Monday, June 16, 2008

The Case for Three Day Conferences

I have recently posted about the virtues of one-day conferences, especially in the post-VON world. With a shaky economy and rising airfare costs, we�re all being more selective about attending events, and in many ways, short and sweet conferences are the way to go. No argument there, and I suspect we may see a trend towards more of these in 2008.

It�s hard to say how much of a factor the three-day format was in VON�s case, or whether the market simply can�t support these larger events right now. After all, the telecom sector is rapidly evolving and fragmenting into many spaces. What are these events really covering? Are they about telecom? Voice? Disruptive technologies? New business models? Enterprise? Consumer? Carrier? Channels? Multimedia communications? 2.0? 3.0? And on and on...

I think a lot of this is a matter of focus. One day events can be great if they�re really targeted on maybe just one of these tangents. Stay narrow but go deep. To me, there�s a lot of value in going deep, but the trade-off is you only attract an audience that really wants that, and that can be tricky to find. On the upside, though, one-day events by nature are on the small side and can be fairly agile in tailoring the content and focus on the fly. This makes them ideal for addressing the leading edge themes and trends-of-the-minute. Again, there is a lot of value to this, and these events can do a great job catering to the early adopter and disruptive innovator set.

There�s a lot more that could be said here, but I want to move on. On the flip side of the coin, I still think there�s a place for the larger and longer events. If the focus is tight and the content speaks to what the market wants right now, they will come. It�s definitely easier said than done, as I think these shows have generally become too broad in scope, trying to address every niche out there. This only leads to dilution and if adjustments aren�t made to address today�s needs, the market will respond accordingly. The market researcher in me says this all comes down to one thing � knowing your audience. If you engage them � and stay engaged � you�ll know what they need and what they�ll be willing to invest time and money in to come out and see.

To me, TMC�s IT Expo is a good example. This show has been running on the same format for years, which has its pros and cons. The familiarity and stability makes this an easy choice, in the sense that there�s a core community of both exhibitors and attendees. There�s a consistent focus � twice a year, with an East and West coast event. They haven�t spread themselves too thin by expanding into new geographies or adding other specialty shows. Not being run by an industry group, they have not been subject to the internal issues that have undermined events like NXTcomm and GTM.

Of course, the downside of familiarity is complacency, and with that the risk of falling behind the curve for innovation and disruption. To be fair, though, IT Expo has been less about leading edge and more about what sells in the market today. The show has always catered to buyers and sellers. Again, it works because they know their market. A big reason for this is that TMC is a publisher and content producer as much as they are an event organizer. They probably have the largest cadre of writers and bloggers in telecom � for sake of transparency I should add that I�m a regular TMC contributor � which by nature keeps them on top of the trends as well engaged with their readership. As a result, the IT Expo provides enough leading edge content to keep things interesting, but also providing the mainstream content that most people can readily identify with.

Because their community is well established and sufficiently large, it is fairly easy to justify a three day event. If IT Expo was just content � and no exhibitors - one day would be enough � but they wouldn�t call it an �expo� then, right? With three key ingredients, though, three days actually goes by quickly. First and foremost of these ingredients is the community. As the Chilliwack song Rain-o goes, �...if there�s no audience there just ain�t no show�. Very true words from a very underrated Canadian band. Anyhow, TMC�s audience is large enough to warrant three days to do everything to keep everyone happy. Small and tight communities definitely have their place, and one day events are ideal for this.

The second ingredient is the exhibitors, who of course have a symbiotic relationship with the attendees. For a variety of reasons, TMC is very good at bringing buyers and sellers together, and you need both to create a community for a three day event. Exhibitors are always interested in being around the latest and greatest innovations, but if they�re not writing orders they won�t be back next time.

That brings us to the third ingredient � content. This is the core for any conference - otherwise you�re just going to a trade fair. Nothing wrong with that, but as we all know, not all of us are buyers or sellers. Many of us go to these events to learn from industry leaders and of course, to network with our industry. As mentioned earlier, because of TMC�s roots, there is no shortage of content at the IT Expo. It may not be Telecom 3.0, but it doesn�t have to be. It�s certainly beyond Telecom 1.0, and I can say from lots of personal experience that there�s still a large and hungry market for Telecom 1.0 and 2.0 level content.

The market for Telecom 3.0 may be very sexy, but I suspect it�s a lot smaller and harder to target. I look to events like eComm here, as they really know what�s coming and have a very important role to play as the beacon for innovation. When it comes to focusing on where disruption and innovation are heading, this is the type of event to be at. After all, since 3.0 isn't here yet, it's not about buyers and sellers or exhibitors. It's about building community rather than serving a community. And it's about exploring how telcos need to harness these forces to rethink their business, and not just how to build a more efficient network. This is a very different type of content, and there's certainly room in the market for both.

To me, there�s a very subtle balance among these three ingredients � attendees, exhibitors and the content. Getting it right translates into a viable community and one that�s large enough to warrant a three day event. In that regard, I�d say the IT Expo has got it right and continues to serve as a good model to follow. Can it be improved? Absolutely. Do they run the risk of losing focus by having too many disparate content tracks? You bet. Are they willing and able to adapt to changing market tastes and needs? So far, I�d say yes. Time will tell, but my guess is that as we get closer to their upcoming Fall IT Expo, we�ll see some new things and updated content that wasn�t there last time.

I�m not saying that IT Expo is the only one who has it right. However, as I�m in this ongoing mode of looking at the conference space, they certainly seem to have the right mix of elements to support a three day event. Every conference/industry event has a distinct mix of these ingredients, and others will have continued success as well. To me it�s just a matter of finding � and keeping � the right balance of these ingredients.

I�ll be the first one to say that VON had it right for a long time � as did others � and their successes can be repeated if the right pieces come together. I believe that the market will always respond when their needs are being met, just as they will when they are not. For some, a three day event will continue to do the job, and for others, scaling down to one day events will be the way to go. Nobody has a monopoly on community, but when you can help make it grow, that�s where the audience will go. And if you agree with me, then I know you�ll enjoy listening to Rain-o!

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