Conference conundrum: should you go?

It must be conference season. Keynote speeches and seminars are in the air. VoiceCon 2004, a voice technology conference in Florida, wrapped up in March. So did Wi-Fi Power, a Toronto show focused on wireless network technology. A week after Wi-Fi Power, Wi-Fi Planet, another wireless networking event, came to T.O.

VON Canada, an offshoot of the Voice On the Net Conference and Expo in Santa Clara, Calif., is scheduled to hit Toronto in May. So is Expo Comm Canada, a communication technology event.

There’s the overarching Comdex in Las Vegas this November, and countless other conferences between now and then.

Comdex Canada, to buck a trend, remains missing in action.

With so many IT trade shows, each one promising to be a great place to win friends and, for vendors, influence the market, how does a network manager decide which of these gatherings provides the best bang for the entrance fee?

“You have to look at the information they’re actually presenting,” said Brian Hansen, IT director at Vantis Credit Union in Winnipeg. “Some of them are good. Some of them, we should never have gone.”

Hansen didn’t expand on the duds, but he did explain that Vantis’s decision to send him to these shows depends on whether the events can provide value, which can be an intangible measurement. “The main reason for going is to meet and greet, get some contacts, put a name to a face for people you deal with all the time,” he said.

Hansen said different sized shows offer different sorts of value. Large conferences like Comdex provide a bigger breadth of product and potential contacts than smaller, local events do. However, bigger isn’t necessarily better. If “it’s too big,” Hansen said, “you don’t get one-on-one. You’ll get contacts as far as sales people go, but if you want 500 sales people nagging you 24-7, there are easier ways than going to Comdex.”

Smaller shows can be useful, “especially if it’s a local show,” Hansen said. “Now you’re dealing with your vendor, your OEM or VAR, and getting in contact with their sales people. You’d get to know a local HP (Hewlett-Packard Co.) rep or a local hardware or software rep. You’ll know who your vendor’s dealing with.”

Rob Barrett, owner of Bartec Fire Safety Systems Ltd. in Burnaby, B.C., expects his money’s worth from IT trade shows. “If I’m going to go to a conference and my time’s worth $100 an hour, does it look like I’m going to get $100-an-hour’s worth of information back?”

Barrett also said professional networking opportunities are reasons to attend. “You meet people you wouldn’t normally meet, make connections with people you wouldn’t normally connect with.”

Still, Barrett said he’s careful about choosing conferences. “My schedule is so ram-jammed, if I do try to take some time I really have to justify it. And if we’re not in the market for anything — this is one of the criticisms of my staff: I get enough ideas. I don’t need to go out looking for more.”

Barrett and Hansen said there are so many industry events these days that it can be difficult to choose which ones to attend.

“It’s become a business on its own,” Barrett said. “Is this the promoters creating a job for themselves, or is this the industry trying to promote itself?”

Judging by comments from event organizers, IT trade shows aim to serve the industry first. According to Fred Knight, co-chairman of VoiceCon, which occurred in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. last month, this conference attracted 3,500 participants because it offered the right topic at the right time: discussions about IP telephony just as many an enterprise considers replacing its circuit-switched phone system with the new packet-switched alternative.

“This is the place to come to if you’re interested in IP telephony,” Knight said.

While VoiceCon seems to have been a success, Comdex Canada remains on hold indefinitely. “Comdex Canada was postponed due to lack of vendor support,” said Emily Swanson, MediaLive International Inc.’s spokesperson, in an e-mail response to Network World Canada’s questions. “The team has put a great deal of effort into focusing on Comdex Las Vegas, which we see as a model for the global Comdex brand events.”

MediaLive is the same company that raised this year’s successful VoiceCon event, yet the firm can’t seem to get Comdex Canada off the ground. Why do some conferences thrive while others falter?

“Events such as VoiceCon that highlight tension points are generally highly successful,” Swanson said. “The nascent state and promise of the VoIP market, as well as the recent upturn in technology spending combined to make the VoiceCon event hugely successful.”

But as for why Comdex Canada can’t raise vendor support, perhaps it’s because of the Las Vegas show’s success, suggested Terry Kell, president of Kanatek Technologies Inc., (KTI) a storage network integrator in Ottawa. “If you’re going to go to Comdex, you go to the big one.”

As well, “there’s probably too many events,” Kell said. “We participated in Comdex a couple of times. Shows in general just don’t generate enough business to warrant the cost for us.”

KTI used to operate its own events: SANStorm in 2001, and StorageForce in 2002. But since then, the company prefers to invite customers to open houses, where KTI can discuss specific client issues and describe particular implementations. Kell said these “Thinking Ahead” sessions bring the firm closer to customers in a way that full-fledged conferences couldn’t do.

“Conferences were more about positioning. They don’t generally generate a lot of leads. They do create awareness and trends. It’s also our way of doing some market research. But with the unpredictability of the market, our initiatives have all been extremely tactical, aimed either at specific customers or markets that will give us a return.”

Hansen from Vantis also said tactics are just as important as strategy when it comes to deciding which conferences he will attend. After all, “I only have a budget for so much training, whether it’s in the city or going to a show. If I didn’t I’d never be in the office. I could just travel the world.”

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