Conferences worthwhile, despite dwindling attendance

If you’ve attended any conferences in the last year, even before Sept. 11, then you’ve noticed that attendance is down dramatically compared to past events. Overall, according to a recent informal study I did of vendors from a usually large financial annual conference, attendance is down about 30 to 50 per cent across the board. This poses some concerns for both exhibitors and attendees.

Unless there’s a counteracting force, a downward spiral in attendance creates a negative feedback loop. Fewer attendees means fewer exhibitors. In turn, fewer exhibitors means fewer attendees. While we may have too many conference opportunities today, a lack of conferences in any industry wouldn’t be a good thing.

Large conferences have an excitement about them. They attract attendees with buying- and decision-making power and draw vendors like flies. In two to three days, you can see what’s happening in an entire industry sector. You can cut a list of possible solutions to a short list of two or three, in a tenth of the time it would take to have those same vendors make presentations at your head office.

At the conference that prompted my little bit of research, vendors outnumbered the attendees by about two to one. This was, to say the least, unusual. Looking around the most times empty exhibit floor, I found it difficult to imagine how the costs associated with booths and staffing, flights and hotels, were justified by the handful of attendees stumbling around, weighed down by their growing burden of surplus vendor knick knacks.

I raised the ROI issue with the more than 300 vendors present and received some interesting feedback. The surprise was that not all vendors see low attendance as a bad thing.

When they attend as regular attendees, vendors are there for the same thing as you or I. They want to hear good speakers and the time to network with their peers. The quantity of vendors exhibiting, the presence of a particular vendor and the location of the event are all secondary to good presentations and networking.

As exhibitors they have different needs, they want attendees with buying power, and as much exhibit time, and time with individual attendees as possible.

The real surprise came from the handful of vendors who had no problems with diminishing attendees. Who considered the dismal conference we attended together a success. And who were all rather smug about their “strategy” for making any conference a success. What was interesting is that independently of each other, they offered the exact same advice. Advice as suitable to any attendee as it is to any vendor.

The advice will seem like motherhood and apple pie again, good advice usually does, but it seemed to work well enough for them to turn a conference that I perceived as a financial disaster for others, into a success for themselves. The advice? You go to a conference for a specific reason, not to “browse” around. A dozen serious conversations with clients, or peers, is enough to justify the costs associated with sending a single person to any conference.

Every one of the people I interviewed who found value in a conference which I considered a disaster said pretty much the same thing. A handful of quality interactions is worth more than hordes of people at their booth. They also pointed out that at smaller conferences, the amount of quality time is increased, not decreased.

Of course, if this strategy is true for vendors, it is doubly true for attendees. A conference is a gathering of like-minded peers. Even if there are only 50 people at a conference, it would be difficult to have 50 heart-to-heart conversations in two days. The topic of conversation is obvious. It is to find either solutions to existing problems, or to discover new opportunities for the organizations that send us.

(And picking up extra knick knacks for the kids ain’t a bad idea either.)

de Jager, is an itinerant conference attendee, contact him at