Is The Conference Model Broken?

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Six weeks, five countries, four conferences and a pile of travel expense receipts that desperately needs to be sorted. That has been the reality here at Loyalty Truth as we have been on the go while making the most of the final business push of the year before the holiday season settles in and thoughts turn to 2012.

In the middle of the activity, I received a call from a conference organizer seeking my participation in an event being planned for 2012. As many of these conversations go, I initially felt complemented when hearing "You've been identified as a thought leader and someone we'd like to have as a key part of our event".

But as the dialogue wore on, I realized that I was being pitched sponsorship rather than be recognized for thought leadership.

The questions I was asked were intended to help me rationalize writing that big check for sponsorship and included:
Why do you attend conferences?
What's the value of the exposure if you present, exhibit, or sponsor?
What is the value of just one project that results from contacts made at the event?

You can see where it was all headed. Yes, we attend industry events to learn, but probably the networking is most valued. I fully understand the model and realize that sponsorship dollars fund the event as well as generate a bottom line for organizers.

My revelation was that the conference business is increasingly becoming a game of haves and have-nots. Sponsoring organizations shell out significant dollars to sponsor events and key speaking slots on the agenda are allocated to them as part of the package. That is reasonable considering the investment made.

Suppliers, agencies, and consultants are another matter. I am fascinated by the message that suppliers or vendors are "bad" and can't be trusted to present without pitching their wares. Some ground rules are clear, that no presentation should be a sales pitch, veiled or otherwise. Adhering to this rule improves the content of the conference material and raises overall value for delegates. Anyone crossing the line too much or too often should not be invited back as there's plenty of time for selling during the networking and break times.

On the other hand, there are some highly informed people working in the supplier community that can be of great interest to a delegate group. For example, find the people who are talking about subjects on gamification, location based marketing, mobile payments and NFC, social media measurement, or coalition loyalty. Through their focus and passion for their areas of speciality, they can bring great value to an event.

There are some things in life you can complain about and then there are the ones that we can actually hope to change. I am hoping that the conference business will shift ever so slightly. For example, I would like to see that at least one speaking spot in a morning and afternoon of a typical conference event be allocated based on merit, not money. That means that out of approximately 16 speakers, 4 would be invited based on their material, not just the size of their supporting organization.

This 25% concession would probably not impact the overall sponsorship fees received by organizers. They might even be able to increase revenues through higher registrations or a higher price point.

There's a very good chance that the model will not change, mostly because it does not have to. Only a Wall Street style boycott would bring that level of change and, since most of us go to conferences for the networking, I don't expect we'll see much of an uprising.

At the same time, conference organizers should be on alert. Some brands are shifting attention to proprietary events, where stakeholders are brought together in high quality environments and an open exchange of valuable information takes place. As dollars in travel and marketing budgets stay tight, watch for these high quality privately organized events to become even more attractive.

Maybe that will create the impetus for the general conference industry to alter their approach to the business. We'll see.

This has been a guest post by Bill Hanifan. With over 20 years experience across the marketing and financial service industries, Bill has created a suite of innovative and measurable marketing strategies used to assist clients achieve their business objectives, increase profitability and create a sustainable competitive market advantage.

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1 Comment

Bill makes some excellent points in his article.

The sponsorship model of large conferences is getting out of hand.

People are being charged several thousands of dollars to attend a 2-3 convention for content that they cannot possibly make use of.

Crammed lecture style formats which ensure that the participants will forget everything they heard several days after the conference.

Which is good for the presenters - because despite their entertaining presence, they actually have nothing to pass on, there is no educational value.

I don't mind -well too much- travelling downtown Toronto for a breakfast seminar and not learning anything. I only lose 3 hours that way.

But, attending a 2-3 day convention once a year costs 5-6 days travel time, a couple thousand dollars easy, & for what? Information that I will forget, not be able act upon.

Nothing to show for the time/travel expense except some trinkets and trash.

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