Vendors Go Virtual with Annual User Conferences
September 14, 2009 Alex Woodie
Poor economic conditions are leading software companies to virtual user conferences hosted on the Internet as an inexpensive replacement for the traditional “in person” user conferences. System i software vendors Infor and VAI are the latest to replace physical get-togethers with virtual events, slated for October. But some organizations, including COMMON and Kronos, say virtual conferences can’t deliver the same level of education and networking opportunities and will therefore continue to host physical conferences.
Now in its second year, the global economic recession has hit business travel hard. Companies have reduced or eliminated travel budgets, which has caused attendance at user conferences and other industry events to decline significantly. Over the last year, attendance at many System i company and industry events has been off anywhere from 30 to 50 percent from the previous year. When you consider those numbers against a back-drop of many years of attendance declines, the situation looks even more dire.
Many vendors and user groups up to this point have been forced to eat losses resulting from decreased attendance at events, which often cost more than $2,000 per person, on top of travel and hotel costs. Because of the long lead times required to book a large event with several thousand people, and the steep fines that an organization would face if they cancelled an event at short notice, organizations have been forced to go ahead with events they know will not generate a lot of cash flow.
But now that the American economy is settling into a “new normal” of lower expectations, vendors are taking steps to cut their losses by eliminating physical conferences and the big budgets they command. Vendors like Infor and VAI are at the forefront of adopting virtual conferences, which cost a fraction of their “reality-based” big brothers.
Money is obviously the biggest factor. “The global economic recession has placed heavy restrictions on our customers’ travel budgets, so this year we are bringing the show to them, virtually,” says Angie Gunter, vice president of corporate communications and events for Infor. “The decision was simple really. Our goal is to maximize benefit to our customers while minimizing the cost, and this option made sense given the economic climate.”
Infor, which hosted its annual Inforum conference at a Las Vegas resort last October, this year will host its user conference at the Inforum 2009 Web site beginning October 20. The company–the largest System i software vendor with dozens of i OS ERP systems under ownership and 15,000 System i customers–is attempting to retain most of the elements of a traditional conference, including education (90 sessions in 14 different tracks), vendor expo, user networking, and keynote addresses, with its virtual conference. The cost to attend is $49, and users will be able to access the events at any time after October 20.
Infor has taken steps to ensure some level of human-to-human interaction, even as attendees sit behind a monitor at their desk or home. “Interaction is the key to an effective event, and attendees have multiple ways to interface with Infor, our partners, and other attendees,” Gunter says. “We are transferring our successful networking square to a Web-based area where there will be scheduled chats and discussions, as well as the opportunity for spontaneous chats between attendees. Additionally, there will be a full expo area where customers can chat with Infor product experts, our partners and conference staff.”
VAI, which also hosted its user conference at a Vegas resort as the global financial crises was unfolding last October, will use a Webinar format for this year’s event, which starts October 12 and goes to the end of the month.
“Every year we had a conference in either Vegas or Orlando,” says Dan Bivona, sales director for VAI. “But due to the economic conditions . . . customers indicated that they had not budgeted for the conference this year. Still VAI understands that it is important to keep our customers up to date on our new offerings, and our customers indicated that they still had a need for learning the new features and functions of our software suite, so VAI determined that a virtual conference was a good alternative.”
Bivona acknowledges that a lack of attendee interaction will be a disadvantage of hosting the event online. However, during the conference, VAI will have a blog set up, where customers will be encouraged to participate in online discussions.
Still, there’s no replacement for physical events, Bivona says. “Absolutely, you really need that face-to-face interaction,” he says. “We’ll go back to a traditional conference format in future years.”
Another vendor exploring virtual user conferences is Lawson Software, which saw about a 30 percent drop in attendance at this year’s CUE (Conference and User Exchange) event, hosted at the San Diego Convention Center. The vendor anticipated the drop, and was able to roll-out an online event called VUE (Virtual User Exchange) that paralleled the physical event. Lawson is committed to hosting its CUE 2010 event next April in San Antonio, Texas, but expect VUE to play a bigger role.
Lawson will use the feedback from VUE 2009 to bolster next year’s virtual event, says Lawson media relations manager Joe Thornton. Many attendees found the virtual resource handy for looking up materials covered in a session that they may have missed. But he stressed that Lawson is not scaling back its physical user conference in favor of a virtual event.
“Our customers see great value in the face-to-face interactions with Lawson, the learning opportunities, and networking with colleagues and peers from around the country,” Thornton says. “VUE is not a substitute for CUE, but it is a very good extension of the live event.”
Human resources software developer Kronos has no plans to go virtual with its KronosWorks show. The company, which plans to hold its annual conference this November at The Venetian resort in Las Vegas, says there is no replacement for human interaction.
“We have noticed that several software vendors have begun to utilize virtual conferences, or a hybrid of virtual and physical conferences, to connect with their customers,” the company says in a statement. But “Kronos will continue to hold its annual customer conference, KronosWorks, as a physical conference. We believe that there is great value in creating a forum where customers, solution and industry experts, software engineers, and product managers can congregate in person.”
That doesn’t mean Kronos doesn’t do anything virtually. That would be business suicide in this era of Web 2.0. The vendor continues to hold regular Webinars and participate via social media and other forms of “virtual” communications. But the physical user conference just can’t be replicated with the online medium.
Don Rima, a System i professional who recently started the Tennessee Valley Midrange User Group in Chattanooga, sees a place for virtual events. But when it comes to a full user conference, the Internet just can’t deliver.
“I think for some it will work fine, but I’m not sure if it’ll really serve the benefits of the attendee to do a large conference totally virtually. There’s just way too much lost without the interpersonal communications and presence,” Rima says via e-mail. “If you want to just listen to a keynote address, you can do that from a video stream replay at 2 a.m. … But if you’re interested in the whole conference ‘experience,’ then no, it’s not going to work well.”
COMMON is another group that does not see the Internet replacing the traditional user conference format. Despite years of attendance declines at physical conferences–as well as the decision two years ago to move to a single yearly user conference in the spring instead of hosting big shows in spring and fall–COMMON sees tremendous value in the physical get-together, particularly when it comes to education and user networking.
“Currently there are no plans for COMMON to abandon any of our in-person events in favor of doing virtual events,” says Wayne Madden, president of COMMON and publisher of System i Network, in an e-mail. “An organization can launch a virtual conference for very little money and then there are no travel costs for the participants (speakers, attendees, exhibitors). So, one can certainly understand why it can be attractive–people can save money.”
That doesn’t mean that COMMON is not moving in an online direction. The Power Systems user group continues to have success with the free Webcasts and attendee-paid Webinars that it hosts. The group is actually expanding these online offerings, Madden says.
But when it comes to user conferences, there are serious drawbacks to replacing handshakes and smiles with streaming video and emoticons. “The tradeoff we see is that virtual attendees cannot replicate the same learning experience they get in person and also may miss a technology they would have seen walking a show floor,” Madden says. “At a live venue, you hear people talking about something that interests you and you join in, you learn what others are doing at the lunch table, you have a clearer understanding of presentations because the questions are real-time and you can clearly see the speaker responding in an un-rehearsed manner.”
COMMON this week is holding its fall workshops, Focus 2009 and Directions 2009, at the Hyatt Regency in Indianapolis, Indiana. The two events last five days and include dozens of classes and workshops, as well as a vendor expo filled with companies selling wares for the i OS Power system (as well as a smattering of Linux and AIX solutions and education).
Events such as these deliver captive eyeballs, which not only benefits the vendors trying to make pitches (a sizable source of revenue for COMMON), but also the attendees, who would otherwise be driven to distraction trying to multi-task their way through a virtual conference.
“You walk a show floor and something catches your eye and you suddenly find a technology that might be useful,” Madden says, via e-mail. “Can some of this be done electronically? Yes, but it’s so easy to do e-mail while half-listening to a presentation online, to miss a key point, to not pay attention to questions that are typed, to simply skip sessions because you are physically not at a conference location, and certainly to hide from vendors that want you to find them at their electronic booth–they’ll never see you walking the aisle when it’s virtual.”
Virtual conferences will have their place in the future, Madden says. But nothing can entirely replace the physical user conference and the full immersion experience they provide. Virtual conferences are also unlikely to leave vendors satisfied, and send them looking for leads in another direction.
“Our current online education offerings (Webcasts and Webinars) are getting great reviews and do offer a small slice of the same high-quality education our members have always expected,” Madden says. “However, those events offer much less opportunity to network and learn from each other and, historically, that is what has always set COMMON apart.”
This article was updated with comments from Lawson Software and Don Rima.