Exploding the conference business

Too many conferences suck. They’re too expensive. They are filled with boring panels. They are all about speeches and not about conversation and argument and learning and meeting. They don’t capture the expertise of the crowd. They enrich the organizers at the cost of both the “talent” and the “audience” (a distinction that is usually random, meaningless, and essentially insulting). They are filled with commercial pitches. The large-scale conferences are too obvious; the high-end conferences are too often too safe. There are exceptions and conferences I do like attending because of the people they attract or because they are provocative. But often, the problem is that the interests of those who make conferences work — the people who fill it — are not aligned with the interests of the money behind conferences — the organizers and sponsors.

The conference business is ripe for revolution. If newspapers, TV, magazines, books, reference works, telecommunications, entertainment, retail, real estate, recruiting, and countless other industries are exploding thanks to the internet and the direct connections it enables, then so should conferences. Why shouldn’t we organize our own better conferences on our own terms?

Take, for example, this week’s SIIA conference in New York. I already bitched that these bozos wanted to charge me $500 to attend their full conference after speaking on their panel. The speakers are the content for these unevents, and to have the chutzpah to try to charge the content providers appalled me. I tried to drop out of the panel, but the guy who organized it — unpaid and paying to attend the event himself, the poor shmuck — would have been left holding the empty chair. So I’m doing it. But I’ll do it growling and fomenting revolt.

Look at the basic economics of this conference:
* 400 are attending at $1,100 to $1,700 each, which adds up to $440k to $680k. So let’s average that out at $560k.
* The 14 sponsor slots bring in $20k-$5k each for the privilege of handing out junk mail sans postage. That adds up to $140k (though one $15k slot is still open).
* The total: $700k. (And that doesn’t include membership fees to the organization that range from $850 to $125k per year.)
* So let’s give them $100k for the venue and coffee.
* That leaves $600k for content.
* There are 50 speakers. That means $12k per speaker. Hell, $5k would be nice. $1k would be something. $500 payment instead of a $500 fee would at least be polite.
But, no, the attendees and speakers are foolish enough to enrich the organizers to the tune of $700K, gross because they are a captive audience.

It is time to explode the conference and convene the unconference.

Dave Winer wrote recently complaining about creeping commercialism in conferences. He’s right. And he explains how he has dealt with this. But commercialism is only one issue. And Winer himself holds the keys to solving more problems than just that.

At the first Bloggercon in October 2003, which Dave organized, I was assigned a session on politics. Beforehand, I said something to Dave about “the panel” and Dave jumped down my throat, saying with a forcefulness that cannot be ignored: There is no panel, he decreed. The room is the panel. Well, he was right. Better yet, he was visionary. So I took that direction to heart, which is usually the wise thing to do with Dave’s advice. If you don’t, you’ll miss blogs, RSS, OPML, and podcasts.

And so I decided to become Phil Donahue (I used to say that I became Oprah, but considering my recent rant about her, I’ll change media metaphors). I saw it as my job to draw out the wisdom of the room, for that room was filled with wise bloggers who had widely varied experience. Luckily, I knew enough of them that I could hear a point and then go to someone else for a counterpoint. And the goal of all that was not argument or lecture but instead, a cooperative effort to try to get to a point. That was the form for the next Bloggercon and other such conferences to follow. The convesation was the content, the hallway was the room. They were open events whose aim was to share, not annoint; to listen, not lecture.

Why shouldn’t any professional community be able to gather to share best practices and toughest issues and meet to see what ensues? What holds us back? Conference organizing is a pain. So what would it take to solve that? Here’s an idea: conference concierges who hold no vested interest in the industry but merely manage the venue and the organizational details. What if we could gang together to find a critical mass of people who want to meet — all welcome — and we use online tools to agree on agendas — or not — and when we hit critical mass, we pool resources to hire a concierge to rent the room and bring in the lunch for us? What would that cost? A hulluva lot less than $1,700 for two days of blather and another chintzy bag, that’s for damned sure. The group could decide to have sponsors cover that cost, though see Dave’s cautions about that.

And once we’re together, we can gather in new ways that emphasize conversation over lectures, meeting over merely sitting. We can use online to organize birds-of-a-feather sessions and to address common problems. We can pool information and resources on wikis. We can have sessions that are about nothing but exploring what we don’t know.

Dave has another vision for a commercial hypercamp.

Whatever. The conference structure and industry is ready to be exploded.