The Conference is Dead! Long Live the Conference!

In olden times (4 months ago, was it?) live conferences offered great opportunities for learning, connection, discovery, and incomprehensible demoralization. Over the years I experienced all that and then some.

In 1998 I got a job that had me demonstrating video & film post-production software at trade show exhibits. The first one was an absolute whopper. The NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) conference is a week-long endurance test that takes place every April in the former home of Elvis Presley (and current home of Andrew “Dice” Clay), Las Vegas, Nevada. It draws 120,000 people from all over the globe and offers everything you can possibly imagine in a large-scale live conference experience. The expo floors are massive, the variety of session topics are vast, and the stench of bad breath gives you night sweats for days.

As a rookie demo-monkey I made every possible mistake in the book. By far the worst was getting swept up in a raging river of alcohol that flowed right over the Hoover Dam and back onto the exhibit floor the next day. Soon thereafter I had completely lost my voice (not a good look for a demo guy) and by the end of the week I’d become a shriveled raisin. This was not a conference — for me it was a fraternity hazing.

Having curtailed the after-hours hi-jinks, I spent a few more years shilling at conferences for software companies in the film & video post-production industry before becoming a “subject matter expert”. I started giving talks of my own at events all over the place — Sundance Film Festival, HOW Design Conference, Adobe MAX, and NAB to name a few — and got to share my thoughts and perspectives with my peers without having to sell anyone on anything. Best of all I got to wear one of those red “Speaker” ribbons taped to the bottom of my conference badge and strut around the place like a big shot while stuffing my face with unlimited free Doritos from the Speakers’ Lounge.

Today I’m a civilian. Even though I still give the occasional talk, I’m usually an attendee and pay for my badge just like everybody else. I invest my time and money in it because there are valuable things for me to gain at certain conferences — things I can’t get any other way.

Well, now there needs to be another way — it’s all been shot to hell for the time being. The death bell for the live conference industry as we know it has been tolled. We are in the midst of a rebirth, and in order to grow a healthy new child we need to start with a thorough examination of the past.

What story does the past have to tell, what was life really like for a live conference attendee, the Cro-Magnon if you will, in the olden days of 4 months ago? Which pieces should we pick off the bones to keep, and which should remain discarded in the La Brea Tar Pits?

Here is the typical live conference end-user experience from the perspective of Cro-Magnon:

  1. Congratulations — you’ve just made the decision to attend a live conference! Or perhaps your boss just made that decision for you. Before you hit “send” on that rant of an e-mail you’ve got going, buckle up — you’re about to get a whole lot angrier as you:
  2. Investigate your travel and hotel options. Better do it now or you could be SOL. Back in 2000 I waited too long to book for the IBC conference and wound up with a $350/night “hotel room” behind the kitchen of a rat-dump in the red-light district of Amsterdam. I never realized how the sound of bottles being smashed could be so calming.
  3. Peruse the conference agenda and sign up for sessions — do this the instant you’ve finished booking your travel. There are only so many seats in each room and the good sessions fill up fast. Make haste lest you suffer the dregs. I’ve sat in on more than a few bottom-of-the-barrel breakouts over the years that were nothing more than thinly-veiled sales pitches chock full of bogus claims.
  4. Head to the airport and the roulette-wheel that is our air travel system. Pray to whatever God it is you pray to. If you’re an atheist may you find God now. If you can’t find God then may you find 4 mg of Xanax and a bottle of tequila because you can’t pray away a seatmate on a red-eye who’s got chronic flatulence and night terrors.
  5. Hopefully you got Step 2 right. Otherwise, when you leave the airport terminal tell the cab driver to take you right past the Wynn Resort to the Circus-Circus hotel where “everyone’s an ass-clown”.
  6. “Hello and welcome to our hotel! Are you here for the conference? Well, step right this way to the check-in line where you’ll find 150 of your fellow attendees to keep you company!”
  7. Bail on the check-in line, leave your luggage at the bell stand, and head on over to the convention center to pick up your badge.
  8. Follow the “Conference Registration This Way” sign to the South Hall. Once you’ve arrived the sign says “Exhibitor Registration Only”. A friendly “conference ambassador” says walk to the North Hall for “General Registration”. You get there and see another sign reading “Press & Media Registration Only”. Another friendly “conference ambassador” directs you to the Central Hall. Get there to find that registration has closed for the day. Buy a seventeen dollar hot dog and find a place to sit on the floor. Begin to question all your life decisions.
  9. After a bad night’s sleep, wake up bright and early for the Day 1 Keynote. Executives! Celebrities! Sneak peeks at new technologies! It’s excitement and energy at it’s finest, but make sure to arrive plenty early to get a good seat. Thirty minutes should be enough, right? Well, everyone else started lining up 3 hours ago so you wind up sitting in the back and watching it on TV.
  10. Time for lunch! The conference may be providing this as part of your registration fee, in which case all you need to do is line up with 20,000 of your new best friends at the buffet line. The guy in front of you is shaving because he left his hotel room 12 hours earlier to line up for the keynote.
  11. Attend your first breakout session. The reason they’re called “breakouts” is the presenter might suck so bad you’ll want to “break out” of there as quickly as possible.
  12. Hit up the coffee and snack station and drink your fifth cup of coffee of the day.
  13. The coffee isn’t working anymore. Visit the restroom. Fall asleep on the toilet.
  14. Visit the exhibit floor. So much cool new stuff to see! Demos to watch! New toys to play with! WHY ARE MY EARS RINGING SO LOUD???? WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE TURN THE FAN OFF????
  15. Attend the opening night cocktail and networking event. It’s a great chance to make new connections! With a craft beer and jalapeño poppers in hand, introduce yourself to someone new and try to mutter your name through a mouthful of cheese and breadcrumbs. Lean down and stare awkwardly while reading the name off their badge. “Presssur tu mt yu Mrssh Umfloofoo.”
  16. Wow, it’s been a looong day. Your feet are killing you, right? But at any conference there is always after-hours fun to be had, right? Who knows where the night will lead! Just remember to keep a few dollars on hand for tipping the bailiff when the time comes. A little kindness goes a long way when he’s attaching the GPS tracking bracelet to your ankle — if it’s on too tight it’ll cut off the circulation to your foot and you’ll have a nasty limp when you go back to the courthouse for the arraignment.
  17. Repeat steps 9 thru 16 for as many days as the conference lasts, then head back to the airport. You’re finished, done, kaput. All you want at this point is to put the whole thing behind you for a while. You settle in for your red-eye flight home and the guy seated next to you was at the same conference and wants nothing more than to jabber in your ear about it the whole way back.
  18. You’ve finally made it home. Say hi to the kids, give ’em a hug, it’s a miracle they can recognize you at all. Nonetheless you try and trick them into believing the SWAG you picked up for free on the exhibit floor are actually presents you bought for them.

And there you have it, the “customer experience journey” of the live conference attendee. Whaddayathink, maybe there’s room for improvement there? Things we can learn from? Maybe take those learnings into account as we begin to mold the virtual conferences of the future?

Next up I’ll take a look at the experience from the exhibitor’s perspective, including top tips on how to find the right guy to bribe at the Javitz center so you can get your shipping cases back at the end of the show.

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