By the Revit Users, for the Revit Users, Part 15 Jun, 2014 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin
Now in its tenth year, the independent Revit Technology Conference serves three continents and is still growing — but cautiously.
The Revit Technology Conference (RTC) bears some similarity to another Australian native, the platypus. Although they are composed of familiar elements, the end result is unmistakably unique. “We’ve never found another event of this nature that is driven by its users,” said Wesley Benn, director of RTC Events Management.
RTC is a conference for users of Autodesk Revit building information modeling (BIM) software that comprises networking opportunities, keynote addresses, technical sessions and labs, and an exhibit hall. Unlike most events of its kind, however, RTC is put on by users, rather than the software developer or a reseller.
According to the conference organizers, that independence helps attendees to freely discuss deficiencies in the software and their workflows, and to get “unvarnished” advice from peers. “You don’t have to fight the marketing message,” said Benn. That doesn’t mean that users attend RTC to gripe, but rather that they can openly explore problems in order to find solutions and determine best practices. For example, in 2009 one attendee’s particularly blunt criticism of Revit content spurred the development of the Australian and New Zealand Revit Standards (ANZRS), which predated Autodesk’s Revit Model Content Style Guide.
From User Group to User Conference
RTC was born in 2005, hatched from the Revit User Group Sydney, which was founded by Benn. A weekend away together promised to increase camaraderie, as well as knowledge, among what was then a small user base. The first RTC consisted of a dozen classes and fewer than 100 attendees, but it served its intended purpose, “and it just grew from there,” said Benn.
Although the event has grown larger over the past decade, organizers are determined to maintain the atmosphere and benefits of a smaller event, where speakers are accessible, attendees recognize each other in the hallways, and the plenary session speakers share inside jokes with the audience. Autodesk University, billed as “the world’s largest gathering for Autodesk software users,” offers “enormous breadth of possibility — but it’s completely impersonal,” Benn opined. “RTC in some ways is a response to that.”
RTC Australasia, held May 29–31 in Melbourne, drew about 350 delegates, and Benn expects a total of approximately 1,200 attendees at the three RTC events this year. If the North American conference draws 500, a registration cap will freeze attendance at that level and allow organizers to determine whether a larger group should be allowed in the future. “Can I see [attendance] growing past 700, 750? No,” said Benn. “Intimacy is a vital aspect of the event.”
Benn acknowledged that RTC could be more profitable if it swelled to accommodate thousands of users and exhibitors. “It doesn’t make money,” he noted. “But if you spend too much time thinking about what sponsors and exhibitors need, then you’re not spending enough time thinking about what delegates need.”
Building Community Around the World
Unlike the platypus, RTC has made itself at home in places far from its Australian roots. The fourth RTC North America will be held in Chicago, June 19–21, and the second RTC Europe will be held in Dublin, Ireland, October 30–November 1. The events are held in different venues from one year to the next; although that increases logistical difficulties for organizers, it helps RTC to reach as many users as possible, explained Benn.
In addition to these three regions, the conference may further expand its reach in the near future. The RTC team has identified a half-dozen possible markets; “we’re looking very closely at Asia at the moment,” Benn noted. Conference organizers are analyzing how to adapt the various aspects of the RTC experience — the language, size, etc. — to those markets. “The cookie-cutter approach just does not work, and we know that,” said Chris Needham, a longtime RTC committee member who became chair of RTC Australasia this year.
There are also important regional variations in attitudes toward BIM to take into account. “In Australia, BIM is driven by architects; in North America, BIM is driven by contractors; in Europe, by structural engineers; and in Asia, by real estate and owner–operators,” noted Benn.
RTC’s organizers also put on the biannual Design Technology Summit (DTS), an invitation-only forum for architects and engineers who implement and manage design technology. VisCon is another spinoff event, but has not fared as well as DTS. Although 2012’s VisDay “worked very well,” according to Benn, this year’s VisCon event — planned as an adjunct to RTC Australasia — failed to garner enough registrations and was canceled. “[It’s] a victim of the issues it’s trying to resolve,” said Benn; namely, the lack of an organized, visible community prevents creative and technical visualization professionals from even hearing about an event designed for them. In addition, in an industry of single individuals and small shops that have been battered by the economic downturn and the increasing use of visualization tools by nonprofessionals, there’s an atmosphere of fierce competition rather than sharing. “They’re hanging on with their fingernails to the work they’ve got — the last thing they want to do is divulge anything to anyone else,” commented Needham.
As a result, the planned event has “morphed from VisCon as a conference to VisCom as a community,” Needham explained, and many visualization sessions were incorporated into the RTC Australasia lineup (for more on this topic, watch for part 2 of this article). The RTC team will assess whether there is a way to make VisCon workable in the future, perhaps as an RTC-co-located event where “visualization houses would be side by side with the people they want as clients,” Benn suggested. “It is our intent to create a ‘research portal’ using surveys, forums, resource links, and other materials to work to bring the individuals together and build a community that may slowly add the conference environment back in,” he explained.
A Broader BIM Umbrella
In its first year, the Revit Technology Conference was known as the Revit National Congress; organizers quickly realized the name was limiting, explained Benn. Now, they’re reconsidering the name again, concerned that it may not reflect the entirety of what the event is today or what it will become in the future.
RTC has a Revit focus, but it aims to cover “all things BIM and the whole ecosystem that supports it,” as noted on the website. “We know that no product is all things to all people at all times,” said Benn. “If I [as a user] want to do my job right, I need the right tool at the right time, regardless of where it comes from … all these tools are just pieces in the tool kit.”
Although Revit is an Autodesk product, RTC is certainly not an Autodesk event, and it has received sponsorship support from Autodesk only intermittently. Currently, “Autodesk is a very active and enthusiastic supporter … but it’s been a struggle in the past,” said Benn, noting that Autodesk’s product development and marketing teams haven’t seen eye-to-eye on their company’s involvement in RTC. According to Steve Stafford, RTC’s region manager for North America, Autodesk’s presence has great importance even for those who don’t attend RTC. “It’s about proving to your customer base that you believe your own story,” he said.
In recent years RTC has featured speakers from software firms whose tools compete with Revit — such as Bentley Systems and Graphisoft — and organizers seek to encourage further involvement by these companies, not deter it by appearing to be Revit-only.
Preserving That Aussie Flavor
Back when RTC was an Australasia-only event, Stafford pushed to expand it to the United States, while maintaining its “Aussie-ness”: a casual, jocular attitude; twice-daily breaks for tea and sweets; and morning start times that allow delegates to sleep in a bit. “We put on an event that we would find interesting to attend ourselves,” said Benn, “and [include] things we consider to be fun. … It’s very carefully informal.”
That informal approach included some things I’ve never seen at an industry event, such as a cheeky presenter rushing the stage to snap impromptu selfies with the event chairman mid-speech, and fire dancers threatening to set off the smoke alarms during dinner. It also included some I’d like to see at every industry event, such as short waits to try new technologies (like the Oculus Rift), attendees eagerly sharing their own expertise with fellow audience members, and a welcoming atmosphere.
“One of the things that people don’t realize before they go,” commented Stafford, “is how quickly you fit in, how quickly you become part of a crew … and the lasting friendships and relationships [that result].”