I'm wondering if there are just too many of us. Of you, really: conference planners. While there's without doubt value in meetings, terrific value in the great ones, I find myself wondering more often than not why, exactly, some events are held at all.
There are plenty of conferences with clear, obvious and unassailable goals: a region bringing its businesses together to discuss economic development, a trade group gathering its members to exchange experiences and promote innovations, a new industry greeting its professionals—maybe for the first time—as they explore partnerships and set standards.
But there are an increasing number of events out there—and even meetings companies—that set dates and book venues only to back into whatever purpose or community they are supposed to serve.
Organizers of the purposeful conference ask themselves tough questions about delegate needs and goals, time and money. I'm not hearing this. Instead, it's "Who can we get to come?" "Who will pay our ticket price?" "Will the media prefer this speaker over that one?"
And that's because these events are conceived in a—pardon the expression—ass-backwards fashion. A company tries to establish pre-eminence in its industry by holding a conference to "own" that space. It didn't invent the space, it just wants to take it over, and a conference is a means to that promotional end. Or a conference company wants to make some money, so it scours Google Analytics or its Twitter feed for a buzzword or trend that doesn't yet have a conference attached. Voilà: a shiny new website positioning the event as the center of that new culture.
À la 1990s record labels with their prefab bands that spoke to whatever counterculture was most au courant (think Limp Bizkit), these parasite conferences feed on any movement or industry that hasn't found itself yet. Perhaps they're helping on some level, but the effort always looks and feels like extraction from an unwitting community.
If you're organizing a conference and wondering how to "get" people to come, then you need to rethink what you're doing. Just like best products, best conferences answer needs, even if those needs are ones people don't realize they have just yet. And these conferences emerge from the folks, companies and organizations that already live in the space.
The real reason to hold a conference is because nobody has the bandwidth required to communicate everything they need to via e-mail or phone. It's not to drum up business; it's to process that business more efficiently. If you've got a constituency that no longer has the time and resources to engage effectively, you have the need for a conference where that group can gather in one place. Your prospects should be saying, "Thank God someone is doing this," not "Oh, God, another conference."
Of course, this issue is much, much bigger than conferences. Who's creating value anymore anyway? We're living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That's because, on a fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need.
Most developed nations are productive enough that they could shelter, feed, educate and provide healthcare for their populations with just a fraction of their people actually working. Our problem isn't that we don't have enough stuff—it's that we don't have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve that stuff. We attempt to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance.
And as you look at the list of conferences, summits and expos from which you seek to distinguish yourself, that abundance becomes clear. You start asking how you're going to get people to come to your conference instead of someone else's.
Maybe there's simply not enough conference work to go around.
If you want to be among the lucky few who get to keep working in an industry that brings people together for face-to-face meetings, take a good look at the communities you want to serve and figure out how to create value for them before you start thinking about how you're going to extract some for yourself. One+
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