Colleague and friend Jeff Cobb hits the nail on the head with his recent blogpost describing how he recently decided NOT to attend a conference, not based on the cost, but on its value (or lack thereof). He ultimately determined he could find the equivalent content online (and often free through blogs, etc.) and that he was already connected with most of the individuals he would likely see at the conference. Wow, if you're a conference planner, that's some scary stuff since the primary drivers to conferences are the opportunities to learn and connect. Even when content started being put online, it used to be often said that conferences were unique in their networking opportunity. But that really isn't true anymore, is it? I've made hundreds of contacts in the past year through social media sites (and I'm not talking about a simple "follow" or "friending" -- I've made serious connections and lasting friendships with colleagues online).
In fact, there are several colleagues who I used to see annually at conferences that I now connect with continuously online (via blogs, Facebook, Twitter primarily). Whereas I wouldn't have dared miss the industry conference previously because I'd be missing my once annual opportunity to connect with these colleagues, now that's not a necessity. Will I start skipping the conferences? In the case of ASAE & The Center's, for now I'd have to say a big NO because there still is plenty of value (and fun) in it for me! But I am starting to second guess some of the other conferences I've been attending. Like Jeff, I'm thinking the $1200 (for registration and travel) can be better spent elsewhere.
Jeff makes another great point and caution to be heeded:
"...organizations worried about a drop in conference attendance because of the current economic climate need to look deeper. Cuts in travel budgets will, of course, lead to declines in attendance at face-to-face events, but anyone who expects attendance to come bouncing happily back once the economy improves may be sorely disappointed."
The fact is, association conferences often have lots of competition in content and networking....and it sure seems that competition is going to get tougher as e-learning and social networking opportunities expand. The current economy certainly isn't helping conference revenue, but we can't forget that there are bigger, longer-term issues to contend with too.
However, there is good news. There are great opportunities for associations in e-learning and social networking. And, if I were a conference planner, I'd be thinking about how to capitalize on what's happening online. Case in point, ASAE & The Center has done a fabulous job of attracting the social media savvy (and want-to-bes) to their conferences. They've offered social media labs for the novices (which also gets the experienced there to serve as faculty and mentors). They've held sessions to bring together and highlight the association bloggers. They incorporated tweeting into the events - which as it turns out, has had multiple benefit: 1) it embraces those already connected through Twitter, 2) it enables those who've only met virtually to connect in real life (IRL), 3) it strengthens the community onsite, and 4) it provides a way for those not attending the event to still learn (albeit in 140 character tidbits). This, by the way, serves as marketing. Case in point, I've been following the tweets from the ASAE & The Center's Membership and Marketing Sympsium and I have to say I've been intrigued by the conversations / highlights from the sessions. This may just influence my decision to attend next year.
Lots to ponder. More questions than answers, I guess. If this issue isn't on your radar, it needs to be!