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Avoiding a surfeit of conferences

Blog: Column 2 - Sandy Kemsley

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.

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