Wow what a whirlwind of a week. Flying in from Toronto to Helsinki, I spent some time to explore Finland's capital city but more importantly, I was in this new part of Scandinavia because I was invited to attend a conferenced called PING Festival. The truth is I had never heard of the conference up until a few months ago but when I saw it promoted on one of the Facebook groups I'm in for travel bloggers, I figured it wouldn't hurt to apply.
I wanted to share with you my experience at PING Festival because there really isn't too much information out there and to also give some inspiration around why events like this matter if you're an influencer/blogger/creator.
What was PING Festival like?
I think if I were to describe this influencer conference in a sentence, it would be:
A crazy energizing, colourful, well-run, and not overwhelmingly large one-day event that brings together influencers of all types with a tremendous opportunity to get inspired by speakers and sessions and also network for new business opportunities.
This was PING Festival's 4th year and caters to the Nordic/Scandinavian region that brings in “business hippies” and “content gurus” from all verticals with a mission of discussing the future and contemporary trends of H2H digital marketing and creating meaningful business encounters.
Let's start off with the space where the conference is held. The tallest building in Helsinki turns out to be not some corporate skyscraper but in fact it's the Clarion Helsinki in a recently gentrified port area of the city. The beautiful hotel not only serves as host to most of the out-of-town guests like myself, but also has a large convention centre that has two floors plus the restaurant on the main floor which PING Festival also takes over.
Thanks to the large volunteer team and all the partners brought in, the space is transformed overnight with large banners, signs, decorations, lighting, and all sorts of furniture to divide the space.
\When you walked into the space, you definitely could recognize the attention to detail that's put in to create that colourful and exciting vibe that PING Festival is all about. It also isn't overwhelming so once you figure out what the two main show floors are for, it's impossible to get lost.
The keynotes and parallel sessions
If you browse the website, you'll notice that there's a heavy emphasis on the various tracks that they've created – Transformation, Content, Emotions, Quality and Trust. These are the core pillars to the conference when it comes to the formal presentations.
The keynotes are the big talks where everyone attends. This year, there were a collection of thought leaders that spoke on a variety of topics that include everything from the future of building brands, engaging the people of tomorrow, and effectively using influencers. These were all big-idea, feel-good, and thought-provoking.
Then you had the parallel sessions where the 750+ attendees break up into their areas of interest. There are three types of presentations here: Masterclass, Q&A, and Cases.
- Masterclass – These are closer to the keynotes but on more focused ideas and niche
- Q&A – Think of these as panel discussions
- Cases – Get a good variety of case studies and presenters to talk about a particular topic
Throughout the day, there are two keynote blocks and two parallel session blocks.
Depending on how you plan out your day, there isn't a whole lot of free time to eat tons of food but the organizers did an awesome job at laying out food on both floors of the festival. It was actually done quite well because there was never a line up for food, the coffee dispenser was always full, and there were always munchies on the floor to be had whether it be breakfast, sweets, snacks, or champagne.
Lunch was a little different with everyone heading down to the first floor to the restaurant for food where there was a buffet waiting for us. It was a lovely lunch that had a big focus on vegetarian food which I've come to learn as one of the mantras of Finnish food.
More thoughts on this down below but this was probably the best part of the conference. Not a surprise right? Meeting new people, getting outside your comfort zone, and making valuable connections is really why you come to these.
So of course, there's just open networking that you can do on your own in the hallways. There are open spaces throughout whether in the meeting point areas, or outer balcony.
Then there's the official business networking which for this year, PING partnered with a tech company called Brella to facilitate with the setting up of meetings. The idea is that you create a profile on Brella before the day of the event and you go through the profile of all the attendees that have also signed up. Whoever you feel like might be a match for you, you request a meeting for a particular slot. The app assigns you a table and that's it!
While at first I was a bit skeptical about whether this would be effective at all since each time slot is only 15 minutes and there weren't that many people on the platform at first. However, the number of signups increased and you'd be surprised how much you can get across in 15 minutes. There was also one room designated for these networking meetings so you just had to show up at your standing bar table at your designated time.
With adrenaline at an all-time high, the final part to the day was at a nightclub in the city called Kaiku. I think at this point we were all pretty exhausted but this was another chance to hang out with all the people I met during the event.
Despite this being at a club, the ironic thing was that there wasn't a whole lot of dancing going on. Maybe it just wasn't the right crowd but I think most of us were much more interested in continuing the conversation except this time just with a cup (or two) of Russian mule's graciously provided by Stoli.
What happens outside of the conference?
Beyond all of the festivities of the conference itself, there are also activities before and after to keep you busy.
As everyone starts converging on Helsinki, the day prior to PING Festival is meant to be an orientation day to get to know the city and to get fired up.
For the international attendees, the organizers offered two walking tours run by Happy Guide Helsinki – one focused on the city's main sights and the other on design. I chose the design tour with Kari and had a great time meeting a few of the other international influencers and continuing to be blown away with how influential Finnish designers have been on the world.
As with tradition at PING, the night before the conference is all about Finland's favourite activity – sauna. We all get whisked away by bus in the evening to a sauna spot that resembles a stealth ship made out of wood by the Baltic Sea. This was a fun way to try Finnish sauna (including a dip into the freezing Baltic), have awesome local foods, and get to know a few of the other influencers.
So after Finnish sauna 🧖♂️ you’re supposed to cool off in cold water. What they didn’t tell me was that this meant jumping into the Baltic Sea and the ice-cold water. I did it TWICE as part of our opening night festivities with #PingFestival18 and boy was I in for a rude awakening. What a #LivefortheStory moment . The stages of cooling off during sauna: shock➡deliriousness ➡frozen feet➡”I need to get out”➡heavy walking➡feel refreshed . Tag a friend if you love sauna and had the same type of reaction when you dipped into cold water . #myhelsinki #visithelsinki #finnishsauna #sauna #igershelsinki #helsinki #goingawesomeplaces
PING Festival didn't end there as most of the international guests had the opportunity to go on a wide variety of post-conference press trips in various regions of Finland with tourism boards. This is a chance to see more of what the country has to offer beyond Helsinki.
I was in a unique situation because I only had one day available after the conference but they worked hard to make something work for me. I ended up going to the Lake District of Lahti, an hour north of Helsinki. I was only there for a day with our group of 5 but had a wonderful time getting to see a hidden lake, get hands-on with paper printing, and a stay at quite the elegant B&B manor out in the country.
Was it worth it?
Yes it totally was! When it comes to events like this, there's never a sure thing but if you don't put yourself out there as a blogger to meet fellow colleagues and find potential opportunities, you'll always be grinding away at the same few things. My goal going into it was to find new opportunities but came away with even more than that – new friends and learning a thing or two as well.
Now I'm never one to shy away from being honest about things so I'm just going to dive into my thoughts on things I observed and why it was good but also some areas that weren't as valuable for me.
What made the conference great
The combination of the size and also the fact that isn't all about travel that made it a great event. I think it works well in a few ways.
- You're more likely to stand out because not everyone at PING Festival is a travel influencer.
- Smaller size means a more intimate event where you could really get to know people there. You weren't just 1 in a thousand but instead 1 in 200.
- Right now not that many influencers know about the conference and so again, another way for you to stand out with the brands that are there.
The bottom line is that the networking is really the most valuable part of the event. There's never a sure thing with these but the conversations I had with brands and other influencers made me come away with it with a sense of optimism that something could happen down the road.
Brands are the obvious ones because these are those scheduled meetings you have where you pitch what you do and talk about potential collaborations. What was a surprise to me was how valuable it was just talking to other influencers because some of them ran their own agencies of sorts which meant there was a possibility for collaboration and the other part was knowledge transfer because you could ask about something you needed help with and you could get a real answer to.
What could've been better
For me, I thought there would be more international attendees at the event but quickly learned that at least 3/4 of the audience were Scandinavian. I think for locals this is a great opportunity but for someone on the outside, it's a bit more tricky to break in because of existing cliques that already exist and of course the language barrier.
It goes beyond the attendees as what I noticed going through the list of profiles on Brella and eventually talking to a few brands, is that because most are companies from Scandinavia, their focus market is also the same area. Some are interested in other parts of Europe but when it came to a conversation about international markets like North America, it wasn't a priority or hadn't built any strategy for it. As a result, there were a lot of dead leads.
One of the interesting things about being in Helsinki is that it seemed that a lot of influencers already knew each other and not because they lived in Finland. There's another conference that happens annually now called NBE (Nordic Bloggers' Experience) that happens earlier in the year. In that way, I felt that there were some pre-existing cliques for better or worse.
The other observation I made was that since this is an influencer event for all categories, the topics in the keynotes and parallel sessions were all broad strokes. I'm not saying any of them were bad but I kind of wished that some could be a bit more niche specific or perhaps more tactical where you could learn something that could be applied instead of purely inspirational. It's not the fault of the festival but something that I think you should know if you apply.
Tips for the conference
Being only a one-day conference, the day goes by insanely fast. The schedule is packed but if there's one thing you need to focus on to make the most of your time is the networking time slots. Set up as many meetings as possible.
Go to sauna event and the walking tour because that's how you'll get to know people more easily than being just thrown onto the floor on conference day. It was nice that I already knew a bunch of people that I could hang out with instead of having to awkwardly walk into conversation circles or have to wander.
Make sure you account for a few days on your own to explore the city. I came in a few days earlier to see Helsinki in 72 hours but others that were coming in for just the conference and post-trips barely saw much outside of Clarion Helsinki which I thought was a shame.
I'm always so thankful for opportunities like PING Festival where you're really not sure how it's going to go but you come out it re-energized, optimistic about the future, and with many potential business opportunities.
I was extremely impressed with the organization of the event, how well the sponsors of the event meshed in with the core mission of the conference, and quality of every aspect of it from the speakers to the networking.
While I did have some challenges finding a place to fit in because there was definitely a focus on the Scandinavian market, there were still many nuggets of value to be discovered if you talked to the right brands and met the right people.
I made the best of my time at PING Festival and am so glad that I was there.
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