Monday, September 18, 2006

Would you pay to see something you've already read?

Rick notes that Conference blogging catching on - which is good and then he raises good points - some of which I struggle with every time a conference comes up - mainly why not stream or record these sessions?

Conferences want to be held and have attendees. Yet, as many developers note, getting to the conference isn't always possible. As Rick notes "But if the material is accessible about half the incentive to attend will be removed and conference will completely evaporate."

This brings us to the economics of conferences. While we all like the idea of spectacles, the main reason for an attendee to be at a conference is to learn.

Does a conference have to be at a resort? No - but without one, as John Koziol pointed out, "there's no natural watering hole to gather to at night;". Also, while there are a number of speakers who are true "road warriors" during conference season, not everyone , wants to travel and live in a hotel - thus a resort makes the "pain" of travel more enjoyable.

So it's a tough call. Hold it at a resort and you have to charge a premium. Hold it at a smaller hotel and everyone fends for themselves. Many attendees I've spoken to in the past talk about wanting to hold a conference at the "nearest and cheapest hotel to the airport" - but that's usually the hotel without the necessary facilities. Rainer always does a class job with the German conference and it's usually fairly close to the airport too.

And how do you get all those speakers to a location? Advisor (and many others) pay for their speakers' travel - if the conference doesn't get a lot of attendees, the host is out of pocket. And the FoxPro community strength is in its wide breadth of speakers, who aren't just from one area but all over the world. I loved the idea that FoxForward included many speakers who have not been heard from before. Every time I speak with a FoxPro developer for the first time, I usually learn something new, be it about design, coding or even how they deal with their users. It's valuable information.

Not everyone attended the Great Lakes conference this year, so Whil offered the materials through Hentzenwerke. The issue with these materials is that it's pure reading - and there are many developers who can't get it, unless they see it.

"How can I build the great application for the web when I'm still building applications that have to run with Windows 95?"

Most educators will admit that getting someone "offsite" is a good way to learn. They can focus on the new material - although the danger is that they suffer overload (seems I heard that comment a lot from FoxForward).

The other downside is that you see so much at a conference and get inspired, that when you return, it's almost like being taken into the 25th century and then thrown back into the 3rd. And for some developers, who only get to attend ONE conference a year, they need something for those 350 days that they aren't excited about the conference. You need a way of being able to "go back to the future" every now and then.

A year ago, I got into the habit of attending lunch seminars online. It was wonderful and the attendance was fairly good. One speaker , one hour - and usually about 200 attendees. Now, there are hosting costs - but that could be a way - and then the materials were available afterwards - no white paper though. For that, the speaker actually had an "overview" paper but if you wanted more, then you could purchase an e-book. You got to "hear" and "see" the session - but you had to pay for the final piece.

So what's the takeaway here? More regional conferences? Hey, if MS can help out with OzFox Lite, could others be done the same way? (granted, MS North America typically only sponsors DotNet related developer events - something I wish they would change)

More online sessions? They can't hurt - in fact, they could help everyone get the word out on some of the best sessions. Rick alluded to the point that part of the benefit of conferences is the networking and you won't get that online - so the conference value is still there - in fact, it would almost force organizers to make the networking part even MORE part of the conference, like an Unconference - hmm...but how?

More materials? I think the age of "pure" white papers is almost gone - they need to be expanded with more useful content. I always think of this when writing an article - code is good but if I put too much code in the article, who is really going to transpose it? I want the download - but better yet, I want to see it before I use it. Yes, a lot of this material is available online - and we still need to make it easier to access. Are you paying for the written content or the visual content?

More speakers? Everyone has something to contribute - even a wallflower like Kevin. (I was one as well at the first DevCon I attended in 1991 - two years later, I was singing karaoke with Menachem).

I'm not saying I have all the answers on this - nor am I slamming existing conferences, where the organizers do an absolutely amazing job. I agree with Rick and others who say - if you don't go these these conferences, they will eventually fold. But there needs to be a way to get a similar message out to those who can't get there.

(read the comments on Rick's post to get a feel for some of the issues there)

What do you think?


Ted Roche said...

Andrew MacNeill - AKSEL Solutions asks Would you pay to see something you've already read?. "Rick notes that Conference blogging catching on - which is good and then he raises good points - some of which I struggle with every time a conference comes up - mainly why not stream or record these sessions?"

A good conference is an excellent learning experience interrupted by pesky sessions. While the materials in the sessions must be excellent, as much learning ought to go on in the halls, over shared meals, and in the evenings as possible. A conference ought to first be a social event, then a networking event and finally a learning event. As ARM points out, many of us learn better visually, by watching a fellow practitioner walk through the steps, and I agree. And seeing the vendors is a huge benefit. I walked up to the SugarCRM booth at the recent (and lamentably, last) LinuxWorld Boston and asked for the 5-minute pitch. I learned an immense amount. Chatting in the hallways, meeting other volunteers, finding out what other practitioners are up to, are all vital parts of the conference experience.

As I haven't been burning up the flying miles lately, I've been enjoying the audiocasts available through IT Conversations. Recently, I've heard Andreessen on the history of the web, Paul Graham on Great Hackers, and Clay Shirky on ontology and I would pay to hear any of these presentations again in person.

So, for those who can't be there, presentations, white papers and recordings are better than nothing. For those that can be there, viewing past presentations ought to be encouragement to attend. I lament the great presentations of past conferences that no one will get to see again: the late Drew Speedie doing anything, Alan Schwartz doing the pie slices or "the three circles", George Goley and his indian clubs, or the incredible team of Alden and Anderson doing Wizards and Builders.

Andrew MacNeill said...

Ted, great points and I agree - there are lots of sessions that I have read that I would pay to see again.

As you say "A conference ought to first be a social event, then a networking event and finally a learning event."