Thursday, 3 October 2013

We’ve had State of the Map now it’s time for ‘State of the Conferences’

Maptember is over and with it the flurry of long days, scribbling notes (or typing if unlike me you've embraced technology and have a tablet) and appending ‘geo’ onto every conceivable noun. We've already published reviews on some of the events that took place throughout September but I wanted to review the geo conference scene as a whole and look at its relevance in 2013. Now I'm going to be honest and say that the AGI are currently working on revamping our conference offering for 2014 including GeoCommunity but I will try and steer clear of the promotional here.

I was lucky enough to attend both GeoCom and FOSS4G and have spoken to several colleagues and previous total strangers who were at the BCS and SotM events so feel I have a reasonable overview of how the events went.

This first thing I was struck by was the attendance levels for these events. My understanding is that the events industry in general is still having a tough time as training and travel budgets remain low in most organisations, particularly the public sector. As a result it is hard for employers to justify both the price and the time out of the office for staff to attend these events. However delegate numbers across the September events remained high, despite the pile up of events competing for largely the same pool of potential delegates. Obviously FOSS4G being an international conference saw the largest attendance, with the majority of delegates coming from outside the UK but GeoCom and SotM were also very busy. However one thing that we did notice whilst processing bookings for GeoCom and FOSS4G was how late the bookings were coming in. For both events we had bookings right up to the very start of the event itself despite both events offering significant discounts for early bookers. From this I am concluding that in the current climate it is less cost than time out of the office that is a stumbling block for conference attendance and many employers are waiting until the last minute before giving staff the OK to attend.

Given the levels of attendance it would seem that the industry as a whole still see value in sending their staff to residential conferences and that things like webinars and video conferencing are not providing the substitute that many predicted despite the tougher financial climate. For sponsors and exhibitors conferences are still seen as valuable, partly for generating new leads and just general brand visibility but also as an opportunity to get a number of their clients (or suppliers) together in one place for account management and relationship building. Interestingly from speaking to sponsors and delegates at the conferences it seemed that the rather old fashioned ability of conferences to gather lots of similar people in one place was one of their biggest attractions as increased business travel and remote working make it much harder to tie people down.

For delegates the most important thing seemed to be (anecdotally) getting a chance to see what others in the industry were up to (and show off what they were doing) and generally to get a sense that the industry was developing and moving forwards. Particularly in a time of reigned in budgets and decreased funding it can be reassuring and motivating for people to see that exciting projects are still being undertaken (such as Glasgow’s SMART city project at GeoCom or the launch of QGIS 2.0 at FOSS4G). Perhaps this is more of a sentiment than a hard business case but there seemed to be a genuine air of momentum around the conferences with a lot of knowledge sharing and networking going on informally. It is this informally element, the business cards exchanged over lunch and the impromptu sales pitches over drinks that remain the heart of a conference and are something that is simply not repeatable in any other format.

This is not of course to say that big events like these aren’t still facing challenges. As the economy slowly gets back to its feet budgets will remain squeezed and events will have to demonstrate real value to attract delegates. With this in mind I would not be surprised to see more one day events pop up to compete with the larger conferences and also events collaborating and merging to maximise attendance. One recurring theme I came across from delegates at both GeoCom and FOSS was that the more ‘hands on a conference’ (workshops, training sessions etc) the more likely their boss was to allow them to go. Next year will show if any of these predictions are even close to the mark.

*All evidence is anecdotal, GeoCommunity ’13 surveys and the lovely quantifiable data they bring are going to go out soon.

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