What’s the Matter With RE BarCamp?

“Theory : The BarCamp brand is getting a bad rap because the events are stuffed with ‘beginners,’ and led by technical intermediates. Thoughts?”

A good friend of mine sent me this message this morning. I’m inclined to agree agree. But I also think the events would be better if they were led by *beginners* and stuffed with *intermediates*. You see, I don’t think the problem with RE BarCamp is as much about who is leading the sessions as it is about how they are being led.

Let’s skip back to 2008. As Andy Kaufman explained to me how the first RE BarCamp was going to play out, I was very concerned that real estate people wouldn’t be able to embrace a pure unconference experience. For the most part, I was proven wrong. It was a great success, and now there are similar events happening all around the globe. But even at that first BarCamp, many of the people leading discussions spent more time presenting their ideas than facilitating a conversation.

Of course, it’s natural to default to your own thoughts. This is why it’s hard to find great moderators and easy to find great speakers. What RE BarCamp needs is more moderators.

RE BarCamp has had its growing pains. Some events have been hit with several vendors trying to do product pitches. Others have had issues with people who want to dominate the sessions as way to establish themselves as a speaker. Leading a session should not be equivalent to speaking at a conference. Many times, these sessions still end well, but it’s not in the true spirit of what was originally trying to be achieved.

Let me (literally) show you what I’m talking about. Take a look at this picture.

This was my session on mortgages during the first RE BarCamp. There are three things happening here that lead to a great RE BarCamp session:

  1. The chairs are arranged in a circle. Everyone has equal exposure and, therefore, has the mental buy-in that they are a part of a conversation, not a part of an audience.
  2. I am not in the photo. This is partly because I took the photo, but it’s mostly because I had time to take it. All I did was ask some key questions of the group to get the conversation rolling. When the conversation started to die, I moved the group to a new topic.
  3. There was beer. No, this is not the reason it’s called “bar” camp. But these events are supposed to be more like a networking cocktail party than they are a traditional conference. I wanted to do something casual to put people in the right mindset for the session.

I’m planning a RE BarCamp for Orlando during the REALTORS Conference and Expo this fall. In an attempt to capture the best of what unconferences can offer, we’ll be doing things a little differently. The people who lead discussions in each room will be predetermined. They may or may not be experts in the discussion at hand. I think it will be better if they aren’t. The only thing they will be experts at is leading a discussion. No product pitches, no aspiring speakers. More pressure for everyone to act as a group instead of an audience. Will this lead to a better event? We’ll see.

Your thoughts?

Todd Carpenter

Todd Carpenter, Managing Director of the Data Analytics Group at NAR I'm a twenty year veteran of the real estate and mortgage industry, focusing on technology that fosters relationships between professionals and consumers. I am a subject matter expert in data analytics, online consumer trends, enterprise social media strategy, listing data, agent ratings, and public facing MLS portals.

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  1. I think we’ve seen a wide spectrum of experiences….some good, some not-so-good. Much of them depend on the organizers and the tone they set for the un-conference. Our tendency is to get too organized, overly orchestrated, focusing more on who is leading the sessions than the substance of the info being shared….

  2. I think this is a fantastic idea! It’s the organic barcamp to bring everyone back to their roots, and there is no better place to do it than at the national conference. Hopefully your plan will also encourage the seasoned barcampers to break out from their clique-ish groups and be helpful to the first time attendees. I look forward to the new and improved barcamp, see you in Orlando!

  3. Todd, everything grows and evolves. I am in Nashville and just went to the ReBar in Nashville and it was fantastic.
    Here is my opinion, I met a ton of agents who are just “getting started” in all of this. Facebook, blogging etc…
    They come away with their minds blown away.

    All the sessions I was in, or taught 2 were 90% questions after a 5 minute introduction. Of course some of the questions take you in a direction you had not anticipated, ie…like someone asking Dale Chumbley how to do birthdays on FB but people are at all skill levels.

    I still very much love the unconference.

    I have attended one or two that were held in big auditoriums and I didn’t like them as much or did they seem ReBar’s.

  4. Absolutely agree. I’ve been to about 8 camps, led a few discussions and sat through many. I much prefer the smaller round circle type than the large speaker – audience type camps and I have hated when I was “pitched’ to! Looking forward to Orlando and participating in RE Bar Camp.

  5. Lesley Lambert

    Bigger question: will there be beer?

  6. I am inclined to agree with you Todd. Something that has irked me is that we are very intentional in NYC about letting people know that they are to be a moderator rather than a lecturer. Of course there are always sessions that are meant to just dump some good info on folks like “Appy Hour” and the like but I think it should really be someone that is about creating an environment for a conversation to occur rather than dominating the conversations. This is not what BarCamp is though. That would be what I would consider more of a Smart Bar where attendees pay to get into a room and talk to an ‘expert’.

    The problem with this all is that, particularly newcomers, but many barcamp veterans have a hard time doing that. There are very few participants in barcamp but rather many attendees. THAT is what has to change.

    People have to get in the mindset of showing up to participate. It’s a hard shift to make for most since it’s drilled into you to “sit there and shut up” at just about every conference. Maybe the first step is to get better content on the barcamp sites to educate and prepare people for the experience as well as show them some examples of what good sessions look like. Videoed samples would be great. Sadly, there are not many examples of good sessions that were captured.

  7. First of all, I’m so honored to have been included in the session above. It was fantastic and probably cannot be recreated.

    I’m getting ready to start seeing who’s interested in planning an REBC for Seattle this fall… so your timing with this post, Todd, is great 🙂

    I don’t think REBC is dead… I think it has changed a great deal because of vendor involvement. It’s become too commercial perhaps. Instead of having it in a small funky Swedish hall (like the 1st SF event), it’s at the Seattle Center or some other conference venue.

    Vendors wind up with expectations and don’t understand how to participate without doing their jobs: selling. Even non-vendors show up and do the same thing.

    IMO the best sessions I’ve been to is where it’s a group of peers, like the photo above, who are pretty much somewhere near the same skill and/or interest level.

    Perhaps REBC should be smaller events which focus to the different skill or interest levels? Like an “advanced” smaller REBC – instead of trying to train every RE agent and LO how to use FB and Twitter.

    There’s room for the mega-REBC to do the advanced too…but I think that one will be subject to the vendors that would be needed in order to pull a bigger event off…and folks will need to tolerate what goes along with that.

  8. I’ve heard some complaints here and there about the REbarcamp experience, typically relating to a) vendor-driven events and b) people feeling they didn’t learn anything.

    The vendor-driven event problem is easy enough to solve. Organizers must work to keep vendors in check. In San Antonio, even our sponsors (who paid more than the usual REbarcamp sponsorship) were “taught” about REbarcamp in advance and I think they did an amazing job of participating without selling.

    As for the “I didn’t learn anything” aspect, I think the real problem is fear. Attendees fear getting involved. It’s hard to convince “new” people to jump in and talk. I do think the circle of chairs helps. I think organizers bear a certain responsibility in creating the atmosphere as well as doing some pre-education – helping attendees know what is expected of them (as well as what they should expect). The more attendees are helped with that, the more successful the “discussion” aspect can be. In San Antonio I spent a lot of time prepping attendees, since this was our very first REbarcamp and I think it came of well. I think it can be much better and I hope to push that attendee participation to a new level next time.

    – @rerockstar

  9. Great post Todd. I’ve participated in REBarCamps all over the country over the last three years. And assisted in organizing a few also. Based on those experiences, I fall into the purist camp. I have seen the best sessions happen when people come with the idea of exchanging information, tactics & techniques. Get the session started and let the participants drive it. (You do have to watch out for the ocasional pitch master who thinks it is a sales forum). On the other hand, those sessions that are led by someone in a classroom setting using a powerpoint are set up to be a teaching session and they succeed at doing that.
    Those type of sessions, in my opinion, are best done via a webinar or a class at your local association. REBarCAmp was not intended to be that type of forum. But, as others have said some camps have turned into that, and if that style works for them so be it.
    Finally, I have never seen a seasoned bar camper not go out of their way to help a first time attendee learn, be it New York, Columbus, Chicago, Nashville, Denver, Phoenix, San Francisco…..just approach them and ask.

  10. Nope. The agenda should be set at the event and the discussion leaders should be chosen by the group.

  11. Hi Teresa,

    I very much agree that the agenda should be set at the event. But the discussion leaders are rarely chosen by the group. They are usually self-selected by the people offering up topics. This is what has lead to the problem of presentation style sessions.

    In Orlando, we’ll have the luxury of having many former REBC organizers in attendance. I’ve solicited volunteers from REBC Facebook support group to host sessions. These folks will host rooms at set times without knowing what the topic will be until the agenda is set on the day of the event.

  12. Todd,
    If you asked me this same question 2 years ago, i would have said you were crazy and handling it all wrong. The “bar camp purist” would want to jump out of my skin. But seeing how difficult it is to organize these and seeing how there is such a huge amount of people and vendors that show up with an agenda and pre-boxed presentations….then the idea sounds like it may have a good shot.
    I would do away with projector screens too, it’s the reason the presentations become one directional and it doesn’t leave much room for conversation and actual discussion.
    Moderators instead of speakers……hmmmm….look forward to seeing what happens.

  13. Love the picture Todd- and it seems just a continuation of our last conversation about BarCamps. Like oyu , the nconference aspect of the event is what draws me. When I’m in a room here, I don’t want to present, I want to have aconversation, or an argument, or a debate, or listen to someone with a strong opinion and then someone else who disagrees.
    I’m excited that in Orlando the facilitators (which is what we all should be- not presenters) won’t know what they need to facilitate until the time of the event. I remember being asked to do a session on REOs in Phoenix at a BarCamp with Andy Kaufman- he wanted to talk about how to get the listings, someone else wanted to talk about how to write offers, and others wanted to understand more about the whole process. From a title with no preconception, we ended up having a pretty good time, and sharing some great information. Even when the group has the wait and listen atititude, we can certainly ask them questions to get the conversation startedt.
    When I’m a facilitator at a BarCamp, I want something out of the conversation too! And the people in the room need to bring it 🙂

  14. I agree! We are planning one here in Austin hosted by NAHREP chapter and we will also have preassigned speakers. No self promotion. Everyone in the same room with breakout sections of circle in the round. AND HAPPY HOUR! 🙂

  15. I would be very interested in seeing this in action. Something needs to change to bring back REBarCamp as the place to share and discuss and avoid the pitchmeisters. I miss the conversations, the chair circles, and the sharing. It seems that has moved to the hallways and lobbies of the larger conventions. Let’s give it a shot.

  16. Todd,
    I’ve been to many Re Bar Camps around the country, and have spoken at many of them (never mentioning my product – ever). Over the years, I have seen these events change – from small groups circling together to large class rooms with projectors. I think part of the problem was that they became too popular. Everyone wanted to attend, so larger venues and classes had to be set up. And more event coordinators where setting up camps when they didn’t truly understand the way Bar Camps were meant to be held.

    I prefer the purist method, with small groups in circles, but that also limits the number of people who can attend the event/session. I prefer group discussions rather than classroom style presentation, but again, it’s very difficult to lead a true group discussion with 100 people in the room. I hope to be at the Orlando event, and look forward to seeing how you and Debbie coordinate the sessions. I know you guys will pull together an amazing event!

  17. What we’ve talked about here in the Seattle area is breaking them up…making more of them…so that the experience is much more intimate. That’s the idea anyway…we’ll see if it happens….

  18. They morphed into a Vendor pitch assembly. Get rid of the Vendors and let the agents talk to each other. We had a really good group in Irvine a couple years back. We found a lounge, made a big circle and talked Video with no Video vendors in the room. It worked and worked well.

  19. Kim Wood

    Defining “people who lead the discussions” is key for me. So many want to “present” and listen to themselves speak and it drives me nuts. Asking questions to bring forth conversation is so much better, IMO.

    Signed, another BarCamp Purist

  20. I agree with Elaine Hanson’s comments. ReBarCamp has morphed into “Lobbycon” at most of the venues/conferences that I’ve attended
    lately. In fact, that is where most of the great conversations and
    interactions take place–that and the after hours chats at the bar or parties.

  21. I am so glad you guys are talking about this as I am planning ANOTHER Orlando BarCamp in conjunction with the Florida Realtors Annual Conference.I will see you at RETSO Todd for some help with your event. We are mixing it up a bit his year for REBCORL. The “radical” theme will resonate as we will follow some of these “pipeline” discussions for advanced engagement, “Parrothead” beginner sessions with assigned moderators, and some “Radical” discussion areas for the creative who are brimming with ideas. no doubt there will be some hallway surfing as well as things will get crazy this year. Surf’s up in FLA this year -.. August 8th… be there.

  22. Todd – we have something here called the Unsumit. The group that organizes it makes us follow he rules. Many of us have successfully lead or moderated sessions. After attending a moderated session I learned and I used the technique at the local ReBar camp. It worked but no one really got it. I think it is alright to be an expert or have an area of expertise and moderate a session. I have seen it done and I have done it. Teaching the people who want to lead sessions how to do this could be one of the most valuable things to come out of the rebar camp. they could take it home with them and teach others.

  23. The sprit of these camps is learning from our peers. It would be wonderful to have discussions among people who sell real estate . .. or maybe there are not enough of those left? I like what Rich is saying and am considering organizing a small REBar camp myself. Our local camp panders to big brokerage executives and association folks. it would be nice to have a small one for agents as in people who actually have had a buyer in their car in the last six months or who have listings or both.

  24. The first one in Columbus was OK. The second they handed it to the Board Of REALTORS and it was just another conference with us sitting in rows, an audience to a bunch of presentations.

  25. No expert am I, but when first-time attendees leave glowing about all they learned I find it hard to believe when the more experienced among us decry the lack of conforming to orthodoxy.

    That said, the best sessions are collaborative and the one that most reminded me of paint drying was a lecture by a lawyer who kept getting interrupted by a guy from a market that didn’t have the type of property being discussed.

  26. Rob

    great thoughts Todd, and I agree with you as to the pure approach of a barcamp. The best way to learn something is to teach others, as they say.

  27. I agree, Todd. The last few ReBar Camps and barcamps i have attended have been, In Patrick Healy’s words, more attendees than participants. Session leaders/facilitators have referred to sessions as classes that they were teaching or “presenting”. I think your approach with skilled (and perhaps generic)moderators could resurrect REBar Camp and return the Barcamp concept to its original ideals. Thanks for your ideas.

  28. Bar Camp is a free-for-all, that is good news and bad news. The main job of organizers should be to manage expectations, of moderators, participants, speakers, sponsors.

    Personally, I get something out of a crowded session with The Expert doing a talk then having a Q&A, or even a product demo with the opportunity to explore how that type of product can be used by RE agents, but I get a lot more out of a small group in which one conversation leads to another and (nearly) everyone shares. Perhaps the sessions need to come with a code (warning?) that a session is *likely* to be (1) presentation with Q&A, (2) demonstration with opportunity to explore usage in different contexts, or (3) moderated small-group discussion with a designated starting point but no designated path.

    “Discussion” is hard with 30+ people in the room for 40 minutes, and it is really hard with one person highjacking the conversation (as in Phil’s story about the lawyer and the interrupting guy; I remember that one). If moderators are trained to cut off radically divergent threads, you run the risk of ruining one person’s experience but can give everyone else the experience they are looking for. I would love it if there were accepted norms that limit how often people talk; 3 people dominating a room of 20 is not ideal. Good moderators are key!

    My experience has been what Teresa said, “It worked but no one really got it”. The more people who attend, the harder it is to “get it”.

  29. Looking forward to participating and attending the REbarcamp experience in Orlando. This will be a true collaboration and an opportunity to engage with one another. The unconference or lobbycon situations always bring out the best conversations and learning experience in my opinion.

  30. Love your idea Todd, but as usual TBoard “Nailed” it again, she is so smart ( I don”t care what Ines says) 😉 Choose Topics, then Choose Moderators. Include a veteran like (@Ines or @JeffTurner or the others I am sure you will have there) to keep group focused.

    2 powerful memories stick out to me from REBarcamp 1 in SF 2008…

    #1 – the first meeting called to organize it by Andy and Brad…Andy couldn’t make it and Brad showed up to Pier 1, welcomed by a roaring crowd of 2! (Me and my GF at the time)

    #2 – Was my Mentor, and now glad to say friend, Mike Price’s Touching words .. “This shit is awesome! and it will probably be the last time I come to one”! After asking him why? He replied “Because after today the Corporations will take a hold of the concept, or God Forbid N.A.R., and the open exchange of useful information with morph into commercials for Ad Space and Ad Ons”, “Now let’s go eat and get F’d Up”! (Gosh I love Mike)

    Though Trulia was the main donation source that day, they (Rudy) stayed out of everything, except the after party and gained a bunch of Loyal Followers for it =) That day I met some of the most amazing Bloggers and RE Pros. They were friendly and always willing to sit down and discuss any topic. I also got a package of really cool Blogger Trading Cards from Andy and Brad, that I have kept to this day.. thanks again guys =)

    … and though Mike’s prediction took over a year to come true, it did come true. BarCamps have not been the same since, nor will they. I applaud your efforts to bring back that spirit, but remain cautiously pessimistic =(

    The more “Organized” they get, the less they work … but in all seriousness, Best of Luck =)


  31. MY BAD! The lovely and talented Cindy Lin ( @CindyLinSF ) of Staged for Homes, was also at that very 1st “organizing” meeting at Pier 1 in 2008…So sorry to have errored my dear, it won’t happen again =)


  32. Eric,

    Mike Price organized the next RE BarCamp, in Houston, so it’s interesting that he would say that, but it was a great event. . Also, There was no primary sponsor for the event. There was a $250 limit for every sponsor. Many of the sponsorships came from organizers like myself instead of corporations. Anytime you can avoid a bunch of sponsorships, you avoid the chance of a product pitch.

    NAR sponsored RE BarCamp in Chicago in 2009 and again in 2011. I think you’ll find that the people who attended were very happy with the way NAR involved themselves in the event. We worked to make sure our members had a great event and check the rest of our agenda at the door. That’s the plan for Orlando as well.

  33. Todd I think your correct to a point. I went to last years here in Orlando and thought it was very unorganized. you had to keep going back to the board to see what was next and where. And then some where scratched without notice. But the ones I sat in where for the most part good. Then I sat in on the short sale one and needless to say the presenters did not have a clue. So after I corrected them several times, questions flowed me way. Because you see there were many there that wanted good info and went there to get it. After that class I was asked to be a presenter at this years but I have not heard anything on that.

  34. I’ve helped organize 3 Camps – and I’ve attended multiple others. Some of the Camps had 75 people – others had 300. Each one was a different experience – and I think that’s part of the “joy” of REBarCamp.

    Sandy said, “Bar Camp is a free-for-all, that is good news and bad news. The main job of organizers should be to manage expectations, of moderators, participants, speakers, sponsors.” And for me – that’s the trick.

    I also believe that as an organizer, “managing the expectations” means you are active in the conversation about the Camp, and what Attendees in your area genuinely want to talk about. If there’s a conversation going on prior to Camp (that’s deeper than just “please come”), it’s my belief that you have more people coming to Camp prepared to engage, and participate with thoughtful questions.

    Along that line of thinking – we’ve tried “pre-camp” sessions, to let everyone know what Camp is like, what to expect – and hopefully get more participation (as opposed to someone just showing slides and Training)… we’ve tried not “advertising” the Camp to have a decidedly smaller group, and we’ve polled attendees as they signed up. We’ve also tried setting “beginner,” “Intermediate” and “Advanced” sessions on a topic that many people wanted to be in the discussion on… trying to avoid having 110 people in a room to discuss FB Business Pages…

    No matter what has been done, however, my observation is that you end up with a group of “the smart kids” standing around talking to each other – and you have Agents who are completely “fried” by the middle of the day.

    That seems to be part of the “RE BarCamp free-for-all experience,” and I suspect that predictable difficulty (in keeping Everyone engaged and stimulated throughout the day) is what prompted the question in the first place.

  35. I have to agree with Missy Caulk – the larger these events get, the less people feel comfortable to chime in and volunteer information. Although filling the rooms with a lots of people seems successful on the surface, intimate groups are better for sharing and collaboration.

    Hope the ReBar experience can get back to its original concept.

  36. I think it`s awesome! Sharing experiences can make a lot of difference. Especially now, when people thinks the RE crisis is gone

  37. I think that each point has some merit to it. I think we all need to understand the intent of the RE BarCamp, our individual roles to either facilitate, sponsor and partake etc..Each person has to set their expectations and get involved and yes this feedback opportunity is very important to the continued growth and success of bar camps. I am encouraged at the comments both positive and the negative. It definitely shows we as REALTORS are concerned and engaged. Keep the dialogue going and the issues will work themselves out.