Are Conferences Obsolete?
When I first entered the work force one of the best perks around was being able to attend trade shows and conferences. What was not to love? You got away from the drudgery of the 9-5 grind, got to go to strange and exotic places (like Cleveland for example), and were generally given meals and accommodations well beyond what you were used to in real life. There were no sweeter words than “per diem”, which I think is Latin for “eat whatever you want, the company is paying for it” (SIDE NOTE: Have you ever noticed how fancy some people get when they are spending someone else’s money?).
I can’t say I’ve done a lot of work related travel, after all, I am waaaaaay too important to leave the office for any length of time, but I have been able to travel to some parts of this world that I wouldn’t have never seen otherwise. (Quick Disclaimer: For those that envy business travelers, while it seems like a paid vacation from the outside, I can tell you that traveling on the company dime isn’t nearly as fun or as glamorous as it often appears).
But that was then and this is now: Then, was pre-internet where communication was done primarily by phone, mail, and in person. Al Gore had not invented the Internets yet and conferences and trade shows were by default a location-based activity. Oh how the world has changed since then.
Today, I am barraged with emails inviting me to download whitepapers (98% appear to talk about how important it is to have a social media presence), sign up for webinars (98% appear to talk about how important it is to have a social media presence), or view live coverage of events (98% appear to talk about how important it is to have a social media presence). If I never felt like working, I could easily fill my brain with enough information to, well, fill my brain, all from the comfort of my desk. There is literally nothing you can’t learn with a few well-booleaned Google searches. Seriously, I did brain surgery on my dog this afternoon after Googling “How to do brain surgery on my dog”. (Mental Note: Google “where can I bury my dead dog” later).
This leads me to my point; Has digital media evolved to a point where business travel is becoming obsolete? Other than to enrich the industries that profit from business travelers (I’m looking at you mini-bar manufacturers), why do I really need to go to Orlando to learn about the latest social media techniques? What’s the value of venturing to Seattle to discover new advances in web analytics? Tell me the ROI of going to the junket, drunk-fest, douchebag convention, think tank that is South By Southwest. The truth is, you don’t need to go beyond your comfy little cube to be the smartest man on the planet on almost any subject you want. Yet these conferences continue to thrive, grow, and be well-attended.
Now, liars proponents will tell you, “Being face to face is the most effective way to learn and interact” (Translation: Dude, how am I gonna figure out who’s hiring so I can angle for a new and better job at a different company). They might tell you “rubbing shoulders with the customer is the best way to get deals done” (translated: Dude, sure I know the customer is going to renew, but I love free Ruth Chris Steaks, so a little business dinner on the road is a win-win). You will often hear “By removing yourself from the distraction of the office, you are able to focus on activities that will enhance your development and benefit the company” (Translation: Dude, when you’re on the road, it’s harder for the boss to see what a slack you are and if the strip joint restaurant is smart, they know how to
write a receipt that will not only pay for your filet mignon but also allow you to over-expense the company and profit from the trip). Another popular argument is “by going out into the field you are better able to understand the market and its needs and demands” (translated: Dude, Cirque de Soleil can only be truly appreciated in Vegas). Finally, an oldie but goodie is “I’ll be able to bring back knowledge that I can share with the team (translated: “fuck the team, they already loathe me because I got to go to London and they didn’t, and by the time the boss remembers that I didn’t do a knowledge transfer, whatever I learned will be outdated, and I’ll have to go to the next conference for a refresher”).
The dirty little secret is that most of these trips aren’t necessary. The company will probably do just fine if you miss that “Mobile Marketing: Your Roadway to Success” conference in Tempe. You can probably find 14 webcasts on ‘YouTube Channel best practices’ that will teach you more than that “Leveraging Video Content for Sales Success” event in New York. And I know for Goddamn sure that whatever the fuck they talk about at South By Southwest Interactive isn’t something that can’t be learned at some loud noisy bar on a Friday night at your local college campus (I mean that’s pretty much what happens at SXSW right?).
Don’t get me wrong, if you can convince the company that you need to attend every conference in the country like some weed-smokin’ Phish fan, more power to you. Just be on notice that the day will come when the gravy train ends and we’ll look back and say “remember the days when we traveled the country for free to learn stuff we already knew?” Until then enjoy your free travel perks while you can, rack up those frequent flyer miles and 5 Stars restaurants because someday soon that pinhead Lionel in finance (who never travels) is gonna take a hard look at the books and ask “Why do we send Phil to San Francisco every year for MacWorld? Aren’t we in the semi-conductor business?”
* Disclaimer: While Dean talks a big game about his disdain for business travel and its uselessness, he is generally full of shit and disingenuous on the subject. He is more than happy to help you spend your per diem at a fine restaurant that has fresh cut chops, a wide selection of Brandy, and well-stocked humidor. Give him a call as he is available most evenings