I guess I need to clarify a couple of things in my last posting about what I regard as the dysfunctional dynamic in most conference exhibit halls.  Apparently some people thought I was saying that attending the conferences themselves is a waste of time, and I certainly meant nothing of the sort.  In fact, I think attending conferences is one of the very few fast tracks to success, something I'll talk about in a coming post. Getting out and comparing notes with your peers, listening to industry keynotes and breakout presenters, if it is approached in an organized way, will give you an unfair advantage over the stay-at-home firm up the street.

And second, one of the commentators noted that he or she (I couldn't tell gender from the post) has seen me actively engaged in the exhibit hall.  So does that mean I don't get anything out of them?

Not at all; I find out a LOT of information in the exhibit halls.  But I also see a lot of advisors who get very little interaction with the sponsors, and there is little in the design of today's exhibit halls that encourages that interaction--and THAT was my point. 

I got a lot of feedback on the site and in private e-mails.  In one of the most interesting, an advisor noted that planners are moving to a less sales-oriented and more consultative approach with clients, but in the exhibit hall, you see a much wider evolutionary spectrum; some exhibitor representatives are slyly passing out golf balls and glad-handing, while others will ask questions about your firm and look for an opportunity to work together for mutual benefit.  The more of the latter we have, the less "radioactive" the sponsor booths will seem to consultative advisors.  I think it was a good comment.

Another advisor noted that although he avoids walking up to booths randomly, he does get word-of-mouth feedback about the most interesting vendors--and says this is the way most of his peers decide who to talk with.  That means that the last day of the exhibit hall may be the most productive; eventually, word-of-mouth identifies people who have something interesting to say or show.

Laura Kogen, president of Fiduciary Access in San Francisco, was by far the most radical commentator--and also the most refreshing.  She thinks that we should be rethinking the whole conference concept from the inside out, so that the conference organizers identify the sponsors who have something meaningful to offer, and giving them a forum to present.  Specifically, the organizers and attendees would mutually identify issues of most importance to the attendees, and then the first resource the organizers would tap into would be the sponsors themselves.

Kogen would also like to see more engagement, more audience participation, and more out-of-the-box ways to access the information given at the presentations, perhaps including a brochure or writeup of trends in the exhibit hall, who is thinking about what--and generally allowing the attendees and sponsors to work together to tackle "real business issues." 

This, of course, requires much more work than the traditional conference, but it might also lead to a more meaningful conference experience for everybody.

Gayle Colman wrote to let me know that her Boston FPA chapter is now, as you read this, sitting down with the various sponsors and partners to explore how the chapter and they can work together more productively for mutual benefit.  "Our intention is to nurture a real partnership, rather than call them partners and yet they operate as sponsors," she says.

The bottom line here is that I think I may have stumbled onto an important new trend, something I didn't see before we started this discussion.  The planning community may be responding to a more consultative approach by the vendors at conferences, some enlightened chapters (and, perhaps, future conference organizers) are looking for ways to tap into their consulting/information resources rather than just their wallets, and the exhibit hall experience might be on the verge of a transformation, from a product venue to an information exchange. 

We're obviously not there yet, but the trend is encouraging.  What do you think?


For more on planning, client service, practice management and marketing, or to join the Inside Information community, contact Bob Veres at Bob@BobVeres.com.