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Vol. 9 No. 1 January 2001
FEATURE
Intelligent Conferences: Reality or Oxymoron?
by Stephen Abram Vice President Corporate Development, IHS Limited, Micromedia Limited
Rebecca Jones Principal, Dysart and Jones
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Earlier 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 could collapse.

Enter technology. 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 nearest restaurant?
 

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 is burgeoning.

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.

All conference organizers face these challenges in this coming era:

  • To understand their delegates' learning needs on an individual basis.

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  • To extend the conference experience beyond a chronologically and geographically defined "event" in order to deliver continuous value.

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  • To build customer loyalty so that they can walk with their markets and evolve with their changing needs and goals.
Most conference planners have begun looking to some of the new converged technologies to help solve some of these challenges.

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 experience.

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.

Conference providers 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
Event planners 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:

  • Knowledge Pathfinder 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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 registration tools. 


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.

What technology 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 software.

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 include. 

  • 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!

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  • PowerPoint presentations: 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?

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  • Application sharing: 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 REAL?"

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  • Content sharing: 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 down.

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  • Desktop sharing: 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.

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  • Streaming audio/video: 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 conference halls.

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  • Shared whiteboard 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.

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  • 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 later.

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  • Multiple presenter 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.

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  • Dynamic session control and remote participation: Add participants as desired and transfer control of portions of any session or meeting to the appropriate person.

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  • One-to-one and 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.

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  • Recording: 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.

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  • Comprehensive question 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 speaker(s) doesn't.

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  • Storing templates: 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!

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  • Management reporting: 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.

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  • E-commerce support: Actual 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:

  • Wireless: Instead 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.

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  • Audio-visual: 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 not 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.

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  • Audience profiling: 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.

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  • 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.

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  • Link to vendor Web sites prior to meeting them and do some pre-visit investigations.

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  • Follow up with those whose literature we need, e.g., to get pricing information.

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  • Arrange trials of products.

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  • See who will be at the show and plan accordingly not just some hyperlinked list of vendor company names.


The Learning-Networking Supply Chain
The conference 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. 

Conference planners 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 for funding.

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. 

Getting closer 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 support.

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:

  • Electronic registration 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • Keynote presenters 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.

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  • Digitally recorded 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!

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  • 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.


A Challenge!
According to the Financial 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 the U.S."

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.
 

THOSE WHO KNOW SAY

We consulted 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 interviews:

Jack Powers, Conference Chair, Internet World

Jane Dysart, Conference Chair, Internet Librarian, Computers in Libraries, Internet World Canada; Conference Co-Chair, KMWorld, 
Internet Librarian International

Jeff De Cagna, Managing Director, Strategic Learning and Development, Special Libraries Association

Jim Mears, Managing Director, Conferences, Special Libraries Association

Nigel Oxbrow, Chief Executive, TFPL Ltd, Organizers of North American Business Information Conference

Vicki Casey, Director of Content, Information Highways Conference and Magazine

Nancy Garman, VP, Econtent Group, Online Inc., who contributed a comment regarding their expanding suite of conferences.

Here follows the synthesis of the experts' thoughts:

Trends, Challenges and Opportunities for Conferences and Professional or Industry Events

Proliferation, "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."

Technology's Impact

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 gathering place.
 

Stephen Abram's e-mail address is sabram@micromedia.on.ca
Rebecca Jones's e-mail address is rebecca@dysartjones.com
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