The Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit existed in October 2020 primarily because of — surprise — technology.
Shackled by COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings and airline travel, organizers pivoted their planning. They offered presenters the opportunity to join the summit virtually, speaking to attendees watching online from 10 countries and 33 states.
“It allowed us to ask anybody across the globe if they would speak,” said Graham Cobb, CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce. The summit is an annual chamber project.
According to Ashley Wardlow, the summit’s executive director, last year’s event welcomed 128 speakers and 1,600 attendees, a 12% increase from the 2019 program.
In a recent interview, she said last year’s seventh annual event was so successful that organizers are carrying forward those best practices to plan a hybrid event this year, Oct. 17-21.
“Last year opened our eyes to the possibility of incorporating a virtual element into all our events the chamber hosts,” she said. “It is so much easier to create equitable access when constraints of a central location don’t hamper you.”
Wardlow said attendees could, in theory, buy a ticket and watch programming all from their laptop computer. Or, the summit will organize watch parties at four regional hubs to hear from this year’s lineup of speakers. The chamber will announce those regional sites and a complete lineup of presenters later this year.
“They are not the usual suspects,” Wardlow said, referring to the watch party hubs. “They’re some really fun spaces to hang out. We’re incentivizing people to get out of the office or the home office and come out and be with each other.”
The chamber hired Wardlow in early 2020, just as the COVID pandemic arrived. She said the logistics of planning this year’s event are more straightforward than last year.
“We were, ostensibly, planning two separate events all the way through July last year, when our committee made what was the right and responsible decision to go entirely virtual,” she said. “Our team here at the chamber and the committee share my enthusiasm and excitement that we’re able to take a step forward in terms of gathering together in person and fostering those meaningful connections that we know happen in person while also highlighting a fantastic speaker lineup.”
Wardlow acknowledged the work done by the tech summit committee, comprised of more than 60 volunteers across the technology and entrepreneurial ecosystem who guide each year’s programming. The agenda will welcome speakers discussing the summit’s three primary focus areas — technology leadership, how technology and business intersect, and technology and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion).
Summit organizers are also working with Venture Noire, a Bentonville nonprofit supporting Black and minority entrepreneurs, to create programming dedicated entirely to making tech more equitable.
“So far, 64% of our confirmed speakers are women or members of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] communities,” Wardlow said. “There’s always more that we can do, but we are encouraged and find that organic growth of representation within the speaker lineup very rewarding.”
An additional avenue to access is free tickets available for educators and students.
“Mike Harvey at the Northwest Arkansas Council, years ago, said if the council is going to support this, how can it be a workforce development opportunity?” Cobb recalled. “He set that [student access] in motion years ago, and it’s something we’ve carried forth. Not just the council, but a bunch of entities that help us build the capacity to offer complimentary tickets and passes to students.”
Summit tickets this year are $189. Attendees who are unable to break free during a hectic workday to watch in real time can also watch on-demand. All of the virtual content will be recorded, Cobb said.
Still, he said there is the incentive to ask for a day off and attend in person.
“The virtual experience is fantastic; I think we had a global leader last year when it comes to an online experience,” Cobb said. “But you can’t substitute a handshake or high five or a cup of coffee with somebody.”
Wardlow said that when each day’s agenda is complete, organizers will offer up activities for in-person attendees to showcase Northwest Arkansas. In Bentonville, that means mountain biking, trails and public art.
“We believe the magic and moxie of Northwest Arkansas is the experience you get when you are here,” Cobb said. “That is still extremely important to us to showcase Northwest Arkansas.
“Looking back to 2019, we leaned into the idea of this conference being an intersection of arts and cycling technology. We’ve learned more efficient ways to do that. Last year we were able to have small groups of 10 or 12 people gathered outdoors. Distanced. This year, maybe we can get a little bit closer and see each other smile without a mask on.”