Difference between a conference, retreat and workshop

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

I categorize all in-person experiences as live events. Although they're all under the same umbrella, they each serve a different purpose. Once you understand the difference between the three, deciding which event to plan becomes a whole lot easier.

As I stated earlier, all live events are not created equal. Workshops, retreats and conferences have different purposes, specific goals and a target audience as well. As a host, your goal is to plan a specific event for a specific attendee. This can mean different things. Let’s say you’re a fitness coach, for example. Hosting a retreat weekend filled with yoga and meditation activities, fun, new exercises and easy ways to plan weekly meals might be some activities you’d have at your live event to engage your attendees. Of course you’re not limited to your service offerings, but it sure does make it easier since it’s already in your wheelhouse.

The first live event is a conference. It’s defined as a formal meeting of people with a shared interest, typically over several days. People attend conferences for several reasons. Some include to be inspired, to network and to engage. Conferences tend to have several speakers and a larger number of attendees. Think 50 and over. Most times, there’s a keynote speaker, event speakers and breakout speakers who take over different sessions or workshops that pique the interest of a select number of attendees. Attendees usually stay seated until break or lunch/dinner time. It’s mostly one-sided in regards to the learning style. The speaker presents while attendees listen and take notes. Because of the number of speakers and larger crowd, attendees tend to leave with content overload. What is content overload? It’s exactly what it sounds like - being overloaded with content. This makes attendees overwhelmed and not sure what to implement first. To combat this, I’ve seen conference hosts offer a group program to break down their conference topics into smaller, more digestible pieces so that implementation becomes easier.

The second live event is a retreat. It’s defined as a quiet or secluded place in which one can rest, use for prayer or meditation. People attend a retreat to relax, rejuvenate, reflect on the past, recharge and refocus. Retreats tend to have no more than 40 or 50 people. They’re really a wonder, I gotta tell ya. It’s amazing to hear folks talk about them after they’ve attended one. I haven’t had the opportunity yet, but retreats should be exactly what they say they are. It’s a very special live event where you experience the best of both worlds – work and vacation. I have a friend who calls it a 'workcation'. Retreats have two sides and that’s deliberate. It’s the perfect blend between reflecting and recharging but getting some work completed as well. It’s not heavy work but it’s an opportunity to make strides in your business. Retreats are also held in retreat-like areas. The location is usually tucked away somewhere that’s calming and retreat-like. Think a historic Airbnb in the woods with a running stream nearby, a beach house on a beautiful coast or a cabin in the mountains with stellar views. This event is usually one to three speakers but I’ve seen retreats where it had more of a speaker lineup like a conference. Retreats live up to their name when they’re filled with activities such as yoga, meditation, exercise, nature walks and other calming activities.

The third live event is a workshop. It’s defined as when a group of people engage in an intensive talk or activity on a particular subject. People attend a workshop to learn, implement, plan and get hands-on training. Personally, workshops are my favourite. You’re basically spending money in exchange for alone time in your business. It’s you, your business and the work that needs to be done. You budgeted time away from family, friends, clients, customers and other responsibilities to get some work done on your business. This is the main focus of a workshop. They come in different varieties, as well. There are workshops that target product-based entrepreneurs who want to take their craft to another level and there are workshops that target service-based entrepreneurs who want to work on and up-level their business. As you’re planning your workshop, depending on your content and wheelhouse, you’ll know which group you’re targeting.


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