|Alison Boyd Gelles is Executive Director of Renaissance Weekend, the non-partisan retreats for innovative leaders drawn from diverse fields. She came to Renaissance after gaining her MA in International Relations with a focus in peace and conflict studies from the University of Sydney, where she also served as an ambassadorial fellow for Rotary International. She previously worked in the public affairs office at the US embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania. An avid runner, she has completed 10 marathons.|
Potolicchio: What is Renaissance Weekend?
Gelles: Renaissance Weekends bring together professionals and families from diverse backgrounds for holidays weekends at great locations around the country. If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s because there’s a lot going on at each Weekend.
We’ll have hundreds of panel discussions, lectures and seminars. Most meals are eaten together. We often take time to go wine tasting, river rafting or hiking. Attendees have the option of bringing family members or guests, including children. Kids (ages 3-12 years old) attend Camp Renaissance, where they will learn from the astronauts, scholars and entertainers in attendance.
Renaissance was founded by Ambassador Phil and Linda Lader in 1981, and has been going strong since then. And while it made national headlines during the Clinton administration when the President and his family attended, it is truly a bipartisan affair, where curious minds from all walks of life come for engaging, off-the-record conversations.
Potolicchio: What is the most surprising facet of Renaissance Weekend?
Gelles: At so many conferences, there’s a real hierarchy at play. You’ve got the speakers, and then you’ve got the attendees. Renaissance flips that on its head. Everyone who attends participates, and we build the program for each weekend based on who has registered.
This accomplishes two important things. First, it gets everyone involved in the conversation. We have so much to learn from each other, and each participant will be matched with others who share their interests. And just as importantly, it allows us to hear from a truly diverse set of perspectives. Grad students debate Nobel Laureates in line for dinner. Teenagers ask questions of four-star generals at panels about national security.
Potolicchio: What is the best panel you have witnessed in your conference career?
Gelles: This is an impossible question; I have witnessed so many! For context, I started at Renaissance as an associate in 2004. Since that time I have been to about 75 Weekends, which translates to roughly 19,000 different panels, seminars, lectures, workshops, etc. So I’ve seen a lot.
One memorable moment came at one of my first Weekends in 2004, when at 10:30pm I sat down in the ballroom at the Charleston Place Hotel to watch a performance and talk with Theo Bikel, the original Fiddler on the Roof. In Aspen, several years ago, my husband, David Gelles, moderated a panel with 5 NASA employees, including 3 astronauts, each of who had served NASA in a different and were able to collectively chart the history of the space program. Or the countless lectures I’ve attended by various Nobel laureates expounding on their research. And then there are the sessions that you just stumble upon or hadn’t intended to attend. Sometimes these are the most memorable. Examples include a deep dive on the Book of Job or a professor from Oklahoma commanding such a reputation that his lecture on ancient Greece soon required the use of a ballroom that seats 400.
Potolicchio: What makes a good panelist?
Gelles: A good panelist is one who doesn’t overprepare. We want to hear what you have to say, and not hear you read a speech. We want you to engage others in the room in meaningful dialog, and be open to having your mind changed. Sometimes at Renaissance, attendees in the audience are as well or even better qualified than the actual panelists, and we always encourage open debate.
Attendees are placed on specific on panels for a particular reason, whether it’s obvious to the speaker or not. Over the course of a New Year’s Renaissance Weekend, our largest program, there could be 600 different seminars, lectures, workshops and panels over 4.5 days. (At smaller Weekends, there are usually 200 sessions.) When we provide attendees with their panel assignments, we are putting people in a room to start a conversation, not to have the final word.
Potolicchio: Is there a book to read to understand how we can make events more exciting?
Gelles: The Art of Gathering, written by Priya Parker, has been my go-to reference book since its publication last year. Renaissance is also featured in the final chapter. It’s a wonderful treatise on how to make certain gatherings have both impact and meaning. From how to start a convening through how to close focusing on the celebration of good controversy and creating a space for people to exercise “generous authority” throughout. Lately, The Art of Gathering is always in the back of my mind leading up to every Renaissance program.
Potolicchio: What is your all-time favorite panel?
Gelles: As mentioned, each Renaissance Weekend is uniquely designed based on the attendee's interests and expertise, both personally and professionally. With that said, at every program, since the very beginning, there are always a handful tentpole sessions; ones that create a cohesive experience year after year that offers an opportunity for shared experiences. My favorite of these is a lunchtime session called “An Immodest Proposal.” Twenty or so participants are asked to address the entire group and present a bold idea in just two minutes. Without fail, the intellect, passion, humor, and humanity of the Renaissance Weekend community is on display.
Potolicchio: Who is your all-time favorite participant?
Gelles: My husband, of course (we met at a Renaissance Weekend in 2006)!
Otherwise, I couldn’t possibly have a favorite, but after all these years I have truly been inspired by the people who attend. Many who attend are already established as nationally recognized stars, while I’ve also had the privilege of watching many grow into public figures. Whether it be someone who has attended for years that has decided to run for public office or meeting a US Circuit Court Judge who is soon appointed to the Supreme Court. Or a chemical engineer who becomes only one of 5 women to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. But perhaps my favorite participant is the one I meet having no recognition of their name, but I am completely and utterly blown away by their work. At Renaissance we leave our egos at the door and everyone is on a first name basis. A good friend once taught me how to play table roulette during meals. You put your belongings at an empty table and only then get your food. Upon your return you sit with the people who have populated your table, often strangers who, in true Renaissance fashion, soon become friends and quite possibly are luminaries in their own right.
Potolicchio: What's a development in the conference world in the last decade that you would not have predicted?
Gelles: Renaissance was once coined the “grand-daddy of ideas festival.” In 1981 very few gatherings such as ours existed. Now It is a crowded space, many of which are marketed with famous names, over the top production value and a big social media presence.
Yet being the center of attention has never been of interest to Renaissance. We remain off the record, none of our sessions are recorded, and there’s no elaborate technology powering the weekends. Indeed, very little has changed about Renaissance Weekends in almost 40 years. We believe that’s a good thing. A conference shouldn’t be about just another Instagrammable moment. What matters is the depth of the conversations and the quality of the relationships you leave with.
We believe very little compares to a Renaissance Weekend experience, but so-called 'competitor' events don't just get covered -- they're actually media events. Publicity is not only what make these events successful, it’s also their purpose: people tend to attend in order to utilize the media platform, whether it's to announce a corporate social responsibility effort, make diplomatic gestures or publicize a book, product or academic research. As part of this dynamic, events are becoming highly focused on creating media moments and scheduling the coverage for participants (e.g., press conferences, photo ops, interviews, etc.).
Over the past 4 decades Renaissance could have gone in many different directions, but despite the ever-changing landscape it remains true to its original mission. Everyone who attends, participates. No honoraria, speaking fees, or transportation costs have ever been paid. There is no hierarchy of attendee; all participants, from the age of 6, participate in the program. The program itself is not recorded, and completely "off-the-record."All of which creates a space for people to truly build bridges, take away a deeper understanding of one another, to learn from the brightest minds and to not worry about flashing cameras.