Conference Education

It’s about the end of “conference season” for editors—and probably for many of you, too.

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Since Aug. 1, I’ve attended eight conferences. I have two in November and one in December to close out the year. After years of these things as an attendee, exhibitor, participant, observer and organizer, I may be close to being an expert. Of these 11 events, all but two are sponsored by an individual company. The two are ISA Expo and Pack Expo—which are primarily trade shows with conference sessions added as auxiliary.

Dave Winer is well known in high tech circles for, among other things, developing RSS. This protocol is a compact method of syndicating news feeds, therefore known as “really simple syndication.” Most of the news I read is from sources I subscribe to using RSS.

Winer is also well known for not holding back opinions. Writing about conferences, he said recently on his blog, www.scriptingnews.com, “I was recently invited to keynote a prestigious conference in a European city. I agreed to speak but only on the condition that they cover my expenses. I didn’t ask to be paid for my time, but after they said no, I realize I should have. Here’s why. I didn’t have a product to pitch or have a company that could benefit from the PR. If I were in their shoes (and I have been) I would insist on covering expenses, otherwise the talks would just be advertisements. It seems analogous to asking a vendor to write an article in your publication, and somehow expecting that it wouldn’t be an advertisement. That’s why most conferences aren’t worth going to—you’re being pitched by people with a business model for being there. However if conferences were treated like journals, where you were required to only share your knowledge and not promote your products, they might be more interesting."

Pay for a pitch

Not every conference makes enough money to cover the total expenses of speakers, but his point is well taken. I was once on a conference strategic planning committee that was part of (at that time) a large trade show. I had witnessed the conference sessions evolve into presentations by chief executives and vice presidents of marketing that were simply presentations of why their product was better than anyone else’s. And the organizers expected people to pay several hundred dollars to hear these. I tried arguing for a better conference, but lost.

Nine of the 11 conferences that I have attended or will be attending this fall are sponsored by an individual company. These “user conferences” would seem to be ripe for several days of unadulterated marketing pitches. Surprisingly, this is not so. Conference organizers take care to provide a wealth of information that includes technical training, application development and business cases. Sessions on standards, security and safety are usually on the agenda. Suppliers are aware of the value of time attendees take away from work and try to provide relevant learning experiences. If they just spent three to five days delivering marketing pitches, no one would return. Yet, every year these conferences are larger than the year before.

Automation World sponsors a conference in association with Packaging World called the “Packaging Automation Forum,” with the fourth installment coming March 31, 2009. I’m trying to help with the program. We are very clear on the value proposition to attendees that we find speakers with no commercial bias. We’re looking for thought leaders who can share experiences.

I’m also pushing for my other concern about conferences—ample networking time. Another valuable part of a conference is discussing ideas about improvement with others. I certainly gain much insight from impromptu discussions. If you see me at one of these events, stop me and share an idea.
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