Depending on your age, you may or may not remember when… technology-centric conferences were in their infancy in the late 1970’s. It was a time of abundance and technology was new and exciting – and colleagues would sometimes select the conference for the half-year (two to four conferences a year was the norm) – based on the exotic locale?
Without reference to age, some of us even may remember when… conferences grew larger by the hundreds every year based on positive word of mouth and the location?
Remember when… budget and training dollars were granted when you applied to go to a particular conference, and then additional dollars were authorized when you found another equally “not to be missed” conference after you got back from the first?
Those were the boomtown eighties all right! Ok, I’m old enough to recall attending international specialty workshops, training seminars, and software development conferences with hardly more justification than the conference brochure – and we certainly didn’t need to submit triplicate copies for every lunch and coffee receipts for every day of every trip. Today, things are vastly different and the whole traditional, in-person conference is a big make it or break it expenditure for the corporations and not-for-profit groups alike. And, with the downward trend in attendance, it can take a single poorly attended conference to wipe-out an organization’s assets. What are the challenges that technical conferences are up against these days? Here’s a few of the emerging trends:
1. Increased competition for conference dollars
It is virtually impossible to keep up with the explosion of specialty “international” conferences that pop up almost weekly. It appears that anyone who sees that a buck can be made if you can just “tap the right market at the right time” seems to have gone into the conference business. ABCD (or some other clever 4 letter acronym) springs up and touts itself as “the provider of the premiere conference experience”. Or it is common to read “Ixxxx Institute presents the first ever blahblahblah conference” as a conference headline. Be careful how you allocate your conference dollars before you trust the printed brochure to make sure that value will be delivered. It is good practice (but not a common practice) to call the organizers ahead of time and ask for the names of five of last year’s attendees, then follow-up with them by phone or email to ask what they thought of their conference experience. Be wary if all of the attendees are board members or a member of the conference planning team. Otherwise, if the advice is “skip this one” – you know that you’ve probably saved your company travel money, conference fees, and workshop fees – and have crossed one tenuous conference off the list.
2. Conferences that sound too good to be true probably are.
Watch for fly-by-nights in today’s money hungry economy, there are those who think that any popular topic will pack a conference – and that is partially true. Agile, SOA, Open source and Web2.0 conferences are popular and currently still amassing good turnouts. When we’re talking about the amount of money generated at a well-attended conference (1000 attendees at $1000 per attendee is big bucks!), there are those who may get greedy and put customer satisfaction and value and speaker treatment on the bottom of their list of priorities. Make sure that all of the speakers listed for the conference will be appearing live and in person if you want to meet the speaker as there are conferences today that “beam in” a satellite feed of the speaker at another venue (like on the academy awards with entertainers who couldn’t make the live show!) or sometimes even run a pre-recording of the speaker delivering his/her presentation. Especially watch this at conferences where the speaker lineup appears just too plentiful and illustrious to be true – because it probably is!
3. Webinars and podcasts are the rage today
Remote, small bite sized presentations on a particular (usually highly focused) topic packaged as a low-cost or free webinar seem to increase weekly. While webinars were once limited to high-technology companies seeking to demonstrate their software remotely, the webinar and podcast (usually audio only as opposed to video for webinars) frequency have taken over the mainstream of technology offering topics ranging from coding tips to software development methodology. Why go to a conference if a webinar will deliver the information directly to your desktop?
4. Open universities
Did you know that anyone with an internet connection worldwide can attend classes remotely at MIT and other major universities throughout the world? While a degree is granted only to those paying students, others can watch and learn for no cost by simply accessing the university site and selecting the topic and date for the class and “tuning in” (double clicking on the selected video link). For example, Thomas Friedman’s lecture on his book The World is Flat from May 2005 at MIT can be readily viewed at anytime day or night. Visit MIT open university at http://mitworld.mit.edu/.
What’s the future for technology conferences? If there’s the right combination of location, people, topics, and proven good speakers delivering content rich presentations, then there will always be a market for well attended in-person conferences. However, miss one of the ingredients or have a stale or old school style conference where the same old presenters present the same old stuff at a conference run by the same old not-for-profit board members, and you’re going to see a decline in attendance no matter where you locate the conference.
It’s going to be interesting to see which conferences survive and thrive in 2009, and what conferences simply disappear from the landscape… any guesses from your vantage point?
Have a nice week!