Future of HP user events uncertain

In a development that threatens the continued existence of independent HP user groups, Hewlett-Packard Co. intends to “coalesce” three user conferences into one “technical solutions conference” beginning next year.

Some user group officials said the plan, which may mark the end of HP World, threatens the groups’ major sources of revenue and their reasons to exist. And they’re worried that the plan would replace user-focused conferences with a vendor-sponsored, marketing-driven event.

The 10,000-member Encompass user group has endorsed the plan. But ITUG (formerly the Tandem user group), OpenView Forum International and the 100,000-member Interex group are voicing concerns.

“If you surrender your premier event, what is your purpose in life beyond that?” asked Denys Beauchemin, president of Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Interex, which co-produces HP World annually with Encompass. Interex leaders and members are assessing the impact of HP’s proposal on Interex’s “very existence…if we did not have HP World,” Beauchemin said.

“There is something of value lost when a conference is run by a vendor,” added Chris Koppe, an Interex board member and marketing director at Speedware Corp. in St. Laurent, Que. “It is the vendor’s interest that is put foremost, and there is a negative impact.”

The company will announce its plans for the unnamed technical solutions conference at next month’s HP World in Chicago, said David Parsons, vice-president of HP Americas.

Parsons said the four user groups will likely co-produce the new conference and work with HP officials on a steering committee that will choose conference content and vendors that rent booth space at the show.

But exactly how much power the user groups will have in controlling the content and how much money they will make from the conference are questions that haven’t been answered. Parsons said each user group would be able to register members and earn membership fees, as well as earn proceeds from booth sponsorships from other vendors.

The idea of a single conference is a response to requests by HP customers for comprehensive information about hardware and software technologies, Parsons said.

One purpose of the conference would be to train HP employees alongside partners and customers in new technologies, he said. The company would also be able to “bring the full brunt of HP resources” to the new event, including appearances by top executives to describe HP strategy, direction and focus, he added.

Parsons said HP has sent letters to or held discussions with leaders of all four user groups. He said he expects to get feedback from the groups by the end of this month.

HP recognizes the need to support the user community’s independence and ability to offer quality input, Parsons said. “The last thing we want is user groups that have lost that ability to communicate,” he said.

Parsons said some of the user groups might opt to keep their own conferences alive, and he didn’t rule out some level of support for those efforts.

But on the matter of whether the single-conference plan might result in fewer user groups, Parsons indicated that it could eventually. “In the context of the bigger picture, at some point one (user group) is always better than four or two,” he said.

Chicago-based ITUG, which is also known as the International HP NonStop Users Group, plans to continue its annual conference despite the HP plan.

Users “would much rather go to the boutique, focused show than be lost in the crowd at one of these general Comdex-like shows,” said ITUG chairman Richard Buckle, who is also a consultant at Insession Technologies Inc. in Boulder, Colo.

If HP pulled its support for the annual ITUG Summit, which this year is being held in October in San Jose, “it would be a financial hit but wouldn’t spell the end,” Buckle said.

OpenView Forum International is still deciding how to respond to HP’s proposal and wants more information on funding and how the voices of its members would be heard, said Henry Wojcik, president of the 8,000-member group. Wojcik expressed reservations about the effect of HP’s plan, noting that a single conference might be of greater value to hardware- and operating-system-centric user groups than it would be to OpenView software users.

Chicago-based OpenView Forum remains independent of HP but works with the vendor to produce the Software Forum, which was held last month in Montreal. It operates on an annual budget of about US$1 million, nearly all of which is raised at the annual event, Wojcik said.

“I don’t think HP wants to hurt us with this proposal, and that’s why they are contacting us,” added Sandra Potter, executive director of OpenView Forum.

“Our event is much more of a people-networking event than HP World,” she said. “We are worried about the dilution of that people-networking role, and we have to consider the financial impact.”

But the idea of having a technical solutions conference was welcomed by members of Encompass, said Kristi Browder, president of the organization that has its roots in the Digital Equipment Corp. user group.

“We don’t feel like we’re going to be shortchanged in it at all,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to help them as much as it is for them to help us.” HP will develop a revenue-sharing plan that meets Encompass’ needs, Browder predicted.

However users view it, HP’s proposal probably isn’t intended to marginalize user groups, said one analyst.

“It would be a tough transition to one conference, but I see lots of reasons to do it,” said Mary Johnston Turner, an analyst at Summit Strategies Inc. in Winchester, Mass. With a bigger conference that covers a range of topics, she said, HP might be able to lure higher-level executives, including CIOs, and help cut down on the need for users to travel.

Promoters of the four-year-old Content World trade show said last week that the event is being canceled this year due to “decreased exhibitor and sponsor interest.”

The cancellation comes less than a month after the granddaddy of all IT trade shows, Comdex, was canceled because of what was described as a lack of industry support on the exhibit floor.

John P. Noon, manager of Content World LLC, the Saratoga, Calif.-based company that held the show, said this year’s event is being shut down after two straight years of “serious declines in sales and profits.” A key problem, he said, was trying to garner interest from vendors to sponsor the event.

Noon said the first show in May 2000 had a “respectable showing,” and attendance tripled in 2001. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there was a huge drop in U.S. travel and a decline in the number of people willing to pay to attend trade conferences, Noon said. And with a souring technology economy and cuts in IT and training budgets, “it was like a perfect storm” that halted the show’s progress, he said.

There were about 1,200 attendees at Content World in 2001. That number dropped to about 800 attendees in each of the 2002 and 2003 events, he said.

Another problem, Noon said, is that while the content management segment of the industry remained fairly healthy through 2002, the “market has not really found itself.” User companies haven’t yet created enough demand across all segments, leaving vendors without enough money to sponsor and exhibit at the show, he said.

All hopes for reviving the event aren’t dead, Noon said. But he still plans to sell some of the company assets, including several Web site addresses such as Contentmanagement.com and Content.net.

– With files from Todd R. Weiss, Computerworld (U.S.)

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