May 15, 2017

Do mega conferences really help your CPD, even in Vegas?

By Paul Laughlin

mega conferencesAs we have focussed on knowledge management, thinking environments & personal development this month, it makes sense to consider the role of conferences.

Working as a professional speaker or chair, especially for Customer Insight or Analytics related events, you will have seen a number of conferences feature in Events section of this blog.

But, none of us should give up precious time to attend these, if they don’t help us develop.

Even when they are in glittering locations like Barcelona or Vegas, it pays to consider your learning goals & why this event helps (or not).

So, to provide a more critical eye on the role of mega conferences in your personal development, I’m delighted to welcome back guest blogger Tony Boobier. I’m tempted to jest that he may have some secret that “stays in Vegas“, but over to Tony to lay out his case…

Event organisers do win in Vegas

Someone who is bored with Las Vegas is bored with life. Of course, that’s not the ‘real’ quote which actually comes from Samuel Johnson who said back in 1777, ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’.

But in the case of Las Vegas, like many other major cities whose hotel revenue is mainly based on conference events, aren’t there are so many similar events that sometimes they seem, well, a bit samey and, I’m afraid to say it, sometimes just a little boring? I’ve been there plenty of times and I think I’m fairly well qualified to say.

In Vegas, mega conferences are real big business. Every year 4.5m people attend and are said to generate $1.7 billion of income for the Nevada economy. They spend twice the amount that Vegas visitors spend on gaming and tourism.  The largest of the events attract over 150,000 visitors. Companies are expected to generate 20% of their annual income from these trade shows.

The global conference industry if anything appears to be growing. In the US alone, it is forecast to grow 44% between 2010 and 2020, far beyond the rate of other industries. Conference managers even have their own conferences to give out awards. Successful conferences can achieve 30% profit.

Do mega conferences lead to sustainable learning?

But are mega conferences as we know them a sustainable model? Aren’t attendees there just to validate their own thinking, or just to catch up with current trends in a very expensive way?

One way of keeping these mega events alive is through so-called ‘signature moments’ which denotes a major product or innovation launch. At these conferences such new releases are often accompanied by applause by existing ‘believers’. Less of a product release, more of a hallelujah moment. It sometimes feels less like a conference than like being a visitor at a noisy Church.

Knowledge transfer and management are becoming increasingly critical in this day and age. As individuals, we have different learning styles – aural, tactile, visual, and often a combination of all three. Don’t traditional conferences which often are heavily visually orientated only partially satisfy those learning styles? What do they need to do to fill the gaps?

Digital alternatives, do they work for you?

There are apparently alternatives but my personal experience of ‘virtual conferences’ is that they remain technologically crude – at least for the moment. For me the screen just didn’t replace being present at the actual event. But it was extremely convenient and very definitely much cheaper.

And isn’t how we learn ‘at speed’ also becoming an increasing issue? The rate of change is such that for other than foundational knowledge, isn’t the word struggling to keep up, even in a digital form?

How do experts stay relevant?

Even those who describe themselves (or are described) as ‘gurus’ find themselves challenged in remaining relevant. It’s impossible to stay at the front any longer without hard work. What and who is ‘hot news’? Where’s the action really happening – In Vegas, Beijing or Silicon Roundabout in London? Doesn’t proximity to the action have increasing value?

And what about ‘crowd-pullers’? Don’t those thought leaders whose reputations are based on single big ideas recognise that their value, or currency, lasts only as long as the ideas are innovative? After that, perhaps the ideas become mainstream and start to become yesterday’s news? Entertaining the audience is increasingly critical, even with older ideas. Shakespeare hit the nail on the head. ‘All the World’s a Stage’, he said, and he probably had it right. Especially at conferences.

Reinvention time

Overall I don’t think Vegas or anywhere else will give up the mega conference scene overnight. There’s too much riding on that roulette table. And in honesty, how could anyone be bored with Vegas when you have a mini-Eiffel Tower and Venetian Lagoon as distractions.

Then again, don’t they also have them at Macau conference centre as well?

But in the same way that newspapers had to reinvent themselves to become digital, perhaps it’s time for conference organisers to start rethinking about both thinking and learning?

Maybe we should have a conference about it?

How do you respond?

Thanks to Tony for that challenge. I certainly take on board the challenge to stay relevant, even if I haven’t reached ‘guru’ status. For me, the biggest protection against becoming stuck in an old message, is continuing to work with practitioners in the field. I learn so much from training, coaching & consulting – as well as helping my clients of course.

For the though, face to face events can still be very productive. Just off the top of my head, I can recall learning many valuable lessons from attending both #CityChain17 in London and #DILS2016 in Barcelona (to name just two).

But, what about you? Are you about ready to give up on spectacular mega conferences? Have you embraced podcasts, webinars, blogs & magazines as an alternative for your CPD?

Please do contribute to this conversation and share your view below in our comments section. But, for now, thanks again to Tony & I’ll add the above to my list of reasons not to go to Vegas conferences.