Are conferences as good as they could be?

It seems every week there is a conference purporting to be the biggest and best industry event of the calendar year. Event sponsors have varying sized booths and banners, and ads littered throughout event collateral, and are sized dependant on their financial commitment to the event. These conferences are not inexpensive! Thousands of dollars and multiple staff over 2-3 days are committed to running their company’s booth. It is a significant financial investment. Vendor staff wear their branded shirts and spend their time trying to gain eye contact with you while not-so-subtly checking your name tag to ascertain whether you are someone worth speaking to. Rinse and repeat hundreds of times per day. It’s almost a kind of awkward dance where each party knows what the other is trying to do but aren’t willing to have a direct conversation about it. A strained conversation is had where the vendor representative asks the attendee where they work and what they do, and when answered is usually proceeded by a sales spin of that vendor’s “market-leading” capabilities.

We all have attended these conferences. I often speak at these conferences. I know the environment well. Some people prefer to attend conferences just for the networking opportunities. Others state they are there just to hear certain people speak. However, I don’t know of anyone that attends conferences to be sold to. Attendees often are not interested in the booths unless they are getting a pen, webcam cover, or are able to test-drive a unique bit of kit like VR.

I admit I am not a professional speaker. I don’t even think I am a good speaker. However, I do understand that stories and an interesting narrative are essential for the audience to engage with your content. If you are a speaker and you attempt to sell your company or it’s products/services, you will lose the audience immediately. Yet it happens constantly. I wonder, would it be better for conference organisers to institute a strict “no selling” policy during presentations?

Are conferences stale? Does the recipe need to be changed in order to give attendees and sponsoring vendors more bang for their buck? I would be extremely surprised to hear of a vendor recouping their investment from a conference. I am sure it happens but not often. Are there more cost-effective ways to market your brand and capabilities at a conference while differentiating yourself from the competitors? You can’t do the same thing as everyone else and expect different results.

What it boils down to is, nobody wants to be sold to. People want to be recognised for their hard work and their achievements and empathised with for their hardships. Relationships and understanding human nature is the key to successful brand awareness and marketing. Are you discussing something that benefits them or does it just benefit you?

I have my own thoughts about how to improve conferences for all involved parties but I would be interested in hearing your opinion on how to tackle the issues I have raised. Or perhaps you disagree with me. If so, I would like still like to hear your opinion. I don’t have all the answers!