The schmooze racket

Tech journalism's new business: Charging big bucks for a never-ending calendar of conferences.

Published November 1, 2000 8:34PM (EST)

For conference junkies, October and November are the equivalent to May and June for high school debutantes: It's the season, promising an endless cycle of panels, parties, sponsored cocktails, tepid hors d'oeuvres, canned keynote presentations and hushed conversations outside the ballrooms of overpriced hotels. And at the end of the month, instead of dried corsages and a closetful of wilted dresses, these conference veterans drag home a bouquet of name tags hanging from sponsor-branded laces and a pocket heavy with business cards.

This year's season is half over, but already it's proven busier and more event-filled than ever before. The booming business-technology magazine sector is sponsoring an ever-building whirlwind of conferences. The last 60 days alone have seen events from the Industry Standard (iB2B and Net Returns), Red Herring (NDA 2000 and Venture Market East), the Silicon Alley Reporter (Digital Coast 2000) and Upside (E=B2, Launch and Preview). IDG's Agenda 2001 and Vortex, and Forbes' Telecosm. Business 2.0 launched the first of its new conference series in late October with B2 Live ("The 10 Driving Principles of the New Economy") and next week, eCompany Now will debut its first conference, "Riffing with the Masters: A Conference on What Works." That event will, in turn, be followed swiftly by the Industry Standard's "identity: Brand Excellence in the Internet Economy," and Webnoize, the eponymous conference from the digital-music webzine. Even the youthful publications Line56 and are planning conferences of their own for early next year.

These days, it seems there's a new magazine every week, and with every new magazine comes a half-dozen must-attend events. The sheer number of conferences available for tech-Net-biz types is enough to make your head spin -- or, at least, fill up your calendar and swiftly empty your company's coffers. According to Dirk Spiers, co-founder of the conference-tracking portal, there are between 2,000 to 3,000 tech-related conferences a year.

There's a reason why tech-biz magazines throw conferences: They're a great way to connect to your readers, terrific for brand-building and -- for those editors thus inclined -- proselytizing. And although no one is willing to say just how profitable these events are, almost everyone agrees that they are a very lucrative side project for publications looking for revenues beyond advertising. Lucrative enough, apparently, that everyone's doing them, from venerable institutions like Forbes down to the newest magazines you might not even have heard of yet. The business of magazines has apparently become the business of conferences, too.

It's logical that magazines would throw conferences since, after all, they make a living from writing about business issues, but the church and state division between editorial and marketing is, some allege, somewhat looser when it comes to conferences. More than one conference planner complains that the competition lets favored sponsors "buy" speaking gigs at conferences -- although no one is willing to name names. Jason McCabe Calacanis, CEO of Silicon Alley Reporter, says that so many conference planners are giving seats on panels and keynote sessions to the sponsors who are footing the bill that now his advertisers are coming to expect these kinds of favors, too. Says Calacanis, "There are a lot of maverick Johnny-come-latelys starting conferences. They create a lot of noise and then go to our sponsorship base and say 'We'll let you do a keynote if you buy a table.'"

But even conferences that appear to be more ethically sound -- no purchased keynotes here! -- may be less about journalism than self-promotion. Many of these conference panels are studded with editors and contributing writers from the magazine putting on the event. Magazine regulars serve as panelists, moderators or speakers and speaking slots are filled by the high-profile names that fill the pages of their publications every month.

All too often, this makes for a self-congratulatory event, with participants fawning at the feet of the magazine's favored cover personalities and en vogue companies. Some would argue that the conference business, which is often more about publicity and schmooze than a true exchange of ideas and criticism, should be kept far away from objective journalism. Should editors and journalists really be making nice on stage with the subjects they cover, including some of their own advertisers?

The world of Net-tech-business conferences comes out of a long history of IT technology conferences; the tech industry has always been event-prone. "I think that to some extent there's a conference glut. But it may not be new, it only seems new because of the late entries from the magazine side," explains David Evans, VP of conferences at the Industry Standard. "In reality, the conference situation in the Net is the same continuation of what used to happen in the IT space, where conferences have always been the way the industry talks to each other. That makes the computer-Net-IT industries somewhat unusual. In other industries, conferences tend not to be so important. Whereas here, in this industry, people actually look forward to going to conferences."

The conferences put on by publishing entities are generally smaller than your traditional conference (i.e. Comdex or MacWorld) -- with hundreds rather than thousands of attendees -- and boast an emphasis on schmoozing, pontificating and making business deals rather than selling products. Most are geared toward the affluent executives of both the Net industry and, increasingly, traditional companies looking to "get" the Net. Not surprisingly, prices are creeping into the stratosphere, with entry fees to many events ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 a head. Everybody wants to throw the next TED or Agenda or PCForum. (All top-billed conferences with high-profile attendees.)

Whether or not conferences are really what magazines are supposed to be doing, publishers feel the need to throw them anyway, partly to keep up with the Joneses and partly because the money is too good to ignore. "The conference business -- if it works -- is a high margin business in terms of bang for buck, which is why all these companies do it," explains Kurt Andersen, who is helming's upcoming conference series. "Because we're selling ads on the site and magazine and because these conferences will have various forms of sponsorships, it becomes a kind of 'integrated sell' in marketing speak." It also brings that relationship between business partners and editorial a lot closer -- putting faces with names, introducing editors and journalists to the companies that help pay for their meals, and giving advertisers a chance to bond with the brand.

"Those are the lines one has to draw, both in general and for me and us, it's a new arena and we're making up that line every day," explains Andersen, who says that as a non-editorial employee he is working to promote "the side of truth and justice" when it comes to ethical conferences.

Despite the occasional advertiser love-in, product shill or self-important pontification, almost every conference has its insightful moments -- not that anyone's listening, necessarily.

The dirty little not-so-secret secret of these events is that few people really go to these kinds of conferences to hear the carefully planned panels or keynote speeches (though naturally, every executive hopes to get a panel or speech since they are, after all, great free publicity). For most attendees, panels are merely a bonus for the moments when you're not discussing co-branding promotions with potential new partners.

In fact, as self-described conference regular Lisa Crane, managing partner of Media Venture Advisers, laughs, "I have been to conferences where there are six people on the panel and eight people in the audience; everyone else is in the lobby or the bar making deals. It's unfortunate that the panels are less important." So why bother with the panels at all? It's because the magazines have to compete to draw the crowd in the first place. Crane explains, "It's who has the most 'names' in the ads [for the conference], to get people to pay money to buy tickets, because people won't pay money just to go to a schmooze-athon. But maybe they should try it."

But originality in speakers is increasingly difficult to achieve, and as executives run around the country making appearances, it's common to see the same faces over and over again. PBS interviewer Charlie Rose, for example, is currently all the rage, making appearances at both the Silicon Alley Reporter's Rising Tide Summit and at eCompany Now's upcoming Riffing with the Masters. Venture capitalist wunderkind Steve Jurvetsen shows up at both Red Herring and Business 2.0's events. And you can be guaranteed an RIAA, Napster and spokesperson will show up at just about every music- or broadband-related event on the calendar.

In fact, there are executives who almost make a career out of speaking on panels. Crane attends several conferences a month and speaks at almost all of them. "I made this promise to myself a few years ago that I wanted to go to them with a goal: I wanted to get one deal I wouldn't have made otherwise out of each one," she explains. "Generally I've been able to do that. More often than not I do my panel, but I usually don't go into most of the other panels, other than a minute here or there. I'm there for the networking. Most people are."

So really, it's not about the quality of the speakers , but the quality of the people sitting in the seats around you. (Who are, in turn, often the same people who are speaking on panels.) But as the number of conferences on each topic multiply, some regular attendees complain that you no longer find quality peers in one place. The ever-increasing conference glut would seem to signal a self-defeating future of ever-decreasing conference returns. Tim Smith, principle of the B2B strategy company the Stencil Group, says he used to go to the one B2B conference a year, Ground Zero, and it "was like shooting fish in a barrel -- everyone you needed to talk to was in the same place." Now, he says, there are too many "must-attend" B2B conferences -- so many, in fact, that he and his partner have had to share duties. "Last month my partner and I split up -- we went to Upside and Industry Standard. There were 150 people at Upside at Boston, and he was equally underwhelmed at the Industry Standard. It almost wasn't worth our time."

Meanwhile, the conference planners are trying to stand out from the crowd by attempting ever-more-original twists to their events. Fast Company invites conference attendees join in "extreme real time" events like biscuit-baking, "play groups" or scavenger hunts in the streets of New Orleans -- all, according to Webber, "whole new ways of interacting with the attendees." Other event planners invent new spins on traditional conference formats, such as intimate "fireside chats" instead of panels, non-traditional moderators like Rose or doing live onstage "interviews." But nothing stays original for long. Says Evans of the Industry Standard, "There are lots of things that the Standard did at our first Internet summit that have been copied by our competitors. There's a constant arms race to come up with the new thing."

But despite the inherent flaws of many of these conferences, there are still plenty of people willing to shell out thousands of dollars just for the sake of a little meet-and-greet. For every person who complains about an event thrown by Red Herring, Industry Standard or Upside, another will gush. Take Wendy Abrams, a public relations consultant who goes to about seven conferences a year and has an unusually upbeat outlook about the growing number of magazine-sponsored events: "Each publication has a certain take on the industry that's pretty unique. It's a good opportunity for people like myself, because there is usually a pretty healthy group of journalists who show up to these events. And because the industry is changing so quickly, the intelligence gathering is pretty helpful."

Conferences are all about having your own agenda, and everyone seems to have one. The publicists looking to find new clients or promote old ones, the journalists looking to get face time with the companies they write about, executives who want to shill their companies, entrepreneurs hoping to break into an industry and, of course, the magazines looking to line their pockets with a bit of non-publishing income. It's a win-win schmooze fest -- you take my card, and I'll take yours -- with free food and lots of booze as a bonus.

But how much booze-and-schmooze can one industry really take? As eCompany Now, Business 2.0, Line56 and all embark on their conference series, adding a few dozen more events to the must-attend events you'll have to choose among next year, it's hard to imagine that this level of frenetic conference-going can really sustain itself -- let alone make a profit.

For now, however, the conference planners have one thing on their side: fear. "Do people make choices about what they go to? Of course they do," explains Evans, of the Industry Standard. "But in this industry there's fear -- that if you go to the wrong events you've wasted your time but at the right events something will happen that will further your business or make you successful. So there's a fear that you're missing something if you don't go to a conference. That doesn't mean that the industry is infinitely elastic, but it is elastic to an extent."

After all, he laughs, "I think the only way we'll know is if people stop going. And we aren't seeing that happening yet."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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