this year, reporters dubbed one of North America's largest technology conferences
as "The Incredible Shrinking Trade Show." Although the conference organizers
insisted that attendance matched previous shows, the attendees and exhibitors
remarked on the decline in attendees and the absence of some major industry
players in the exhibit halls. This kind of trend sends shivers through
the offices of conference and meeting planners. The program drives
success for conferences and industry events, and the pillars of any program
are the speakers, the attendees, the exhibitors, special events, and the
location. When any one of these pillars gets shaky, the whole structure
Technology is having an impact on all areas of our lives, but until recently,
it only seemed evident at conferences in lavish graphic presentations.
Now it has begun to shake these five pillars, nudging each to test for
stability. Just what impact will technologies have on all those conferences
and educational events we so enjoy attending? Will we, in fact, attend
them electronically or virtually? Will a log-on ID and password replace
an airline ticket? Are the days coming to a close of trying to cram as
many sessions as possible into our itinerary, while still leaving time
for a strategic shopping strike and, of course, networking in the bar or
The Technology Opportunity
Three trends have
begun converging to impact our future conference experiences:
1. Attendee expectations
are rising as loyalty decreases. Today's conference attendees want a more
intense learning experience — probably more than can be delivered in the
confines of a time- and site-limited event. When that rise in expectation
combines with the individual's essential, personal professional development
strategy of continuous learning, an annual stand-alone event just won't
cut it. Professionals need to continually upgrade their skills and acquire
new ones. Opportunities for professional growth need to be continual, year-round,
rather than once or twice a year.
2. The convergence
of the technologies needed for communication, networking, and sharing knowledge
and learning has reached the desktop. Bandwidth issues of the past are
lessening and the trend towards effective, on-demand e-learning experiences
3. An increased
competitive environment for learning opportunities has arisen with hundreds
of new entrants starting to market new technology-based learning products
as well as older players, like universities, getting into the distance-education
space and competing for seats, eyeballs, time, and dollars.
organizers face these challenges in this coming era:
Most conference planners
have begun looking to some of the new converged technologies to help solve
some of these challenges.
To understand their
delegates' learning needs on an individual basis.
To extend the conference
experience beyond a chronologically and geographically defined "event"
in order to deliver continuous value.
To build customer
loyalty so that they can walk with their markets and evolve with their
changing needs and goals.
In the '70s and
'80s the airline industry faced strong competitive and service challenges.
The airlines invested heavily in improving the on-board travel experience.
The time business travelers actually spent inside the plane was a cosseted
and comfortable experience, with emphasis placed on food, china, seat comfort,
and attendant training. No one really gained any competitive advantage,
since there was no differentiation in the on-board experience. Then one
airline president had the whack-on-the-side-of-the-head insight. What did
the customer research tell him? The complaints about the airline experience
weren't about the on-board experience — they were about the pre- and post-flight
experience — getting tickets, checking baggage, lounge comfort, lost luggage,
and more. And then came the greater insight — people were spending more
time in airports at the beginning and end of their journeys that they were
on the actual flight! His insight was that while still ensuring an excellent
in-flight experience, the airlines had to focus on the entire travel
We think that this
is where the conference industry, especially that segment focusing on the
fast-paced information and technology sectors, has come in its lifecycle.
The need to continuously learn, network, and grow is paramount to high-performing
information professionals today. They face a challenge in locating and
attending suitable opportunities, deriving value while there, and, finally,
in assimilating and building on the learning and contacts made after the
event, when they're back at work applying their acquired knowledge and
seeking out the next opportunity.
can implement changes in two ways. First, improve the core conference
experience to enable delegates to derive maximum benefit while there.
Second, take advantage of the recently introduced technologies to offer
pre- and post-conference value for delegates.
Steps Already Taken
have begun experimenting with technologies to enhance the experience for
attendees, as well as to ease their own operational and logistical workload.
Educause offers one example of progress made in improving the accessibility
and performance of the core conference experience. Educause has taken some
innovative strides with new tools over the past 2 years. The merger of
Educom and CAUSE led to a significantly larger merged conference. With
a goal of making this huge conference seem more intimate and focused for
attendees, Educause implemented four tools:
and Corporate Exhibit Hall Guide allow attendees to identify sessions
and exhibitors addressing subjects of interest to them. All presentations
and exhibitor descriptions are indexed into defined subject categories,
from "Online productivity software" to "Web-based library services." Selecting
the subject terms generates a chronological listing of every applicable
conference event. Attendees can then add these into their personal itinerary,
which they create using Itinerary Builder.
is essentially a conference organizer for attendees. Attendees can save,
update, print, and download their schedule — even to PalmPilots. The Special
Libraries Association and other conferences have also begun supplying this
type of tool.
The Dynamic Registration
List is ideal for identifying other people at the conference by name,
title, organization, or locale. You can see the names of attendees from
your geographic region or narrow it to those from specific types of organizations.
At the 1999 conference, this networking device was used by attendees to
pull together "Birds of a Feather" (BOF) impromptu sessions. Bulletin boards,
long the drawing boards for creating these informal dinner or discussion
groups, are slowly but surely being replaced by these interactive, electronic
Steps Waiting to Be Climbed
So, how do conference
planners provide richly textured pre- and post-conference learning and
networking opportunities, allowing delegates to discuss what they have
learned, follow through with speakers, share presentations with colleagues
back at the office, etc.? Delegates want to see concurrent sessions they
missed, contact like-minded learners, develop learning networks, and extend
their learning experience with advice from pros, demos from exhibitors,
and chances for brainstorming and debate. Conference planners and exhibitors
also want to build their relationships with attendees, probing them about
their evolving needs, expectation levels, and future plans.
can help them do this? How can conference planners extend the conference
experience and enhance their attendees' learning? The trick lies in the
early adoption of such new technologies as Web broadcast, Web collaboration
software, profiling software, communities of interest, and distance-education
The biggest opportunity
comes from integrated collaboration and conferencing environments. These
have a suite of features that fit the conference and learning experience
like a glove, just waiting for savvy and visionary conference planners
to experiment with them. Here is a list of what some of the features will
Shared Web browsing:
Have your session leader, mentor, teaching assistant surf the Web and take
you with them right from your desktop. No more fuzzy illegible PowerPoint
screen captures or nausea-inducing live demos!
Share the slides while listening to your conference tape (or MP3 file)
and sending offline questions for clarification. Is this the next generation
of conference tapes with back-at-the-ranch brown baggers purchasing access?
View any application made by Webmasters, intranet managers, vendors — virtually
anyone — directly on your desktop. Perfect for intranet tours, software
demonstrations, walkthroughs, and training. Can this meet the demand for
the "so-I've heard the sales pitch/panel discussion — now show me something
Have data, charts, documents, forms, or files shared with a group, on demand.
Look at the speaker's numbers in depth. Use them in your reports. Drill
Repair or provide hotline support on site, without traveling, for
support staff, students, and external library users without leaving the
comfort of your station. Train or make repairs immediately.
Have multimedia inserted into any conference as appropriate. If your desktop
can handle it — and soon everyone's will — then see the video, see the
cool application, and suffer no longer the deficiencies of aged, underwired
collaboration: Draw on the board for others, just as if you were in
your own conference room. Have an international, small group work experience
without the airfare. Share what you learned at a conference while staying
in your office and keeping up with your work.
Polling and transcript
capabilities: Discover your fellow delegate's preferences on the fly.
Speakers can use this feature to recover flagging audience interest or
to probe for learning. Minutes and logs of meetings can be saved to share
support: This feature allows for the easy transfer of control to anyone
in the conference or for panel moderation so that panels can now include
experts who couldn't make it to the location but need to participate.
control and remote participation: Add participants as desired and transfer
control of portions of any session or meeting to the appropriate person.
one-to-many or many-to-many: Interaction lies within the planner's
control and can be planned in advance. These meetings can be as small as
two people or scalable to thousands.
Record an entire session, including voice and interactive content, for
future playback. Use portions (like focus group comments) on demand later.
Delegates can have takeaways to share with the colleagues back at the ranch
and extend their learning experience to their entire organization. This
increases the value to the individual and to the enterprise sponsoring
the attendance of the delegate.
management functionality: Perfect for large one-to-many events. Allows
for handling extra questions offline. Excellent for beta testing, scoping
the environment, and improving your competencies with it. This enhances
the experience of those delegates who prefer to not to ask questions at
the microphone, provides the opportunity to ask longer or narrowly focused
questions, so when time runs out, the attendee's opportunity to query the
Presentation content that needs advance preparation can draw on stored
presentation wizards and templates. Providing the tools to implement standards
in their presentations enhances the quality of speakers' work and has the
potential to eliminate that old bugaboo of the speaker who typed their
slides in 1975 on an IBM Selectric!
Useful statistical reports for post-meeting audit, analysis, and review
by the conference planners. This feature works for mundane items such as
attendance monitoring or major audits like delegate satisfaction.
purchases can be made during the session and mediated by a sales representative,
librarian, or customer service person (e.g., purchase the software, fix
or upgrade your plug-ins, purchase the speaker's book (autographed, of
course), sign up for the online version, or register and pay for next conference).
Enhancing the Experience
So how do we apply
technology to the conference experience when we're one of the bums in the
seats? Here are a few potential technologies:
of just hating those ringing phones in the audience, what opportunities
do they offer information conference planners and their over-wired attendees?
Imagine the moderator giving our his e-mail or PDA address and receiving
real-time feedback, questions, and information through the moderator, so
they can ensure the presentation meets the audience's needs. Audiences
need to be empowered to call the shots with more alternatives than just
"voting their feet" by walking out.
We're bored with the PowerPoint standard and the bar is rising every day.
It has become a standard cliché that speakers can get applause by
using PPT slides. Future sessions need interactivity with both the on-site
audience and the Web one. The sessions need to be recorded digitally with
voice, visuals, and people — audience and speakers. This will allow a 360-degree
view of the on-site experience afterwards.
Speakers need to know who is in the audience. Profiles of the ones who
signed up (or were scanned on the way in) would arrive prior to the session
in time for speakers to know who they are speaking to and the level of
their knowledge. It's becoming increasingly difficult to target a talk
to an audience comprised of four generations of professionals and to try
to keep them all happy through a couple of "hands-up everyone who . . ."
questions at the start of a session.
Whither Trade Shows
Trade shows have
always served as the places to build relationships with vendors, to ask
the soft questions, and to get quickie demos. We need technology, used
effectively, to do the following:
Map out our campaigns
of attack in the huge exhibit halls before we arrive, without struggling
to highlight our "target" booths in the final print program.
Identify what's really
new, who we need to see as a client, who we can bypass because they don't
meet our needs right now, and who we want to see because they've changed
their goods (but not their booth dressing!) and have something new to say.
Link to vendor Web
sites prior to meeting them and do some pre-visit investigations.
Follow up with those
whose literature we need, e.g., to get pricing information.
Arrange trials of
See who will be at
the show and plan accordingly — not just some hyperlinked list of vendor
industry needs to support and understand that they are part of something
we call the learning-networking supply chain. Information professionals
do not seek to purchase a conference pass — they seek opportunities to
meet with and learn from peers and professional thought leaders, opportunities
that they hope to find realized at one or two conferences.
need to watch closely the developments in the field of Distance Education.
Allowing for training and teaching technologies that support the full learning
process and the potential to combine lectures with update seminars, work
groups, library research, and research counseling will fundamentally improve
and enlarge the current learning paradigm. For library and information
vendors, this provides an opportunity to support their products with training
delivered without barriers (such as travel costs and scheduling challenges).
This new mode of exchange could threaten trade shows, which rely on exhibitors
Lastly, we need
to adopt and enlarge the networking and communication opportunities for
focused discussion. Conference planners need to bring fullness to communication
with their current and future attendees, above and beyond current and future
planned programs. They can do this via virtual whiteboards and community
rooms that expand beyond chat rooms and electronic discussion lists. Building
new forms of purpose-based discussion and communities-of-interest/practice
will ensure that face-to-face programs match the rapidly changing needs
of the information and technology-focused conference delegate.
to an understanding of the conference attendee and their needs for continuous
learning will open up worlds of opportunity for conference planners. Profiling
software, so effectively used in permission marketing strategies, Web site
development, and intranet launches, need to be implemented for the conference
attendee. By sharing more information about my needs and profile with the
conference organizers, I get, in return, a better, more targeted program
and increased networking and discussion opportunities. "Understand me"
and I will support you with my valuable time, money, attention span, and
No doubt everyone
reading this article has had some experience with an event enhanced by
technology. It may have been a videoconference, where you didn't have to
leave your office building or your city, but could view real-time presentations
by speakers in different locations and participate in telephone Q &
A's with the speakers, as well as discuss issues with the people sitting
with you in the room. Or perhaps it was a Web conference, where a few hundred
people go to the live presentations, but hundreds more tune in on their
PCs, usually linked by chat or phone lines.
As exciting as
those technological tools are, let's take a closer look at that comment
made earlier about networking (and the restaurants and bars). Networking
— the people-to-people kind as opposed to the technical kind — remains
one of the primary reasons people attend conferences and workshops. The
analogy of pillars brings to mind a gathering place. Conferences have long
been gathering places for information professionals to meet, exchange ideas
and experiences, see new products, and learn. Web conferences deliver information,
but, for many of us, they fail to put that information in context or "bring
it to life." Information comes to life during hallway and coffee shop or
bar conversations. For many, learning sticks and insights happen
in the discussions of the talks and exhibits after the show, not during.
Given all of this,
what do we see as the coming "intelligent conference"? Simply put, we see
technology enhancing the experience of the event — particularly before
and after the attendees and exhibitors have come and gone. Back to our
airline metaphor — what parts of the conference experience happen before
you arrive and linger after you leave? How do you apply technology and
thoughtful planning, marketing, and communication to enhance your market's
learning experience? In the short term, we'll go out on a limb that for
starters you need to investigate and experiment within these areas:
will offer a wealth of opportunities to customize the experience to niche
learners' needs, communicate effectively and in a highly targeted way with
registrants, and to allow the attendee to personalize their experience
through the creation of on-demand networking experiences. Attendees share
their profiles and e-mail addresses in return for a commitment to provide
a personalized, customized, valuable learning experience.
First-timers to regular
conference should be mentored and advised virtually and/or with a F2F buddy
at the conference, in order to get the most out of their conference investment.
Effective attendee profiling and communication systems would ease the overhead
of managing this sort of process.
Designated major programs,
such as continuing education workshops and technical presentations, will
have pre-work and follow-through in a Web-based collaboration environment.
This should be more than reading lists! You should have the opportunity
to play with the Web sites, intranets, and software that the speaker discusses.
will broadcast to larger audiences than just those bums in seats at the
event. Keynoters will plan for online, Web-based debate and stay to clarify
their remarks for a determined time after the presentation.
sessions, along with their graphic presentation materials, will be available
for lease, license, or purchase on or through the conference organizer's
Web site. Conference tapes will become a thing of the past replaced by
MP3 or some other digital sound file downloaded wirelessly to your car
player. This could become a Napster for learning!
There will be more
learning modes and models out there in the coming decade rather than less.
Competition is intensifying for people's attention, time, and dollars.
We will see mergers and alliances between many of these new e-learning
modes and organizations.
According to the
Times, Pearson sizes the e-learning market as reaching $46 billion
by 2005 (National Institute of Standards and Technology) and the market
for Web-based training is predicted to grow from $200 million in 1997 to
$5.5 billion by 2002 (International Data Corporation). GlobalLearningSystems.com
plans to "claim a share of the market for corporate and government education
programs, which is worth about $1 trillion worldwide and $100 billion in
Pretty big apples.
The challenge to the conference mover and shakers, who now focus on the
information and technology professional communities, is clear. The opportunity
is there. The pay-off for the intelligent innovator is huge. We stand by,
waiting to be awed.
Abram's e-mail address is email@example.com
|THOSE WHO KNOW
those highly involved in information industry conferences and trade shows
to gain their insights on the challenges and opportunities for these events.
Our thanks to those who took the time to discuss their views with us in
Conference Chair, Internet World
Conference Chair, Internet Librarian, Computers in Libraries, Internet
World Canada; Conference Co-Chair, KMWorld,
Jeff De Cagna,
Managing Director, Strategic Learning and Development, Special Libraries
Managing Director, Conferences, Special Libraries Association
Chief Executive, TFPL Ltd, Organizers of North American Business Information
Director of Content, Information Highways Conference and Magazine
VP, Econtent Group, Online Inc., who contributed a comment regarding their
expanding suite of conferences.
the synthesis of the experts' thoughts:
Trends, Challenges and Opportunities
for Conferences and Professional or Industry Events
"niche-ing," fragmentation, and market-driven strategies were the dominant
themes emerging from these interviews. Competition is fierce — and will
continue to increase — among the growing number of conferences, seminars,
and shows. The "conference churn," as an interviewee called it is, in some
ways, excessive. Executive seminars, specialized conferences, virtual workshops,
and suppliers spinning off their own specific conferences, as well as the
more traditional general topic conferences, offer something for everyone.
Those planning such events know that with this array of offerings attendees
are becoming increasingly selective about cost, topic, speakers, and location.
Budgets for conferences and education are always under scrutiny, and attendees
are reluctant to pay for more than one or maybe two per year. People also
can't afford to be out of the office for more than 2-3 days at a time.
As one interviewee put it, "Travel has to really count; attendees look
for first-tier cities where they can combine business with the conference
and with pleasure."
This places more
pressure on presenters and exhibitors as well. Attendees are much less
tolerant of sessions or events that don't meet their expectations, and
those expectations are high. Presenters delivering a "commercial" will
watch attendees flock out after only a few minutes, and exhibitors had
better be ready to distinguish themselves through relationship building,
not just collecting cards from "leads."
Program and exhibit
planning has always been a challenge, but now it's a matter of daily, even
hourly, changes and juggling. With mergers and acquisitions rampant in
the industry, those exhibiting or presenting — or even those owning the
conferences — can change overnight.
Although the actual
topics of the conference are a critical selection factor for attendees,
the blurring of roles and processes underway in the information profession
means that topics blur as well. Information and knowledge are acknowledged
drivers for many professions now, not just information professionals. Similarly,
information professionals recognize that they must view their roles within
the broader dynamics of the business processes surrounding their work.
The result? Niched yet multi-disciplinary conferences that help attendees
to put their work in context. "Attendees used to come to conferences for
content and news; today they come for perspective," said an interviewee.
The forecast? The more general, broad-based conferences will give way to
the finely focused, more practical events. As another interviewee so aptly
put it, "The growth of conferences with audiences from different professionals
and different perspectives all sharing common concerns is very exciting."
Most agreed that
technology has, and will continue to, augment conferences and seminars
for organizers, attendees, and exhibitors. Technology is the underpinning
for virtual seminars and videoconferences, allowing organizers to deliver
convenient distance-learning opportunities on very specific issues, at
reasonable costs. It also enables what many interviewees referred to as
"value-added event services," such as proceedings on CDs, Web-casting keynote
sessions, listservs, online registration, and itinerary-building.
But one message
about technology came through loud and clear from all the interviewees:
Technology may add value to events, but it won't replace the hum of the
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