Think of the last conference you attended.  What do you remember from it – and what was the greatest value you gained from it?  Chances are you remember very little and the most valuable time was the – often too short – networking time.

That, in large part, is how Sabre’s Black Dogs conference came about.

When I joined Sabre about seven years ago, I noticed that technologists in enterprise roles worked well with their business unit counterparts, but they often didn’t know them that well. In some cases, they’d never actually met in person. I saw an opportunity to bring together some of Sabre’s best and brightest tech people and visionaries to a conference that would stimulate their minds while they got to know each other better.

Unlike most events, which have a presenter-focused agenda built around information they wish to impart on the attendees, Black Dogs is attendee focused.  Our presenters and presentations are purely for the benefit and enjoyment of the exceptionally smart and easily bored audience.  Accordingly, we have strict rules for prospective presenters (both external and from within the company). Presentations must be (in order of importance):

1. Entertaining – This is essential; even if it’s about stamp collecting, we could be interested if the speaker is entertaining.

2. Educational — If they are entertaining AND can educate the audience – even if it’s not tech or travel-related (e.g., nuclear atomics) – then we could be interested.

3. Relevant – A presentation that is entertaining, educational and related to travel and/or technology qualifies as a trifecta. The goal is to get all of the above, but I wouldn’t want a presentation about technology what wasn’t also entertaining and educational.  We all get plenty of those throughout the rest of the year. 

For attendees who also present, Black Dogs delivers an opportunity to build critical communication and presentation skills – something many IT people lack. Without these skills, the value of the ideas technologists bring to the company may not be recognized. Obviously, this can damage employee morale, but it also potentially jeopardizes a company’s profitability, efficiency and product quality.

Last month we hosted two international Black Dogs events at our development center in Krakow, Poland, and decided to require ALL attendees to present on where they saw travel technology headed over the next 10 to 20 years.  On the first day, the presentations were excellent, but the agenda was too packed and we missed out on a lot of valuable discussion opportunities.

Late that day I sent an email to the attendees of the second event asking them to cut their presentations in half, to five minutes each.

I worried I had given them insufficient time to make this change and that their already short 10- minute presentations would lose their value by being reduced so significantly so late.  However, five presentations into the Tuesday sessions, the content seemed on point and there didn’t appear to be any loss in quality despite the late/drastic change.  I asked the presenters for their opinions and got consensus on the following:

  • Everyone agreed that their presentations were better and more focused at five minutes than they would have been at 10 minutes.
  • Everyone also agreed that their five-minute presentations were better because they started out at 10 minutes rather than being targeted at five minutes from the beginning!

There is an important lesson here for all of us: Start out with a longer presentation and then cut it, since a shorter message is often MUCH more impactful.

Black Dogs has had a positive effect on day-to-day relationships. I once read in “The Lexus and the Olive Treeby Thomas Friedman that no two countries that have McDonald’s have ever gone to war. With Black Dogs, our goal is to create a similar dynamic, with new bonds between attendees that transcend our organizational boundaries.