Conference Attendance and Wayward Practices

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Bewildered and Concerned

I recently returned home from an HR industry conference bewildered and concerned about what is happening to these types of conferences and our opportunities to network and learn from peers. I have always valued the time I spend at conferences. I love meeting new people and connecting with individuals who work in the same industry as I – who want to better themselves – who care about Talent Management, as a whole.  And I am one of those people – yes, I work for a vendor – but I care about HR and what is happening to our opportunities for learning.

What are Conferences For?

Conferences are for learning, for expanding our minds and revealing practices that work and processes that don’t.  Sponsors/Vendors are there – in their booths or at their tables – waiting and wanting  to share about their products and/or services.  I submitted information about leading  a session on retention and was selected to present along with a current HR practitioner, who has been a friend and mentor to me for many years – ever since I was a novice recruiter in healthcare – Jean Haskell, Director of HR at Hilmar Cheese.  Having been an in-house Manager of Recruitment and Retention in a past life, I care a great deal about this topic. I want talent management leaders to care about it too – I want them to see beyond a speedy hire and know that the work they do is important – that they can make a difference in their employees’ work lives, which in turn affects the whole of their employees’ lives. And, ultimately lead to progress and success at their companies.

The Future of Talent Management is Shifting

Understanding the mindset of employees, whether they are baby boomers readying for retirement or millennials looking to become managers and leaders, is vital in understanding retention practices and efforts that will make a difference.  Understanding that the job mix is shifting and skills need to shift in order to fill gaps is essential for companies who are striving for success today and beyond.  Of course, I am happy to share about my company and products we sell, but like good content marketing, my purpose in leading a conference session is to educate and unite industry leaders, as well as learn from them.  I was discouraged to see so many use their session time to sell their products – I mean really SELL their product.  That is for booth time and follow-up calls.  

As a Vendor Rep, Why does this upset me?

I guess because I was a practitioner and attended many conferences in that role that I tire of the sales shenanigans and seemingly unethical ways so many companies force feed demos on a captive conference audience.  Practitioner Attendees are going to become extinct – conferences will be full of sponsor companies promoting to other vendor company reps – who are attendees.  This practice has to change.  I am there as a supplier – yes, but also as an educator, and an attendee who wants to learn.  If I pay for a booth or a table, if I pay for a demo slot, if I pay for the opportunity to blatantly sell – then ok —- but ONLY ok if attendees and practitioners are made aware that they are about to be sold to – usually there is no early warning and a clever session title is merely a ploy.  Though it seems incomprehensible to me – it happens, and often.

This is a Great Industry

I want to be worthy to work in this industry – women and men who are keepers of ethical practices and representatives of their workforce – to take care of them.  It hurts my heart to see them taken advantage of, to see them duped – as they so often are.  And I don’t think I have to get past this – even if it is my job to share my company’s brand and products/services to the world.  I just can’t take that advantage or do it in a manner that is a ruse or a big, fat lie.  My HR heart won’t let me – it doesn’t allow me to snag the lowest hanging fruit or throw pitches where they are unexpected or undesired.

What do you think?

I’d love to hear from industry practitioners or advocates who have experienced sleazy sales tactics of late or perhaps you or your colleagues been duped into sitting in on a unexpected demo or sales presentation? What are your thoughts? Are you ready to buy? Or has this left a bad taste in your mouth?  I am sure these nefarious practices are not reserved exclusively for the HR industry and HR Tech – other industries experience the same kind of slime, I am sure.

I want to be worthy – so I will do the work and continued research to be so.  


by Rayanne Thorn


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  1. I believe it’s an inevitability that conferences get swamped by vendors, unless kept in check by the organisers. Louise Triance runs UKRecruiter events in the UK, and is very strict about the proportions of recruiters to vendors at her conferences. Louise recognises that the most valuable attendees are coming to learn, not to be be pitched to like a timeshare event.
    Equally vital is that speakers and vendors know these rules, and ensure they present themselves accordingly. Left unchecked, the number of core attendees will fall below critical mass, and the event’s reputation is shot. I really don’t need to fly across the country, pay for a ticket, and be away from my desk, when I know the same vendor would come to me with the exact same pitch.

    • Did we go to the same tech event Stephen? restricting entry to anyone who wants to contribute creates this divide, and tagged name badges with job and company dont help.

      • Thanks Stephen. Our Directors Only events are even more ‘closed’ and badges (with names and company) are compulsory. Attendees are capped at 60 Recruitment Directors” with a max of 5 vendor sponsors. No doubt that’s not to some people’s liking but it’s certainly worked well for us and our audience for the last 3 years.

  2. Thank you, Stephen…
    I guess it isn’t a US-based trend I am seeing. I hope more conference organizers like Louise Triance see that advantage of respecting the practitioners. It is so disheartening and all you have to do is look around the room and see disengagement occurring.
    I’m not done writing about this – so maybe a little more push back will help…

  3. Hi Rayanne,
    I have been talking about this for a while because I believe this is a situation created by many conference organisers. I’ve heard you speak a few times and you have been an active participant in a few #tru events. I know you get it and you don’t pitch. If your content is great, people naturally want to know who you represent. Neither do I believe that because you are a vendor you have anything less to add, or your opinion is in some way not relevant or biased. You face client problems every day which gives you a real grip on the market. Why is your opinion any less valuable than someone who only has experience of one or two work environments. What I have witnessed over the last few years is that being termed vendor or practitioner dictates behaviour. This is escalated by name badges, paid for speaking slots, barring non-sponsor speakers etc. At one #Shrm event I attended last year speakers were asked to buy a ticket for the days they werent speaking, as a result most of the speakers pitched a product because only people who had something to sell stuck around, and each session was a pitch. We need to change this thinking around vendor and practitioner, and let everyone participate, and invite speakers on content.

  4. As I’ve been putting together the programming for a conference for several years now I’ve become quite disenchanted by the blackmail approach that a number of vendors use – “would love to be a sponsor/exhibitor but ONLY if we can also get a speaking slot for a session.” YOU, Mr/Ms Vendor have the opportunity to engage participants with your product/service overview and relationship building skills in a variety of formats and you know that. Had you approached me with valuable session content (during the wide-open call for proposals timeframe) that is relevant and appropriate because you want to instruct/share/inform attendees on something then you more than likely would have been given the opportunity to present. But don’t tell me you won’t spend $800 for a booth to get in front of your potential customers unless you can get a speaker slot; all that tells me is you will be shilling for your product/service during what is supposed to be a learning session.

    • As a conference attendee this is definitely a turn off. You begin to feel that you have wasted your time attending these conferences.

      Tameika Halliman |
  5. I’m so discouraged to read this but not surprised. Every marketing vehicle has different outcomes and distinct benefits: b2b trade shows are fantastic for networking, learning and visibility. They represent the beginning of a conversation, not the check-signing moment. There are other marketing tools that advance qualified conversations and confident providers have well defined workflows in place to ensure that happens.

    With every touchpoint in the marketing continuum, companies should be asking themselves what does the targeted audience want to get out of this interaction? When you poll trade show attendees, they want to be educated and have peer interaction; the latter is an inherent component in the former.

    Jeanne Achille |
  6. Rayanne,

    You know how I feel about this which is one of the reasons why I want to make sure that this blog is practitioner focused. There needs to be a place where practitioners are in the spotlight that isn’t so much focused on the revenue driving machine of business. Problem is that everything costs money and people have bills to pay. There needs to be a balance to be found.

    There are thought leaders, vendors and individuals many of them who have left a comment here already that are focused on the practitioner and having conversations and activities that improve the industry. Sadly, most companies treat practitioners are a lead generation funnel which is why I think that many practitioners aren’t attending these type of events.

    Great discussion.


  7. I wish I could add some interesting comment that solves the problem, but I can’t.

    The thing is, conferences aren’t like the used to be. It used to be, I’d go to a 2-3 conferences a year, and write down 2 full tablets of notes, at each one, because there were a lot of brilliant ideas and strategies available there, and no where else.

    That’s simply not the case anymore, and it’s not just because vendors are pitching more than in the past.

    Now, if I want to learn the latest and greatest strategies or ideas about social recruiting, I don’t need to spend a bunch of time and money going to a conference.
    I can simply do a google search, search twitter, or venture onto ERE or RecruitingBlogs, and within 30 minutes I’ll have more information, and more thought leaders to follow-up with, than I could possibly handle.

    From a sales and marketing point of view, tradeshows are one of the most expensive line items in a sales and marketing budget. So, if a VP is going to write a check, you bet they are going to expect results, and one of the only options for conference organizers is selling the presentations.

    Conferences were great, when information was hard to come by.
    But now, the information is becoming ubiquitous, and the real value of a conference is the people.

    So, while you might find me in the back of the room at a pitch fest, it probably won’t be for the content.
    I’ll be at the bar, meeting people with real business problems and solutions.

  8. An additional thought – I know it’s not considered tasteful to discuss money (!) but two points which are relevant to the more standard style of conference:
    a) If you want to offer sensibly priced tickets to attendees you normally require a certain number of paying vendors/sponsors to be present. Sometimes you have to offer them a speaker slot (I don’t do this by the way) and sometimes they don’t understand they are sharing knowledge not pitching. Also, sometimes the vendor sends along their sales guys who are waaay too pushy. I’ve seen this happen a ton of times and it’s not always the fault of the event organiser.
    b) Sponsors/vendors want to get value for their money. Having paid a fair amount to have a presence at an event many wouldn’t like all their competition turning up for just the price of the ticket and shamelessly ‘working the room’. This is the main reason we don’t allow other vendors at our tech events. Don’t get me wrong I want everyone who attends to get value – but in order to sustain the events I NEED to give our sponsors value for money.

  9. I went to a 1-and-a-half day event this past fall in which the second morning (which many had booked hotel rooms and left their families behind in order to attend) was entirely devoted to speakers pitching their services. I was horrified (although luckily it was local for me, so all I’d lost was my time.) That said, I’m a sort of a vendor myself, and I do go to conferences in part to spread the word about my services. But I also go to conferences because part of what I sell is my expertise, and I need to keep up with best practices as much as the next person. I think its up to conference sponsors to keep a tight lid on “presentations” that are really commercials.


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