ImageOver the course of a person’s career you are likely to attend more than a handful of conferences.  Some may be through employer sponsorship, others may be ones that you attend for personal enrichment.  But are you getting what you are looking for?  Is the expectation of what the conference is about overshadowed by a sinister undercurrent of staged operational factors that put a totally different twist on the conference agenda.

I have participated in over a 1000 conferences around the globe.  Some were as a participant and others as a speaker.  There was even a time when I was accountable for a portion of a leading conference and was charged with vendor exhibitions.  These experiences gave me an appreciation, from a number of perspectives, as to what it takes to deliver a rewarding program.  It also has compelled me to ask the question, “what is it that the conferences of today trying to accomplish?”.

In The Beginning

As in spiritual writings, in the beginning there was light.  The conference light in those early years was centered around knowledge sharing.  Not to teach in the context of a training event but to share the story that others have encountered.  Despite the relevancy and the value there was always that bit of risk that attendees would view it as just another story.  The grandness of the delivery was key to a successful session and elevated the acclaimed value associated with it.  But when you have practitioners not all are equipped with the Imageability to deliver and thus out of this rose the pre-conference session where practical skills could be imparted in one or two day formats.  All in all the events were centered on education.  The challenge came from financing events as they became viewed as more of a business perk than as an educational outlet.  To counter this conference organizers sought secondary support via sponsors.  The conference when through an overnight metamorphosis combining education with commercial product visibility.  To drive interest and value to sponsors session tracks were put into play (albeit with great fear of them being more commercially focused then educational in nature) and conference activities with strategically placed within the exposition areas.  Viola we had a conference community and this enjoyed its heyday for many-many years.  Ironically, what appeared to be a success had two hidden situations takings place… a general decline in education value/quality and the lingering consequence that conference traffic did not change the attitudes of participants that commercial interests would be sparked by sponsors.

Downturn Effect

The global economic downturn caused a significant shift in thinking.  As a result educational content quality went down in favor of high-visibility, big brand talent.  Instead of focusing on the topic and the details a major shift took place to picking names that would draw audience appeal.  At the sametime more emphasis was placed on commercial sponsors and the exposure that the event would provide.  In some ways it was a bit of a double edge sword, to get more attendees you neeImaged to impart more perceived value yet more attendees does not necessarily equate to more sales.  Historically a conference exposition will only generate 1 lead per 1,000 so despite having a large event the potential for a sale was highly improbable and at the very least certainly not with a good ROI (since most events cost a minimum in time and effort about $25,000).  Needless to say we end up with conditions were everyone is unhappy…. the attendee, the sponsors and in the longer term the conference organizers.

Taming An Out-of-Control Animal

Conferences are not simple projects.  They entail a number of disconnected elements all of which must be coordinated to insure a pleasant experience.  From speaker management to facilities, from audio visuals and catering to sponsor management these must all be orchestrated in a seamless fashion.  Overarching to this is general conferenceImage administration that takes care of attendees from pre-registration through post conference care.  The gradual shift has placed financing and the management of costs as a top priority.  Conferences want lowest costs on speakers and often will only involve those who have no travel expenses or speaker fees.  These items are quietly guarded and given out on a limited basis to only the top of the top speakers.  Other conferences chose to select speakers only if they are a conference sponsor.  As we mentioned earlier the concern has been, and continues to be, whether the session will be factual or commercial.  Despite the best intentions there will be slippage from the perceived goal of information/fact based knowledge sharing.

Ah…. Today!?

So what are conferences today??  This is a really good question because what is said, what is perceived and what is reality are widely different things.  In fact if we said that a conference is not educational then we are apt to see participation drop off significantly.  If we say that a conference is commercial then we are apt to see a similar thing happen (because many who attend aren’t there to be used as the target for commercial pursuit).  The key is really all about balance… the balance of fresh and rewarding value while at the same time providing outlets for commercial interchange.  Even if you aren’t in the mood to buy that doesn’t mean that the all important connection and knowledge interchange should not take place.  Certainly it may be about counseling the commercial suppliers, which is rarely done.

In China the conferences are often on a grand scale.  Accompanied by lots of ceremony, protocol, sessions and expositions there is the forever present ‘match making’ sessions.  On par with dating the match making sessions are intended to bring supplier in direct contact with buyers.  I have seen this work in quite a productive fashion for consumer products but has seen the dance much more awkwardly orchestrated for services.  Often it is characterized by the formality of card passing, literature sharing and service expounding.  ImageIf the prospect shares a bit of what they do or what they are looking for it is done at very best at a quite superficial level.  Because of this situation conference organizers have attempted to get connection established prior to the first meeting to share information between the two.  Unfortunately with this change in approach nothing is being done to groome providers (essential mentor and clean up their image) and to orchestrate a model that will create a positive dialog atmosphere.  So… despite well intentioned efforts the goal of achieving sales opportunities remains elusive.  Furthermore, don’t be lead to believe that language and culture is the reason for these failures to engage.  Even the most challenging of barriers are overcome through mutual desire.  Its when mutual desire has not been formed that cohesive connection cannot be established.

Today I am very confused with conferences.  I struggle to see educational and commercial value.  Its like both elements have been marginalized, over hyped but substandard.  Awards are given out to participants and sponsors but the community that would be appreciate the acclaim is not in attendance.  Despite advances in technologies such a virtual expositions and conferences, despite the hype of innovation, conferences remain about the same only with a financial and administrative structure that words diametrically against producing an effective result.  Every single conference organizer needs to return to the basics and address who are they serving and how can that be accomplished.

I was recently asked by a conference organizer how to connect sponsors with specific customers.  They provide a number of incentives to international attendees including discount airfares, tour packages and reduced cost admission to the conference (even a few were FREE).  I suggested that to connect an endear sponsors with attendees that they might have the sponsors pay for key attendee rooms.  This would be based on pre-connection of sponsors with interested buyer attendees and in each room a sponsor welcome package would be included.  I don’t know how many of you feel but when I enter a hotel room and I have a welcome package I am quite appreciative.  Allot comes from being away from home and feeling a need for belonging (even if it is to try and sell me something).  In any case this breaks more of the ice and brings the two parties together than can continue the growing the process of a potentially productive relationship.  This can be further extended by the sponsor also making available a personal employee valet to help them with any local needs that the participant buyer might have.  Something such as this isn’t just about participant and sponsor, the conference organizer also gets the benefit of meeting room quota requirements and possible can negotiate other amenities to help defray the operating cost of the event (such as free audio visual support or meeting rooms).   This is simply one example and there certainly are many many others that can be exploited.

Conferences need to change simply because the buying public (attendees and sponsors) are looking for value.  In doing so conference sponsors need to get creative and yet vigilantly (non-stingy) about operating costs.  If you need speakers you need to accept the reality that you need to cover their costs.  Speakers no long view a conference as a marketing outlet and therefore their efforts command attention.

In closing the conference atmosphere has changed.  Replicating what others do is only a start.  Today the start demands focus on value creation and creativity.  Some have it, some do not.  Its up to you to decide if you are in the majority or the minority.