Avoiding a surfeit of conferences

This time of year, I’m usually flying back and forth to Las Vegas to engage in the fall conference season: software vendors hold their annual user conferences, and invite me to attend in exchange for covering most of my travel expenses. They don’t pay me to attend unless I give a presentation – in fact, many are not even my clients – and since I’m self-employed, that means I’m giving up billable days to attend. Usually, I consider that a fair trade, since it allows me to get a closer look at the products and talk to the vendor’s employees and customers, and I typically blog about what I see.

This year, however, I stepped away from most of the conferences, including the entire slate of fall events. A couple of family crises over the summer required a lot of my attention and energy, and when I started getting requests to attend fall conferences, I just didn’t feel that they were worth my time.

Many vendors have become overly focused on the amount of blogging that I do at their conference, rather than on strengthening our relationship. My conference blogging, described as “almost like being there”, is seen by some vendors as a savant party trick, and they consider themselves cheated in some way if I don’t publish enough content during the conference. What they forget is that by attending their conference, I’m gaining insights into their company and products that I can use in future discussions with enterprise clients, as well as in any future projects that I might do with the vendor. I generate revenue as a consultant and industry analyst; blogging is something that I do to analyze and solidify my observations, to discuss opinions with others in the field, and to expand my business reach, but I’m never paid for it, and it is never a condition of attending an event – at least in my mind.

Another factor is the race to the bottom in travel expenses. Many vendors require that they book my air travel, and when booking the one conference that I was going to attend this fall, I asked their travel group to pay the $20 fee to select a decent (economy) seat for the 5-hour tourist-class flight, but they refused. Many times in the past I’ve just paid for seat assignments and upgrades out of my own pocket, but this time it became about the principle: the vendor in question, who is not an active client of mine, placed that little value on my attendance.

So if you’re a vendor, here’s the deal. A paid client relationship with me is not a prerequisite of me attending your conference, and has never been in the past, but there has to be a mutual recognition of the value that we each bring to the table. I bring 25 years of experience and opinions as a systems implementer, consultant and industry analyst, and I offer those opinions freely in conversation: consider it free consulting while I’m at your conference. I expect to gain insights into your company, products and customers, through public conference sessions and private discussions. I may blog about what I see and hear (at least the parts not under non-disclosure), or use that information in future discussions with enterprise clients. Or I may not, if I don’t find it relevant or interesting. Lastly, when you ask me to fly somewhere, keep in mind that it is not a treat for me to travel to Las Vegas or Orlando, and at least make sure that I’m not in the middle seat at the back of a 50-row aircraft.

As always, everything after the bar opens is off the record.

5 thoughts on “Avoiding a surfeit of conferences

  1. Sandy, it is a constant challenge – vendors should use analysts for intelligence, but they tend to use them for influence. Historically, marketing has owned analyst/media relations, when it should be part of market/product strategy.

    Stand up for your travel and other policies. Just because you do not work for a big brand firm does not mean they cannot be decent to you.

    here’s a way to see it in a positive light – putting up with their travel policy once a year is better than the multiple times their employees have to 🙂

    1. Vinnie, agreed: my time at conferences is often booked by AR/PR rather than the product groups, which leads to most of the disconnection. I realize that’s where the budget for conference travel is, but there are competing demands between those groups that doesn’t work out well. As for having to endure the travel policy only once a year, consider that I typically attend about a dozen conferences per year, each with a different vendor, each with their own (mostly bad) travel policies. 🙁

  2. Sandy –

    I love your blog, have always enjoyed the “almost as good as being there” element when you blog – but honestly, your best work isn’t the near-live blogging, but the stuff you write when you take a step away and synthesize what you’ve heard overall into a summary post – those are gold. (And I still like the live-blogging posts too!). I think you hit the nail on the head w.r.t. expenses – there’s just a respect / mutual-respect aspect to these things that is more important than the dollars and cents.

    We’d love to have you join us down in Austin for an event next year. Hope the break from conferences is refreshing!

  3. Just a compliment from Paris. I almost never take time to congratulate people, but I was impressed by the quality of your syntheses. I wish you the best and hope your personal family crises won’t affect you too much. Kind regards.

    From a French entrepreneur launching a consulting company with other senior IT executives around Smart Process Applications

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