Report from Microsoft Convergence: Are Massive Industry Conferences Dead? Does Anyone Care?

If conference attendance were a good way to judge the prospects of a vendor in this down market, then Microsoft’s Dynamics business group would have some serious trouble on its hands. Attendance at its big Convergence user group meeting is down 25 percent from last year, bucking a growth trend that has characterized most big user conferences over the last few years.

But what is really in trouble, aided and abetted by the swooning economy, is the whole conference model. Because, while attendance is down at Convergence, the pipeline has never been larger for Microsoft. And even though less than 7000 attendees showed up, down from over 9000 last year, almost one in ten attendees is a serious prospect, hailing from manufacturing, professional services, and even government. CRM is growing faster than the partner infrastructure can handle, and, while overall billings were down two percent in the last half of 2008, Dynamics is holding its own in these troubled times.

This take on whether the conference model is broken comes as Oracle is planning to host its first online, virtual conference next week. And it follows on the recent announcement that SAP was canceling its European Sapphire user conference.

All this change in what has almost been a reflexive action in our industry – trooping off to Orlando or Vegas to commingle with a few thousand like-minded geeks and nerds – signals a major shift in thinking that may actually linger after the economy turns around again.

I confess I have a personal stake in not traveling as much as I do to conferences — 20-plus years of bad sleep in expensive hotels and mind-numbing presentations amid a cacophony of bad marketing gimics has made me personally interested in the demise of this mode of doing business.

Professionally, my opinion is a little more complex: I thrive on personal contact in my business dealings, and seriously worry that the wholesale replacement of real conferences with virtual conferences will be seriously bad for business – mine and everyone else’s.

And it may be that the death of the big conference is premature. One of the factors militating against a big attendee count at Convergence is the fact that it’s being held in New Orleans: Despite my sympathy for this storied city’s recent plight, the fact is that New Orleans is hard to get to, the weather is stuffy at best, and the seediness of Bourbon St. is antithetical to the business tenor of most big conferences. The New Orleans factor was mentioned by Dynamics head Kirill Tatarinov as a potentially significant reason for the drop in attendance during today’s pre-conference analyst briefing. And he may be right.

But with green/sustainability thinking becoming a major factor in strategic planning, and times being what they are, it’s important to question the assumptions that drag us off to these big, expensive, shindigs. Right now, the Convergence attendance is down far more than Convergence business. We’ll have to see if this is a single, isolated event, or the beginning of the end of something we’ve been taking for granted perhaps too long.

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