“Wasteful” Conferences v. Political “Stumping”

This is at the suggestion of @nancymyrland after we exchanged a few tweets on conferences and how you can’t replace face-to-face meetings at things like ABA Tech and LMA. I commented on how Obama called conferences “wasteful” when it was made public that financial institutions that had received bail out funds were sponsoring the American Securitization Conference (ASF) being held in Las Vegas.

I posted a Note in Facebook about it. Here is what I said:

There has been much negative chatter about the American Securitization Conference (ASF) being held in Las Vegas. Wells Fargo and Fannie Mae are among the conference sponsors, and since they accepted government funds, there is the perception that the money was used to sponsor the conference. There is also the perception that attending such conference is a waste of money, tax payer money if attendees are financial institutions receiving bailout money.

That perception is wrong.

Planning for a conference starts the day after it ends. So when the ASF conference ended last year, planning started immediately for this year. Part of that planning is finding sponsors. No doubt many of the sponsors from last year sponsored this year, but there are also new comers who have something to offer. Sponsoring some part of a conference is a good way to get noticed.

These sponsorships are secured well in advance of the actual conference. Money is already committed. Money that is not related to bailout money. Saying the money is bailout money shows shortsightedness and a complete lack of understanding of the conference market. It also will make business think twice about attending a conference. Why? Perception.

Just as the perception of automakers filing for bankruptcy made people even more fearful of buying cars, and those who already own them fearful that warranties will be useless, so to does the perception of conferences as “wasteful” make businesses fearful of attending them. No one wants to be perceived as wasteful in this economy.

However, if businesses do not attend conferences, then all the businesses that make conferences work will take a hit. They will be forced to lay off employees, cut benefits or close up all together. Hotels, conference centers, caterers, linen rental, companies that make promotional items like pens, bags, shirts, etc. The start-ups and small businesses that have the opportunity to generate business from conferences. All these businesses, and many others, will take a hit. The cities that host conferences will take a hit as revenue from conferences is now non-existent.

President Obama opted to spread panic and loss of confidence to the conference sector, and the ripple effect will add to the economic problems this country is trying to rectify.

After attending ABA Tech, I still agree with my original statement that the perception of conferences as “wasteful” is wrong, and I find it interesting that no one calls Obama’s “stumping” “wasteful.” He hit the campaign trail, touting his big stimulus bill, garnering support. No one called that “wasteful.” But if you stop to think for a second, it was quite wasteful. Why? Because it didn’t create any jobs and did little to help the economy. He came in, made a big speech, and left. The place was the same as when he left, perhaps worse once the thrill of having the President speak subsided.

For conferences, it is just the opposite. Yes, conferences come and go, but the effects are felt long after the conference has passed. Small businesses and start-ups use conferences as a way to generate quality leads. Quality leads that turn into new customers. New customers means additional revenue and additional work. Additional revenue means the ability to hire more people to help tackle the new work.

Quality leads. New customers. Additional Revenue. Additional work. New hires. Those sound like actionable steps towards change we can believe in, and those actionable steps take place at “wasteful” conferences.

What actionable steps towards change we can believe in occurs when Obama goes “stumping” for the economic stimulus, or to stay “in touch” with the general public?

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2 Responses to “Wasteful” Conferences v. Political “Stumping”

  1. Gwynne, thanks for mentioning our conversation on Twitter. The interesting point is that it really is OKAY for President Obama to stump, to campaign, to run around the world actually and virtually to sell his ideas. His doing so is his acknowledgement that face-to-face contact works to stimulate discussion, to sell his ideas, to sway people to come over to his way of thinking, and to help bring clarity and passion to the issues of the day.

    To pretend that all conferences, or trips around the country to converse with one’s constituents, is a waste of resources with no end result other than to squander money when times are tough, or when one has received bailout funds, is negating that practice which the judge has practiced masterfully.

    If this dialogue is to be meaningful, all I ask is for people to avoid the piling-on concept because it is the flavor of the day, and to use one’s intelligence and ability to reason to dig a bit deeper to understand the business case behind and beneath these decisions that not only business, but the government, are making today and every day.

  2. Gwynne Monahan says:

    Right. I don’t argue that campaigning is sometimes necessary. Obama has done an excellent job demonstrating the importance of people-to-people contact, even in this technologically-driven world.

    It is the double-standard that bothers me, and that people are so quick to believe whatever Obama says, they don’t stop and think. There was a report, shortly after the Vegas conference, about Congressmen going on a long weekend “retreat” which, essentially, amounted to a conference, but no one seemed bothered by that. Obama didn’t come out and call that “wasteful.”

    For someone who has carefully chosen his words since he started campaigning, collectively calling conferences “wasteful” seemed flippant and did more harm than good. Too late to make corrections once the phrase left his lips; the damage was done. Public perception was set. Conferences are “wasteful.” President Obama said so. The after-effects are still being felt.

    There might be something to learn from this, though. Maybe “conference” is the wrong word. Maybe “summit” or “retreat” are better. After all, no one has called the G20 “summit” wasteful. Big, important people gathering to discuss important issues. Yet what makes a “summit” or a “retreat” different come a “conference”?

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