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Worth the trip?

Posted: 03.04.14

Conferences are a big commitment. Why go?

As we wave good-bye to Barcelona and the excitement, madness, and competition for space, food, lodging, upgrades, and air, … hold on, I didn’t have to do any of that—I didn’t go to MWC this year. No wonder I’m so relaxed, not jet-lagged, and haven’t had any weight increase.

Barcelona is one of my favorite towns, filled with 1.6 million mostly happy Catalonians annexed to Spain and barely tolerating it. And like Amsterdam, the city seems to actually enjoy the unwashed masses that descend on it every February. It’s cool to cold in February, and so the Catalonians don’t frequent the First Zone and stroll Las Ramblas at night as much; they let the mobile masses fill up the restaurants early and they come out at 10 p.m. and later.

For the MWC attendees, just recovering from holidays and CES and trying to prep for the next conference, Barcelona is a civilized, and relatively easy, venue, not without its pleasures, and certainly nothing like Las Vegas.

But is it really worth it? I ask our friends and clients who exhibit at these things if they think it’s worth it. It’s kind of a stupid borderline-insulting question— I might just as well ask, are you stupid? Of course it’s worth it or they wouldn’t do it. And because the qualification to be a friend of mine is to be patient, polite, and saint-like, they answer me. The answer is almost always the same from each of them, “We get to meet all our customers in one place at one time. It would cost ten times as much for us to visit all of them.”

When I ask fellow analysts if they think it’s worth it, I get mixed results. The ones who say yes, say yes because they see the conferences primarily as a selling opportunity—a chance to meet with all their clients and potential clients. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. The ones who say no usually immediately bitch about the costs, crowding, lack of content, or the food (the food!?).

In the old days, probably looking back at least five years ago, maybe earlier, a conference for us meant discovering new things, meeting new companies, and enjoying a little travel. Sadly that’s no longer the case, or barely the case. Because all companies, from the smallest Kickstarter to the giants, now keep our email inboxes overflowing daily— news means new email. The conferences have almost no serendipity. The same is true of new companies. A start-up either already knows the analysts and press they want to speak to and so reach out almost as soon as they have their letter of incorporation signed; some don’t even wait for that. The only time we discover a new company now is if it’s in an adjacent market we don’t follow very closely. And then there’s the travel. The airlines, at least the U.S. airlines, are so oppressive it’s hard to believe how great they once were. Everyone, due to mergers and acquisitions, is a premium flyer now. The planes are packed, usually overbooked, and the service and services are sad.

So where’s the incentive, the fun, the adventure? Well, it’s still there, just in smaller quantities and harder to find. And there still are surprises at a conference, you just have to look harder, be inquisitive, and show some interest. Our role has changed from carrying a bag and having delights tossed in, to that of truffle-hunting dog. And every now and then you have the flight where things go right; it leaves and arrives on time, the service is good, and even the food is enjoyable. As for the adventure, there are two. One is to visit conferences that are in your favorite cities. For me that’s Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Hong Kong, and a couple of others. The other choice is to go to academic conferences. The organizers of academic conferences take great joy in picking unusual, usually less expensive (although often tricky to get to) places. And, if you’re up to speed, there are usually some great surprises. Siggraph is at the top of the list for me, FMX and View are up there too, and lots of smaller events, often held at a university.

Just writing this has gotten me all fired up and looking forward to my upcoming trip to SXSW, and then a smaller event, IMAPS. See ya there.