The Irony of the Modern Conference

Over the past few months, I’ve attended over a dozen conferences. I’ve noticed a trend: the majority, and in some cases the vast majority, of people don’t pay attention during lectures. This is particularly ironic because the most cited reason people attend conferences is to listen to subject matter experts share.



Economically, this is highly irrational. People are spending in excess of a thousand dollars (including airfare, hotel, and transportation) for just a few hours of education. When they arrive to be educated, they don’t pay attention. Why does this happen? There are dozens of reasons, but I’ve identified what I perceive to be the top few:

1) Studies have shown that people value purchases more immediately after paying for them, and that purchases tend to lose value over time. Effectively, time disintermediates price and value. Intuitively, this makes sense. I believe this phenomenon explains conference behavior. People buy tickets and make travel accommodations well in advance of the conference. By the time they attend, they no longer feel the financial cost of attendance. As a result, they don’t feel guilty or have a compelling reason to pay attention. All of a sudden, the email that arrived 5 minutes ago is more important than the overpriced conference.

2) Structure. The fundamental structure of conferences hasn’t changed in over 20 years, if not longer. Although we’ve added PowerPoint presentations, videos, and made conference schedules available on smartphones, the fundamental structure remains the same: show up in a room, listen to someone talk, and if you’re lucky, ask questions at the end. Mobile technologies are distracting people from the very lectures they’re supposed to be listening to. The conference of the future will embrace mobile technologies so that they don’t distract attendees from the analog lecture of yesteryear. This structure can and should be inverted using mobile technologies, particularly smartphones, tablets, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, iBeacon, and other proximity based technologies. I’m not sure how exactly this will manifest, but I’m convinced there’s a radically different, better way.

Modern conferences are clearly broken. Both of these problems tend to grow as the size of the conference grows – as it becomes easier to get lost in the noise. I’d like to tackle this problem someday if it’s still a problem. For now, it’s not a priority.