mid-size enterprises - particularly in Germany - and from very small analytic teams. You just don't get the really large enterprise teams that we see at places like Dell or American Express very commonly in Europe. Occasionally, that created situations where Huddles didn't have enough experienced analytics practitioners. That happens in the U.S. too sometimes, but you have to really be pushing the topic envelope in the U.S. before I get worried.
Was language a barrier? Probably a little bit - though I don't think there was a single comment or speaker that I didn't understand perfectly. But there's no doubt that participants less fluent in English were generally less likely to participate heavily. That's something I noticed consistently as the Conference went on and I suppose it's not really a surprise. I think everyone was able to follow the conversations completely - even if they were a bit shy about chiming in.
Which brings me, of course, to the most important questions. Was the conversation interesting - which really boils down to was the Conference good? Because the beer, the boat-rides and the sight-seeing are just extras to what really matters.
It was good. Really enjoyable and deeply interesting. I took away my usual trove of new insights and new things to consider. What the best practitioners in Europe are doing is as good as anywhere in the world and I heard some pretty cool stuff indeed. In posts to come I'm going to discuss some of the insights from my Web to Customer Analytics Huddle, the importance of persona-based segmentation in Virgin's testing program (which is one of the most carefully segmented and thoughtfully constructed I've ever encountered), some clever techniques for managing reporting fatigue that came out of Ross McDonnell's Huddle on measurement foundations, the insights about team-building for Big Data that surfaced in our keynote and that I heard seconded by David Williams from ASOS (despite having to skip his Big Data Huddle - my #1 selection for the whole Conference - to cover a session on Tag Management Systems), thoughts about creating POC and short-data window warehouses for data exploration, reflections on the buy-vs-build decision on Tag Management from Joe Stanhope, discussion of private panels, dynamic QR codes, and Markus Gerlitzki's (Rocket Internet) pretty impressive CRM and Web integrations, and some really brilliant ideas for measurement and Social CRM from Alex Emberey's session. On the other hand, when I find out who bumped me from Tom Bett's Huddle on mobile customer journey integration (which I heard was outstanding), heads will roll! (Just kidding).
It was X Change as I've always known it. Relaxed, intimate, informative, and fun. So many people told me the Conference was as different as we'd advertised and much better than expected that I lost track. I left (on the train to Heidelberg as I write this) knowing many really interesting people and terrific practitioners far better than when I went in and having learned quite a bit about how some of the best measurement in the world is getting done. When all was said and the last Pils drunk, we had that glow that comes from that rarest of times - when something big has lived up to or exceeded your hopes. It was a more than auspicious start to bringing this very special Conference to Europe. So yes, we're already planning year 2. Our usual end-of conference Q&A included a straw poll of top destinations for 2013: Berlin redux, Amsterdam, and Spain (Mallorca or Barcelona) came out on top. I can hardly wait!
Thank you all who participated so very much!
Danke Schoen and Auf Wiedersehen.