Customer conferences run by IT companies are curious beasts. One part product showcase, one part reassurance that you spent your organisation's money wisely, one part training and certification opportunity, and a major chance to meet like-minded people.
Take the Citrix Synergy 2011 conference held in San Francisco last week. A two-hour keynote presented by president and CEO Mark Templeton that included new product announcements; a two-hour general session featuring Citrix, conference "custom platinum sponsor" Wyse and a couple of Citrix customers (the US Defense Intelligence Agency and game developer Zynga); over 160 breakout sessions (including repeats); and hours of instructor-led and self-paced training plus the chance to sit certification exams with the usual fee waived for the first taken by each attendee.
Apart from meal and coffee breaks, events such as birds of a feather breakfasts and of course the mandatory conference party mean there’s no shortage of opportunities for social networking of the traditional kind. (Previous visits to the Moscone Center suggest the catering has improved or Citrix made better menu choices.)
Is the social side of conferences a lurk? I don't think so. They provide an opportunity for some serious networking - after all, the fact that you're at the same conference means you may have skills that the other guy's organisation is looking for, or he may be able to give you the inside dope on the product you’re thinking of buying.
I use gender-specific terminology deliberately. At first glance the imbalance at Synergy didn't seem as extreme as I've seen at conferences in Australia, but the colour-coded badge lanyards suggested that a good proportion of the female attendees were employees of Citrix and the conference sponsors rather than regular delegates.
Something that did surprise me was the relatively small proportion of customers and prospective customers at the event - just over 2000 out of a total attendance of almost 5700. The biggest contingent comprised representatives of Citrix partners and conference sponsors (2300), and there were more than 1100 Citrix employees present. The remainder were industry analysts, financial analysts, press representatives, and external speakers. All told, attendees were drawn from 54 countries and all continents, with the possible exception of Antarctica.
While teleconferencing - including Citrix’s GoTo family of services - may reduce the need to travel to meetings and seminars, I don’t see it having a big short-term effect on bigger conferences. Getting out of the usual environment provides a welcome opportunity to pick up information without the usual interruptions. That said, I did see a few attendees giving more attention to email on their smartphones or tablets that to the speaker during some sessions, which defeats the object. And before you ask, they were definitely answering emails, not tweeting the proceedings. Furthermore, the opportunity for face-to-face interaction is just too valuable.
But in the longer term, it’s quite possible that the apparent generational change involving services such as Facebook and Twitter - not to mention possible restrictions on business travel as organisations seek to show how green they are - could reduce the demand for even large scale conferences.
Anyway, the important thing for Citrix is that if the conversations I overhead were anything to go by, the punters went away satisfied with Synergy 2011.