Disturbing trend in conference industry

I’m being bombarded with requests to speak at conferences.  This isn’t unusual; I show up to the opening of an envelope if it provides me the opportunity to gasbag about brand and employee engagement.

But there’s a new twist.  Here’s the new conversation:

CONFERENCE ORGANISER:  “Hi! We’re running a conference on employee brand engagement.  Would you be interested in presenting?”

THE SPEAKER:  “Of course!  I am always keen to present best practices, ideas and case studies to people in my profession.  In fact, I’ve just completed some cutting edge work with Coca-Cola [insert leading brand] that would be really interesting and valuable to your delegates.”

CONFERENCE ORGANISER:  “Fantastic.  Our sponsorship packages start at 7,500 euros.”

THE SPEAKER:  “Oh.  Well, I’d just like to speak as a practitioner, not as a sponsor.”

CONFERENCE ORGANISER:  “We only allow in-house people to present if they aren’t sponsors.”

THE SPEAKER:  “I see.  Well, my client at Coca-Cola would be happy to present — they’re very proud of the work we’ve done together, and your delegates would love to see what Coke is doing.”

CONFERENCE ORGANISER:  “Only if they don’t mention your name.  Otherwise you would have to pay the sponsorship fee.”

THE SPEAKER:  “Oh.” [uncomfortably long pause].  “So let me get this straight, the only presentations people who pay to see at your conference are from companies that are paid sponsors, or from practitioners who can’t say who did the work with them?”

CONFERENCE ORGANSIER:  “Yes.  That way we can attract people to our conference with a reduced price, since we’re getting speaker-sponsors to cover the difference.”

THE SPEAKER:  “Aren’t you concerned about what this means about the credibility of your conference?”

CONFERENCE ORGANISER:  “Not really.  People accept that these things are commercially motivated.  They’re willing to trade a couple of hundred euros off the price of admission in exchange for a narrower range of presentations.”

THE SPEAKER:  “But this just turns it into a big sponsors’ advertisement.  Every presentation will be a sales presentation.  People don’t want to go to conferences to be sold to.”

CONFERENCE ORGANISER:  “That’s what they always were.  We’re just formalising the arrangement.”

THE SPEAKER:  “Do you tell your delegates that presentations are from a paying sponsors?”

CONFERENCE ORGANISER: [silence]

THE SPEAKER:  “Ah.”

—–

(if you don’t believe me, here is an ACTUAL extract from the email I got from those running a VERY HIGH PROFILE conference ….)

—–

“I found a way how can we invite one of your clients to provide a case study about a common project with SAS Design. I hope it will help in the decision making process.  You asked if the end user speakers were allowed to mention the name of the agencies they were working with. Unfortunately as far as the agency is not there as a sponsor partner, the end user (client) company is not allowed to mention it.

This way if you have a client on the conference as a speaker he/she can involve SAS Design into the speech only if you are there as a sponsor partner. As a solution I can offer you the opportunity to be a Business Partner and invite one of your specific clients to provide a case study about the topic of the event, obviously mentioning SAS Design. With the Business Partner package you can send two person to networking, branding before, during and after the conference, and have other benefits for the investment of 7500Euros. Your client will be invited for free to speak as an end user expert of internal branding and employee engagement.”

—–

Look, when I present, of course I am presenting to raise my (and my employer’s, and my client’s) profile — it’s a brand building exercise.  But I’m not so cynical to believe that it isn’t about genuinely sharing ideas and approaches with people who can benefit from our experience, expertise and approach.

Having spoken to some of my clients at high-profile organisations, they agree.  They were in fact unaware that this is the game the organisers have all started playing: Pay to Play.  In the old days, that was called Payola.  It was, in fact, considered unethical and, moreover, fraudulent and a criminal offence.

Anyone else think we should consider doing something about this? 

Let me know.

‘Cos I think it sucks, and it means ultimately the only thing you’ll ever see at a conference is some agency jackass who paid a fee saying how great they are, as opposed to some agency jackass who says how great they are, but were invited to present because they are, um, actually great.  I know which I’d prefer to sit through.

– – – – – – –

Afterward: The Plot Thickens.
I’ve also just been told that “vendors” are not allowed to attend to another “pay to play” conference.  I can understand that, in a way.  Of course, attendees don’t want to be sold to when they’re going to a conference.  Um….

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21 thoughts on “Disturbing trend in conference industry

  1. I commiserate and agree with you! I’d prefer that sponsorship and content be kept separate. Give sponsors their 15 minute slot, the mailing list, and branding everywhere.

    Attendees spend a small fortune to attend and want the BEST examples and case studies, not just the best-FUNDED ones. I’d also like to see innovative and fresh case studies, not just more Fortune 500’s doing the same stuff.

    But I guess this ‘pay to play’ works: if the quality was suffering because of sub-par presentations, the organizers will lose attendees, so I don’t think they’re going to allow bad content.

    I sat through only one bad presentation at last year’s Ragan Social Media Conference, and it was a practitioner one (no product/agency mention).

    Maybe there’s so much competition out there now and enough good consultants and content, that they CAN pick and choose and charge for the privilege.

  2. Thanks Kevin for bringing up a real problem with conference payola. It is the policy of simply-communicate (and I know for a fact also Ragan Communications) not to give platform time to sponsors. The reason why Ragan’s conference quality is high (I’ll let you make up your own minds about ours) is because no one can pay their way to the lectern.
    I mean how many times do we have to see Jeremy Starling promoting his company Involve at an event that you have paid north of £1,000 to attend? If you are a client, I bet, he’ll come round and do a creds pitch for nothing and you won’t have to leave your desk.
    Now some of my best friends sponsor events – Yellow, The Edge etc but I only really want to hear from them when they have something useful to say – like when Peter Stevenson presented the work he was doing with MacDonalds at our 2007 conference. And no The Edge were not a sponsor.
    In the meantime we’ll stick to populating our forthcoming June conference with stories that are truly interesting to attendees on their own merits. Let’s talk about Coca-Cola (if it’s a strong story then we’re interested in featuring it) but only if I can buy you lunch….

  3. Hi Kevin,

    You’re absolutely right and you make some really interesting points. I know you’re not talking about Melcrum, but I thought I’d take up the gauntlet none the less.

    Separating out content from sponsorship is not as black and white as you make out.

    Fact: consultants often make the best speakers. How do we know? Because completed delegate evaluation forms from Melcrum delegates tell us so. And there are several consultants whose names come up time and time again in pre-conference surveys to determine who our members and customers want to hear from at the next conference.

    A word in our defence: We’ve had Jeremy Starling back two years running because he is consistently one of the top rated speakers. But I agree that there’s a limit to how many times people want to see the same speaker however varied, engaging or interactive the session or which client they bring along. The same is true of other annual sponsors we have partnered with. They enrich the conference experience for delegates.

    Providing the sponsorship relationship is made clear and transparent to the delegate (and frankly, you would have to be fairly closeted not to notice the hoardings and signs announcing these partnerships/sponsorships). We also make a point of thanking our sponsors throughout the conference and never have more than two consultants in a day. But ultimately it’s about quality and content. If the sponsor is adding value then there is no issue.

    The point about who pays who is an interesting one. Pure-play conference companies have charged sponsors to speak for decades. This is nothing new. Other companies pay consultants to speak. I know of situations where, because of the prestige of the conference, some speakers are prepared to pay to present, whereas at other competing conferences, the same speaker is paid to present. Does buying your way on to the speaker platform make your content inherently less valuable? No. Does it mean that the organisers should make clear that money has changed hands? Absolutely.

    At Melcrum, we still apply the same high quality standards whether we’re being paid or paying and approve all content. So just because a sponsor is speaking, they don’t get a free pass to do a 40 minute pitch, they co-present with a client and it’s all about the content and the practical take-aways for the paying delegates. Sponsors get that and they know it’s good for their business too. If they get poor speaker ratings, they don’t get invited back.

    But ultimately, it’s about the speaker and the individual relationship between organiser and sponsor. One rule for all does not work. And I think trying to argue that content and sponsorship are incompatible is deeply flawed. As proven by business models not just in the conference industry but in many other industries. If the end user is comfortable with these models and they are transparent and value adding, then who pays is really only an issue for the consultants who pay.

    Robin.

  4. Thanks, Robin. Good points as expected. I think as you say it’s a balacing act, and at the moment I’ve had three run-ins in a row where the conference organisers have been very clear that if you wanna speak, ya gotta pay. No matter how you slice it, in the aggregate that will affect credibility (notwithstanding people who “do it right”, as I suspect Melcrum do).

    Example: I went to the Times Employer Brand conference that Hodes sponsored a couple of years ago, and I was not the only attendee singularly unimpressed with the “World of Hodes show” of case studies. On the other hand, I’ve chaired Marketing Week conferences where sponsors don’t get a free pass to speak and they’ve been pretty good – in fact, competitors have spoken and done a great job at showing different ways of approaching the topic at hand.

    Ultimately, you’re right – I don’t for a moment believe sponsorship and content are incompatible.

    However, a naked “pay to play” approach is NOT good for the end user. Funny how conference organisers are the ones making this case, isn’t it?

    It stacks the deck and presents a limited perspective. It turns the conference into a sales event.

    So yes – it’s about balance, and I’m not getting a lot back from organisers at the moment…

  5. Robin is right – just because you pay doesn’t mean you’re mediocre. Good organisers clearly don’t risk the quality of their product just because they get bunged a few quid.

    I guess the issue is one of transparency really – how would delegates feel about paying if they knew how much someone had stumped up for the right to pitch at them? I recently was really hacked off when I realised that I’d paid good money both to hear my client speak about my work and to be on the receiving end of at least two pitches.

    Jeremy Starling is a good example of how to do it right – I’ve seen him twice in action. He makes no bones about the fact that he’s there to sell himself but he adds value to the conference as well. I guess one of the reasons why Melcrum conferences are successful is that they are pretty good at maintaining the quality of the speakers – but there really are too many people out there selling rubbish and getting away with it.

    I suppose that I find it depressing when I think that a conference is often the only ‘training’ that some people get – imagine how you’d feel if your whole budget for the year was blown on a trip to a junket to listen to four vendor sales pitches and four in-house people tell head-hunters how wonderful they are….

  6. On reflection, I also think there is an underlying “anti-consultant” vibe hanging about the whole thing. I mean, I have been referred to as a “vendor” and my clients as “end users”. I suppose if one is a robot, those sorts of terms hold meaning.

    I know there are a lot of consultants and agencies out there who are “vendors” and only understand aggressive, hard-sell tactics; e.g., every presentation is a pitch; every conference is an opportunity to “work the room.”

    Nonetheless not all agencies and consultants are like that.

    Equally, as Robin intimates, not all “end users” are automatically going to be better presenters than “vendors” — even the top-shelf ones. What, do you honestly believe these guys don’t use external advisors (I mean,”vendors”) when they create their great case study winning engagement programmes?

    The distinction is silly. I hear faint echoes of the global financial crisis here, obviously on a smaller scale. No one is questioning the system, and as a result the system is doing something really stupid for everyone (except the organisers).

    Are the conferences better or worse? I would say unequivocally given nearly 20 years of going to conferences that they are worse. Many of them are treadmills, assembly line operations (present company excepted). I’ve stopped (and many of my FT100 clients too) going because it’s the same group of people — the Storytellers, Jeremy Starling (I like him too by the way!) and his gang, Engage, etc., at every conference. I have not learned anything NEW by going to a conference in the past 5 years.

    Interestingly, this all comes back to Mills, The Areopagetica -that is, the marketplace of ideas. The system has created an artificial inhibitor on the marketplace of ideas, so fewer ideas (that is, ideas only from those who pay to present them) are being shared, from fewer sources of innovative thinking.

    And we scratch our heads and wonder why the internal comms/engagement industry isn’t higher profile. We’re doing it to ourselves.

    Isn’t there a supreme irony in not allowing ‘vendors’ to attend a conference on the basis that ‘attendees don’t want to be sold to’ — when the speakers on the platform have all paid for the privilege?

    So, maybe these conferences ‘work’ for the ‘vendors’ who provide ‘sponsored talks’ to ‘end users’. You pay your 1500 Euros to show up, I pay my 7500 euros to present and schmooze you, everyone fills in the little form and gives the conference an 8.3 out of 10 so the organisers can pat themselves on the back and plan next year.

    SAS runs free breakfast seminars for clients and prospects about 10 times a year (example – brand and engagement; example – graduate recruiting). The 60 or so FT250 attendees almost always say that they get more out of thse seminars than they get out of paid conferences. We have our clients present, external experts present, and we present. It’s a very soft-sell, value-add kind of vibe — Marc has been to one. Seems like better value to the ‘end user’ – since they know who’s sponsoring it, and we foot the bill – not the ‘end user’.

    And guys, it’s cheaper as a marketing tool for us than sponsoring your conferences. Food for thought.

  7. Kevin,

    I am glad you raised this issue. It has bothered me for years.

    We have never leaned on a consultant for money in return for a speaking gig. We deplore the practice, and we always have.

    But we need to make money too. So we recently launched something we call a “Sponsored Track.” This is a clearly labeled track of conference sessions that feature vendors and consulting companies. Now, when booking this track, we urge these speakers to bring a client to speak. Why? Because they’ll be competing for audience attention with other non-sponsored tracks. They’d better to make sure their session is not a sales pitch.

    Why did we create this “Sponsorship Track?” Think of it as the conference equivalent to what newspapers have done for years with paid advertorials. It’s all about transparency.

    Unfortunately, most conference companies play a game of “hide the ball.” They say they’ve disclosed payments from speakers, but those disclosures are artfully hidden within the conference program.

    I’ll give your readers $100 for every session description that you can find that is followed by this disclosure: “The speaker appearing at this session has paid a sponsorship fee to appear before you.”

    One final comment about the blurring of ethical lines between content and revenue. Associations have now started playing this game, including none other than IABC.

    Last year, I asked IABC to supply three press passes so our news team at http://www.ragan.com and http://www.myragantv.com could cover the Barcelona event.
    We were summarily denied. I still have the e-mail.

    We were told that our principal competitor had paid to sponsor the event and it would be a “conflict of interest” to allow my reporters and video producer to have a press pass.

    Keep in mind that Ragan.com provides daily coverage of the corporate communications industry and has done so since 1968. Our news and video site receives 100,000 visitors from around the world every month, many of them IABC members.

    None of this mattered to the association.

    I had never heard of such a thing, particularly from a communication organization that claims to practice good media relations and whose members include PR and media relations people. Never in my professional life as a reporter and publisher had I been turned down for a press pass because a competing publisher had agreed to pay for sponsorship.

    By the time this dispute reached Julie Freeman, IABC had changed the reason for turning down my request. Here was the fresh reason: If your reporters and video producers attend, we’ll have to pay for their coffee and lunch, and we can’t afford that.

    “Fine,” I replied. “We’ll pay those expenses.”

    Well, as you probably know, my entreaties went nowhere. I concluded that the real reason we never received a press pass had more to do with the money they received from a competitor than it did anything else.

    IABC also plays the same “hide the ball” game with its sponsorship policies. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and compare the list of speakers at a regional event with the sponsorship logos on the event program. Guess what? They almost always match up.

    When it comes to money and content, the lines are forever being blurred. And you need look no further than your own association.

  8. Thanks Mark – good to hear from you. A note that while I am a member of the IABC and have been for some 15+ years, and am an ex-UK board member, calling it “my own association” isn’t quite accurate!

    But I think the points you make are very salient. To be frank my interest in and and participation with IABC has been waning for precisely these sorts of reasons. I know that everyone needs to be commercial, but it sounds like things have gone a bit too far in this particular topic area…

  9. I suspect I know a few of the companies in question. For some reason they all seem to be calling from eastern European countries these days… Not that there is anything wrong with that! But it seems a measure to reduce their costs.

    Conferences can be a very lucrative venture. What I find distressing is that the people who attend conferences don’t seem to have a very good measure of what is good and what is not. I like to ask people at conferences how they got there, and too often they say:

    “My finance director/ HR manager/ doorman handed me the brochure…”

    If we could start to get people to the right conferences we could start to ensure the speakers were there because they were good…

    Just a thought.

    /df

  10. Kevin,

    IABC plays this game better than any private conference company; and so do other associations.

    They actually play it a lot better because they have far more opportunities to sell the podium while “hiding the ball,” as I put it in an earlier post.
    It’s much more difficult to see who paid their way into a speaking gig when the program lists dozens of sessions.

    For example, is it just a coincidence that XYZ Consulting is delivering a session on Tuesday afternoon and underwriting a leadership dinner to the tune of $10,000 on Wednesday night? Of course it’s no coincidence; so just go ahead and label it as such.

    As someone pointed out in an earlier post, there is a reason that you’re seeing that same chairperson leading an engagement event over and over again. And it’s not because she’s the biggest expert in the field; it’s because she’s paying the most amount of money. Customers should know this, even if that chairwoman (or man) is the best darn speaker in the world.

    None of this is anywhere near as deplorable though as IABC’s blocking Ragan from receiving press passes to the Barcelona event last year. Of all the things discussed here, that should concern members the most.

    As I said to Julie Freeman when she repeatedly supported that decision: If you’re going to deny press passes to one media outlet because you’ve taken money from its competitor, you should probably run this by the board.

    They might be interested in this new media relations policy.

  11. David Ferrabee’s point is the key here I feel; how do people know they are going to a good conference when they book their ticket?

    OK so now we have some key indicators that it’s going to be a turkey:.

    If there is no report searchable online for the previous year’s event.

    If there is a report complaining that several speakers failed to turn up.

    If the brochure is covered with sponsors you’ve never heard of it’s likely that the organisers are having to scramble around for extra income because they can’t sell enough tickets.

    If the contact address is in Bratislava.

    What we need is a tripadvisor site for professional conferences. Fancy setting one up David?

  12. Marc,

    Loved your idea for a TripAdvisor site for conferences. One could expand this idea into a site for all training, i.e., seminars, custom workshops, speakers, virtual conferences and webinars.

    Hmmmm….I better hire some more web developers.

    Mark

    P.S. I am about to celebrate my 17th year running Ragan Communications. I have seen conference companies come and go; usually the “going” is related to tough economic times. The key for companies like simply-communicate and Ragan is to hang in there; to show our customers that we’re there in good times and bad.

  13. This has been (and may it continue to be) an interesting debate/discussion.

    Marc, let’s talk Coca-Cola to see if it’s worth sharing with your attendees.
    Mark, congratulations!
    David, we should catch up soon anyway.

    To sum up …

    1) Sponsorship isn’t necessarily mutually exclusive from quality content (but it is also not a guarantee of it)

    2) If a speaker is a paying sponsor, we all agree that this needs to be clearly flagged in the conference programme and on the day. How is this actioned? Is there some Conference Organisers’ Confederation of Knowledge?

    3) Question: where does this leave “good” speakers who aren’t sponsors? Go off and start their own un-conference with their own toys???

  14. Kevin.

    You asked: Where does this leave good speakers who aren’t sponsors?

    Answer: They should be speaking!

    At Ragan we continue to invite consultants and vendors to speak if they a breakthrough case study or product; often, we pay them to appear, and we reimburse them for their travel expenses. Shel Holtz and Angela Sinickas are two cases in point.

    Our “sponsored track” is for consultants and vendors who didn’t make it onto our programme but still would like to attend the event and show their wares.

    To come full circle to the initial post: A conference company looks foolish if they limit speakers to those who have paid.

    Look at the text of the letter you published. How ridiculous to say that someone can appear at and event but they can’t mention a consultant’s name? Are we to believe that a violation of this silly rule would result in a speaker being yanked from the stage? Or does the conference company plan on shutting off their microphones?

    The way to avoid all of this is to return to the principles that governed conferences long ago, when I first got into this busienss: Put on an event that is so good that it becomes a must-attend conference. Then make your money off your happy delegates.

    If we do this, we can avoid the unseemly sight of conference companies “shaking down” consultants and vendors.

  15. I’ve been messing around with the idea of setting up a referral site for professional services for more than a year. I even bought a domain name! But I’m not sure how it works and certainly don’t have the time or cash to build it.
    Fundamental to it would be independence, which would tend to mean lots of partners and maybe a separate over-sight committee.
    But then I am not sure how you get it dynamic without making it a winge-athon. (See vault.com)
    At least we know one thing for sure. If we were all in charge, the world would clearly be a better place.
    😉
    Jouyeux noel.
    /df

  16. Great and relevant discussion which I did not see until today.

    I have also been asked to chair an intranet conference for EUR 9,000. First I thought they would pay but i hanged up laughing when I realized that they wanted me to pay.

    We have sponsorered tracks at our intranet conference in March and they are clearly marked. We also reimburse costs for international speakers at our intranet conference in March – which by the way is sponsored by Simply-Communicate – but they do not speak.

    If you want a press pass Mark – just let me know. Would be happy to see you again in wonderful Copenhagen.

    See more here: http://www.IntraTeam.com

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