The Future of Conferences

by Sharlyn Lauby on July 7, 2009

As I was settling back into my office routine after the SHRM Annual Conference, I noticed a lot of posts and Tweets about conferences in general.  One particular post, by Christopher Penn, talks about the future of conferences.  It’s an interesting read and you can check it out here.

I’ve been involved with conference planning for a many years.  It’s great fun.  I’ve made lifelong friends and learned a lot.  And with that, I’ve also developed some opinions about the future of conferences.

IMHO, blog posts and Twitter hashtags aren’t total substitutes for attending a conference.  The distinct advantage conferences have (and will continue to have) is face-to-face contact.  That’s one of the reasons why TweetUps came to exist.  Social media tools take participants only so far.  Then at some point, you want more personal interaction.  No one wants to just be a spectator…if something is fun; they want to be a part of it.  My recent trip to SHRM is a case in point. Right along with the attendee Tweets were Tweets from those at home saying they wished they were there.  I hope next year, SHRM will have an even larger crowd of bloggers and Tweeters because everyone read how much fun we were having this year.

That being said, conferences will begin to leverage the strength of face-to-face interaction.  How exactly they will do that, I’m not sure.  But I do know there’s too much money to be made with conferences to let it all just fade away.  I’d actually predict that conferences will become more dynamic as a result of social media popularity.

One thing is for certain, conference planners will be paying close attention to exhibitor, sponsor, speaker, and attendee feedback as they plan future events.  Your comments and suggestions will drive future programs.

So before you ignore that conference evaluation, ask yourself why you attend conferences.  And, what you want to see in conferences.  The future of conferences lies with you.

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Stephen Geraghty-Harrison July 7, 2009 at 9:05 am

You make some great points Sharlyn and I agree. I wasn’t able to go to SHRM National and it was fun following all the tweets but it was nothing compared to what it would have been like to actually be there and participate. Yes you get the great one liners from speeches but the entire educational experience is skewed – you miss out on so much. Thanks for your input!

Stacy Smith July 7, 2009 at 10:57 am

What do you think about the online conference like Talentpalooza 2009? ( It’s a live, one-day virtual event on July 15th that will provide professionals with the opportunity to discuss and collaborate with one another about real-world case studies, best practices and latest trends in talent management.

leanneclc July 7, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Good post…I agree that twitter and facebook don’t allow you to get the benefits of being at the conference…but for me, they did for SHRM. The parts of SHRM I would have like to be part of were the offsite dinners, the tweetup @frannyo put together, those sort of off-site events. Especially as I’m not in HR and don’t need any certifications.

But that was that particular conference. There are others like ERE Expo that I find very valuable and feel the need to attend. They also make their networking events better than some of the offsite ones…which as you say, is part of the reason we are there. To talk face-to-face. As long as a conference provides good networking opportunity and small face-to-face sessions with good mindshare, I will do my best to attend…otherwise, thank you for tweeting!

Robert July 7, 2009 at 1:19 pm

Good post, Sharlyn, and it’s something that we do indeed think about.

One thing I wrestle with is the networking aspect. My dept. is tasked with organizing networking events at our smaller conferences, but we don’t really do it for the annual conference, in part because of the sheer size of the room. I like hearing about the organic networking that crops up such as FrannyO’s tweet up. I know of a group of people who all met via HR Talk and other bulletin boards who band together every year to tackle the conference.

Hopefully SHRM Connect will be a way to help foster more such . . . connections. I’ve seen on several of the blogs mention of how important the contact was prior to actually being on the ground at the conference. THAT is what we need to develop.

Andrea Milrad July 7, 2009 at 1:29 pm

It’s interesting to see the point-of-view that social media sites, and not web-conferences, seem to be the focus on the demise of conferences. Personally, I can’t see how social media will have that much effect on the attendance of the meeting. While technology is certainly adding competition and benefits to reaching a larger audience at a lower cost, face-to-face meetings offer a different level of participation that can never be duplicated electronically.

Steve Boese July 7, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Great post Sharlyn. One of the themes in the Christopher Penn article that you mention (and I think Kris Dunn touched on this too), is that conferences need to be more attentive and focused on facilitating and enabling these kinds of more casual, free form networking opportunities. Everyone that came on our SHRM ’09 Happy Hour show agreed that the personal connecting and networking was the main benefit of attending the conference, but that the conference itself has not adapted very much to that effect. Maybe less ‘formal’ sessions and more informal, unconference style opportunities to let people naturally select and gravitate towards like-minded people and topics.

Robert July 7, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Good thoughts, but the operational side of me still asks, how? We still need to have signposts of some sort to guide people into those self-selecting groups. And when you’re talking about 7,000+ people, it becomes problematic.

Another question is: would such networking opportunities be enough to persuade the powers that be to spring for the costs of attending the conference?

Steve Boese July 7, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Robert, those are great questions and I don’t have easy answers. I will say that if the small sample of folks who blogged, tweeted, and came on the HR Happy Hour show all seemed to indicate the ‘unofficial’ networking was the highlight of the event, then it really would make sense for the conference organizers to try to find some ways to satisfy those needs. It could be as you say the sheer size of the event makes spur of the moment changes and adaptation tricky, but if more of the attendees are looking for those opportunities, then I think the organization will have to find a way to deliver more of them. Perhaps devoting one session at each time slot for ‘volunteer’ sessions, and post the potential topics on a wiki, or even on a big flip chart by the door. Let folks ‘vote’ on what is important to them on the spot. It would not detract at all from the agenda, and would not really cost anything either.

hr bartender July 7, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Thanks everyone for chiming in on this one! I really enjoy talking about conferences…glad to see there are others who do too…

Regarding Stacy’s comment about online conferences, I certainly agree there’s a time/place for these events. Personally though, I’m not sure I could sit still for several hours in my office to listen and participate. There’s something about the activity of ‘getting up and going to the next session’ that breaks the boredom factor. Totally my two-cents…I’d be interested to hear from others.

Leanne and Robert raise some important points about networking. For some people, that is the conference. But I struggle with who has responsibility for organizing such events. At SHRM, we were lucky to have a @FrannyO in our community who made it happen. My thought is that instead of putting the responsibility on conference organizers…we need to have more @FrannyO’s in this world (for more reasons than just she coordinates one heck of a TweetUp!) Regardless, I can’t help but think the informal networking would take place even if it’s not a planned conference event.

I see face-to-face meetings being forced to add more technology as Andrea mentioned. Maybe they will go the way of Steve’s comment and use technology for special ‘cyber-sessions’. Wouldn’t it be cool to have time on the agenda for cyber table talk…just like the global roundtables currently provided at SHRM?

Keep the great conversation going…the more we write here, the more ideas get passed along to SHRM (and other conferences…)

Kari Quaas July 7, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Great post, Sharlyn. I agree that knowing people before you go is key to conferences of this size. Then, even if you know just a few, they know a few, and so on, and so on. My experience at the SHRM 2009 conference was completely different and better than my experience at the SHRM 2007 conference because of twitter and the network of bloggers.

Also, I think that SHRM as an entity is coming around to social media by launching their own blog pre-conference to highlight speakers, events and activities. Plus, thank God for champions like China Miner Gorman on the inside! She believes in social media and holds a high position on within SHRM. I hope her influence continues to be strong.

The real trick will be to get HR folks / conference attendees to understand RSS and take advantage of the ever growing list of connection tools.

Tracy Tran July 7, 2009 at 10:49 pm

Wonderful post Sharlyn. I do agree that conferences will be better, but I think several factors play into this:

1. Location – I didn’t attend the event because 1) budget and money, and 2) New Orleans is very hot. It’s great that SHRM went back there, but I just couldn’t stand the heat. Which leads me to…

2. Surrounding Events – New Orleans is great for food and music, but what else? I know they have the Saints and Hornets, but they don’t play in the summer. San Diego might be better for business vacation since they have the Padres, beaches, and Shamu. The best SHRM Conference I attended was Chicago of last year. Not only I met new people from the conference, but explored the city and was the best experience I ever had from attending to a Wait, Wait taping , Cubs-White Sox, architecture tours, etc.

3. Unconferences – I remember in 2005 in San Diego that SHRM had a roundtable in the morning. There was a roundtable by industry and and another by function. I thought it was brilliant, but only 5 people attended (not exaggerating). I don’t know what happened; was it the time (it was at 7AM (10AM to me)), was it market properly? SHRM needs to reconsider that and hopefully market better.

4. Teleconferences – Conferences need to be open and need to open all. Live-stream conferences is the way to go and I would think of getting a small price of watching conferences. It would bring intrigue for people who haven’t attend the conference to think about the following year if they don’t attend.

There are many more, but I think SHRM is in the right direction, but the bigger question is can they stay with the gameplan, or go back to square one.

ReviewSNAP July 9, 2009 at 3:41 pm

I can’t agree with you more on the importance of face-to-face time at conferences. I was able to personally meet quite a few people that I have done business with and it has completely changed the dynamics of our business relationship, in a good way.

We have the ability to take conferences to the next level with the social media and technology that is out there. A good point was made to me at the SHRM conference in New Orleans about why places are selected for conferences. To be selected you basically have to meet three main requirements:

1. Venues – Obviously you need to have a venue that can support a conference of it’s size.
2. Hotels – You have to have plenty of hotels close to the venue
3. Travel – You need to be able to easily reach the venue from your hotels

These are pretty obvious points, but if you think about it, it really narrows down the possibility of locations. For example, New York has the venues and the hotels to hold a large conference, but could you imagine trying to get to conference from your hotel. It could take a LOOONNNGGG time to get there with the traffic.

Although it may be difficult to physically attend a conference due to the location or budget the possibilities are virtually endless with today’s technology to help people participate remotely for a conference.

hr bartender July 10, 2009 at 12:31 pm

I totally agree with Kari about the change in the conference experience because of social media. I’ve been attending SHRM for years and New Orleans had a different and exciting feel because of the chance to meet my fellow Tweeps and blogging friends.

Tracy and ReviewSNAP bring up a valid point about location. As much as we might not want to admit it…location is a factor in conference attendance. I know when I think about attending conferences – going someplace that has nice weather and things to do when the conference isn’t going on – does cross my mind. Is it the number one consideration? No. But I do think about it (especially since I’m paying for it.)

ReviewSNAP July 10, 2009 at 12:38 pm

One thing I did forget to mention is the effect that Twitter had on driving people to our booth. I was sending out tweets during the conference and had multiple people come to our booth asking about our product because of my tweets. It wasn’t a huge number, but I can only imagine that the impact of social media will be even bigger by next year.

hr bartender July 10, 2009 at 2:56 pm

Good point! We’ve spent alot of time talking about the attendee experience but exhibitors and sponsors are so important. As social media grows, so will their opportunities to engage with attendees.

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