Weigh In: Should Conferences Like ERE Restrict Consultants & Vendors?

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I’m a big proponent of learning, conferences, and helping to forward the industry. It’s the reason I continue to blog and work so hard to provide content and information focused on this industry. One of my favorite conferences and communities in the past has been ERE and their Spring Recruiting Conference held in San Diego. A couple years ago they changed their policies to limit the number of vendors, consultants, and media to attend their event. I’m different than most in that I actually attend sessions when I can because I think it’s important to be learning and growing regardless of your role as a practitioner, consultant or vendor who is charged with developing the technology. Personally, vendors should spend time learning and understanding what it’s like to be a practitioner and less time selling.

Where Do HR Vendors & Consultants Go for Industry Learning?

I do, however, understand why we limit attendees and vendors because these events become one big selling opportunity. It becomes less about the content and more about selling, selling, and selling. Earlier this week I did the right thing and requested a media pass to the ERE’s conference in San Diego and was excited to write about sessions on LinkedIn, Huffington Post and Blogging4Jobs. Keep in mind I can’t even register for the conference as I’m not considered a practitioner because the ratio is off. Vendors are beating down the doors to attend their event. Is this a good decision or are they throwing away money? Below is their official email response. It’s just a conference, but I want to attend because ERE has been a great place I’ve went to over the years particularly the old forums and blogs for peer learning. I wondered if others were equally disappointed in the fact they were being excluded or if the HR and recruiting communities thought this was a good thing.

As you may be aware, we made some changes to our registration policies for ERE last year to limit attendance to mostly those who are full time practicing in-house recruiting and HR professionals. What that means is the opportunities for everyone else to participate is extremely limited.
I wanted to just take a second and also explain the reasoning for this:
The ERE conference has always been focused primarily on the needs of in-house (corporate) recruiting professionals, and in particular leaders of in-house recruiting functions. Last year, we made several changes to ensure that we do the best possible job in meeting the needs of those in-house recruiters. As you know, most people attend conferences for great content and great networking with their peers. One of the ways to ensure great networking with peers is to make sure that in-house recruiting professionals are surrounded primarily by their peers.  Therefore we set a goal of ensuring that at least 2/3 of all PEOPLE attending the ERE conference will be in-house recruiting professionals.  As you might expect, most of the other 1/3 are conference sponsors and their staff. In order to ensure this “2/3 ratio”, we took a few steps:
* Capped the number of sponsors/exhibitors to 72
* Capped the number of staff each sponsor can bring
* Capped the number of NON sponsors (who are also not in-house recruiters) who can register for the conference.  There are 20 of these special “supplier registrations”, limited to no more than 2 per company, and they cost $3,900 each.
This also resulted in a change to the way we looked at media requests and to keep in line with this policy and our promises to our customers, we had to limit media requests to basically those full time press (HR & Recruiting Trade Publication editorial members and other trade and/or business publications).
Since you hold other roles within the HR space, I am unable to offer your a press pass.
This is one of the toughest side effects of this policy since it forces us to have to make these tough decisions with people like you who have been such great friends of ERE as well as extremely valuable contributors to the profession. However, we have to keep with our policy to ensure that we deliver to experience that our customers expect and are promised by us.I hope all is well with you and you are settling in on the west coast.

Please Weigh In By Leaving a Comment Below

What do you think? Should ERE and other conferences in our industry continue to regulate attendees? Where do we draw the line and is this a good policy and why? I would love for you to leave a comment below and help facilitate this conversation because today it’s been weighing on my mind.
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Comments

  1. Ultimately they can do whatever they want. It’s their conference, their audience. If they want the majority of speakers to be working practitioners… I’m okay with that.

    When Bryan and I reformatted DriveThruHR in December of 2010… we only had practitioners on as guests. No vendors, no consultants, no bloggers, no analysts, etc. Back then, you had to be currently working a desk in corporate HR and/or corporate recruiting. Our stance lasted 11 months. We found it difficult to find capable practitioners that were both willing and able to be on a live podcast. So, our pivot was the ecosystem could be on the show… but they have to have an interesting story / take.

    I only tell that story because I’ve had a similar stance and I’ve grown out of it.

    Meta theme… support folks that support you.

    William “Meta” Tincup

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  2. Attended ERE shortly after they made this change. The biggest challenge I initially saw was that by limiting the press passes and the opportunity for vendor engagement – they also minimize their own visibility in the space via social media…. and it was, quite frankly, kind of boring & had the under current of just another “HR conference” where it is harder for attendees to get to know each other (let’s be honest, how many of our peer to peer networking is facilitated by our vendor partners who seem to know EVERYONE.) My conference experiences pre vs post social media are world’s apart and way more enriching because of the people I’ve met and had the opportunity to truly build lasting relationships with (vs the exchange of biz cards and the nod on the way out saying, “see ya next conference!”)

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    carrie
  3. Although I totally understand the principle of limiting the amount of vendors at a focused practitioner. i don’t understand the application of the Rule of it has to be this exact 2/3 Ratio. it allows for no flexibility. What if let’s say Thomas Perez (Dir. of DoL) wants to attend so he know how to message his latest department strategy better? By their rules he couldn’t. I have to say that part that annoys me the most is the part about full time media only being allowed, and here is why. the best and most informative news I have gotten about events and industry trends are from the people that straddle practitioner/blogger/vendor roles. Why? because they actually understand what’s important to me. I see the blind enforcement as shortsighted

    Caleb Fullhart |
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  4. I attended the first ERE conference last year after they made this change and can understand why they did it. Attendance numbers had leveled off because people felt like they had seen the same show already. So like any good business, they asked people what was most important to them about the events. Connecting with peers and learning from real experiences had to top that list. While I don’t agree that keeping press and social media ‘connectors’ out has helped the event, I was surprised by the feedback I personally heard. People who were there to learn really enjoyed the company of other recruiting pros. The social chatter was unfortunately the same 8-10 voices throughout the event, and most of those were vendors. But it was enough to make me stop and think about whom we were there for. I applaud their willingness to change, but think that it should be an evolutionary process and that there’s still some work to be done.

    Bryan Chaney |
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  5. That is a shame. ERE was always such a great community, not just for recruiting professionals but also for vendors to the recruiting world. As a vendor I thought they always did a good job keeping us separate – in fact as a vendor I found it frustrating but also totally understood it. Sad to hear.

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  6. I felt the sting of ERE’s decision last year. I had loved attending, meeting with fellow vendors – many were partners – as well as spending time with clients and potential clients. Additionally, my company had sponsored the charity poker tourney three years in a row, each year giving more.

    I, like you, Jessica, actually attend conference sessions and write about them later. I sometimes deliver presentations at conferences and write about them later…
    One such time was last winter when vendors were allowed to sell during their presentations — THIS practice is why conferences like ERE have restricted vendors and consultants from attending. And really, it’s not so much that they have “restricted attendance”, but that they charge more for the opportunity to attend – and other conferences – like the one I presented at last winter – allow vendors the opp to “pay to preach” – a practice ERE does (or has done), as well. I found it deplorable.

    And it saddened me to know that individuals like me – who write and try to educate, because I like to, I am good at it, and I have a voice – are punished because others have deeper pockets or stronger cocktail napkin relationships.

    I noticed less social activity coming out of ERE last year, as well.

    So, I guess I am torn. On one hand, I understand wanting to give the practitioners a sell-free zone, a learning environment that is surrounded by advertising and an exhibitor hall filled with vendors who have paid bigger bucks to be there. On the other hand… I am a practitioner too — of my own trade, with my company who services an industry which needs to be serviced by providing a radio show, webinars, white papers, blogs, – all for free — all to help educate the industry… Of course, we want to sell, but not every product is right for every org/practitioner. And guess what? We get that.

    It’s a fine line. And unfortunately, those who were already observing and respecting the line are the ones punished…

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  7. I attended ERE for > 10 years. I met some amazing people, listened to speakers talk about their successes and their failures and walked that vender floor asking a million questions – why? I was learning. Learning not just best practices but socal ques as a “vendor”, how to not be smarmy and saley but to be aware of trends and listen to what people were interested in and why. It was a family reunion, one where I introduced those I knew to others and had the same done for me. I was creating relationships and…and… Networking…. Gasp! I thank ERE for laying that foundation for me, I miss paying it forward to the new talent walking that floor.

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  8. I’ve been on both sides of this fence and understand the pros and cons of ERE’s decision.

    Like Jessica and Rayanne, when I attend another organization’s conference as a vendor I’m there primarily to learn and attend as many of the sessions as I can. I’ve had vendor-to-vendor discussions with Jessica and Rayanne at conferences and of course similar discussions with other vendors and clients as well, but if I’ve got a press pass then I’m there as press (if social media counts as press) and if I’m there as a vendor I work really, really hard at being a good partner to the conference organizer by not speaking about my organization or what we do unless asked to do so by the attendee. I’ll make introductions, provide advice which doesn’t include recommendations to use our services, etc. and I think that’s mostly well received and appreciated by the corporate recruiters.

    We also host the occasional event to give back to the recruiting community (really) and better engage with our potential clients and clients. We’ve held seven so far and the eighth is in May at the LinkedIn headquarters. Both LinkedIn and College Recruiter agreed before the first of our co-hosted events that we would use a strict, no selling policy. No exhibit hall. No selling from the podium. No vendors. No career services. No third party recruiters. We’ve refunded ticket purchases by all three types of people. Most were understanding and a couple, well, had growth opportunities in those areas.

    The vibe in the room is different when the corporate recruiters and other such human resource leaders are sitting next to their peers and listening to presentations delivered by their peers. They’re more relaxed and open to sharing what is happening in their organizations and careers whether that’s good, bad, or ugly.

    Participation by vendors who understand how to be good partners to the conference organizers by not pitching is generally beneficial to the conferences, but I think it is also beneficial to have at least some conferences or roundtables where vendors etc. are excluded.

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  9. That’s so disappointing. I think this approach is short-sighted.
    1) It assumes that vendors and consultants are only there to sell and not learn.
    2) This drives UP the cost for practitioners. Sponsors and exhibitors pay the bills, y’all!
    3) If you don’t want presentations to be sales-y, then don’t let vendors present…but there’s no reason why they can’t attend!
    4) In my experience, my HR consultant friends and vendors are the MOST in touch with the latest trends in the space because they’re also thought leaders. I read their blogs on the daily. Guess who isn’t blogging and tweeting about the industry? Internal practitioners. Cutting off vendors and consultants not only kills online engagement, but it puts a halt to the learning, and doesn’t encourage me to attend next year. I have a running list of conferences I want to attend just based on the social activity I’ve seen come out of them. I also easily notice when that social engagement changes. Jessica, you’ll remember just a few weeks ago when I emailed you asking why there was no social activity coming out of a previously well-attended conference. When the tweets/blog posts disappear, we notice and we aren’t going to invest our tight travel/conference budget on a dead conference.
    4) Why don’t you ASK your attendees how they feel? Do they like to attend the parties that the vendors throw? Do they ONLY want to remain internal practitioners, or is there value in networking with consultants? Have they ever purchased from a vendor at a conference? While no one wants to be “hard sold” at a conference, I think you’ll find that most attendees appreciate at least some aspect of the vendor/consultant relationship.

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  10. I write. I don’t do it full time; neither do most of the writers I know. I -might- be stretching it to say MOST online publications have contributors that do other things…. including ERE. So while I fully appreciate their limitations placed on speaking spots and even some restrictions on attendance? They’re shooting themselves in the foot by doing with with press. Which could be why there’s been little “buzz” to speak of surrounding this conference. I’m with Tincup on this one: support those who support you.

    Crystal Miller |
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  11. For those of you who don’t know me, I’ve been the CEO of ERE Media since August 2012. That means you can praise or blame me for the new ERE conference policies.

    After reading this post and the comments, I thought it might be helpful to share our perspectives:

    • We know that suppliers (vendors, consultants, etc.) are vital contributors to the recruiting “ecosystem.” We hear about that value from the in-house practitioners they serve, and we see it in the ideas they share through many mediums, including ERE.net.

    • Suppliers act professionally and graciously at conferences. Sure, we’ve all witnessed that one supplier being too salesy or pushy, but that’s an exception. And the “one bad apple” isn’t unique to suppliers; unfortunately every group, including in-house practitioners and media, has them.

    • Our new policies have nothing to do with trying to prevent “bad behavior” by suppliers. That would be a dumb idea. As I said above, there’s virtually no bad behavior to prevent. And in any case, we still have many suppliers attending ERE, so we still have the “bad apple” risk.

    • Our new policies have nothing to do with “pay to preach.” Rayanne, I’m sorry, but on this point you’re just flat out wrong. ERE has a long history of independent/objective content un-influenced by advertising or sponsorships. That approach is unchanged today. We believe it’s the best way to serve our readers. And we also believe it’s the best way to serve our advertisers and sponsors. This is a core value of our company, and many times we’ve paid a steep price to uphold it. If we wanted to make money via “pay to preach,” we’d sell all our speaking slots to sponsors. But we don’t do that.

    • From its start in 2001 the ERE conference was designed to support in-house recruiters. And especially leaders of in-house recruiting functions. We think that means that a significant portion of attendees should be in-house recruiters. What’s the right portion? If you came to ERE and found that 10% of the attendees were in-house recruiters, would that seem OK? Probably not. What about 30%? Or should it be more like 90-100%? Back in 2012 I asked in-house recruiters what they wanted. And I asked sponsors. And I asked suppliers (other than sponsors). And on this point they all agreed – the attendee mix at ERE had swung too far towards suppliers, and needed to swing back towards in-house practitioners. At the time, about 50% of our attendees were in-house recruiters. My own prior experience managing conferences taught me that a 2/3 ratio was about right, and so that became our new target. I take targets seriously, and we developed a new set of policies to help us achieve that target.

    • Our satisfaction ratings, which have always been quite strong, have improved significantly since we’ve implemented our 2/3 ratio. Why? Better networking. In-house recruiters want to meet mostly (but not exclusively) other in-house peers. Sponsors want to connect almost exclusively with in-house recruiters. Non-sponsoring suppliers enjoy meeting everybody, but wanted to meet more in-house recruiters than they were back in 2012.

    • Since we’ve implemented our new policies we have not told a single supplier that they could not attend the ERE conference. We have turned down some supplier requests for press passes or complimentary passes, but in every one of those cases the supplier had the alternative option to purchase a “supplier registration.” It’s true that many suppliers made the business decision to not pay to attend, but that was their decision. It’s true that we charge more for a “supplier registration.” You and I might argue about whether or not that’s “fair,” but here’s what true . . . at a lower price we would have to start turning suppliers away in order to maintain the 2/3 ratio. How would we do that? First come, first serve? Pick those we like most? Instead, we set a higher “supplier registration” price, which means that the suppliers who find the conference the most valuable are the ones choosing to attend. Self-selection instead of ERE selection. (Side note – we have turned down sponsors due to reaching our maximum number of sponsorships.)

    • We’ve done our very best to implement our new policies even-handedly and without extending “favor” to certain suppliers or sponsors over others. I think we’ve done a good job at this, although to be sure we’re still learning and adjusting.

    • We do believe that people with many different types of backgrounds, experiences, and roles can be highly valuable speakers at ERE. This includes in-house recruiters, suppliers, those from other professions, and academics. And therefore we have no interest in automatically “disqualifying” anybody as a speaker. We also know that most in-house recruiters, our primary audience at ERE, want to hear mostly (but not exclusively) from their in-house peers. Therefore we’ve put a renewed emphasis on having in-house speakers, even as we continue having suppliers, academics, and others speak. Frankly it would be easier to have more suppliers speak – before every conference we’re overwhelmed with suppliers volunteering to speak – because it’s harder to convince in-house practitioners to commit to speaking. For a different reason it would also be much easier to have exclusively in-house speakers, because then we could sidestep the sensitive challenge of explaining to some suppliers why we asked other suppliers to speak, but not them. But we’re seeking the best path, not the easiest one.

    We’re doing our best to deliver a great ERE conference experience for attendees (of every kind) and sponsors. And we’ll keep doing our best, learning and adjusting along the way. Even if you don’t agree with all of our approaches and policies, I would hope that you could understand the logic and positive intent behind them. If not, my line is open – call or email me any time.

    Ron Mester |
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  12. My work as a vendor (of work-life and workplace related communications) isn’t much focused on recruitment so I haven’t attended this particular conference, but in general I rely on conferences not only to meet people who may turn into clients but to keep up with the field I promise my clients I know about! If consultants and other vendors are excluded from conferences, consultants will become stupid and out-of-touch. Plus, like others who have weighed in here, I write about these conferences and thus provide a pretty darn valuable service. I understand people don’t like to be harassed by overzealous vendors, but the trade-off inherent in excluding vendors isn’t worth it for anyone.

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  13. Hi Jessica,
    Firstly, it really is up to ERE who they allow in and who they don’t. Time will tell if it is the right approach, but they still sell plenty of tickets and run sold out events. From my own viewpoint, I have always felt operating occupational apartheid to be a bit disruptive in terms of content and community. Once you divide and label vendors and practitioners as separate, you create the buyer/seller divide. I believe everyone has something to add and a degree of expert opinion. It is this mix of opinion that results in great content when everyone has a platform to speak. I would strongly disagree that anyone is more reserved in their discussion in a mixed group. People get passionate about the topic, and are happy to listen to opinions wherever they come from. I have seen that those who pitch get naturally excluded by the group, and those who contribute are sought out when opportunities to do business become a natural progression. I never want to exclude anyone from #tru. The community will do that themselves. All people are equal and judged on their contribution, and sponsors need to do a bit more than have a booth and a name over the door to benefit. I don’t even like name badges, because they only enhance the divide. Exhibitors and sponsors look for exclusive access to attendees at traditional conferences, ensuring these are all practitioners (potential customers), makes this much easier to sell. This is sometimes a factor in reducing the list of who is entitled to attend.

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  14. I think the policy is bad business, but lost revenue opportunity so while it sucks for everyone on this side, not getting free content marketing juice for an event which you rely on for a big part of your p/l hurts them worse – but like all opportunity costs, this is a lesson learned in hindsight.

    Matt

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  15. Rather than using vague statements about whether attendance is likely to be higher or lower by implementing a “no vendors” rules, I looked at our actual data. We’re 2.5 weeks away from our College Recruiting Bootcamp at LinkedIn’s headquarters at Mountain View, California and that will be our eighth event for corporate recruiters and other human resource professionals. Three of the eight, including the one on May 5th, had “no vendors” rules in-place.

    Every single one of the three “no vendors” events had far more attendees than the closest equivalents where we did not restrict attendance. For example, the May 5th “no vendor” event will have well over 100 attendees with ticket prices of $250. We also organized three similar “anyone” events in December, charged far less for the tickets, marketed them far more aggressively, and ended up with far fewer attendees. One of the three events had so few attendees registered that we canceled it.

    As for the content, I agree with Bill that vendors who can’t help but pitch at events find themselves excluded from conversations but not before irritating a lot of attendees and making a bad name for well behaved vendors. I can state without any doubt at all that the quality of the conversation at our “no vendor” and “anyone” events is quite high and that many of the vendors contribute admirably. But there is a different vibe when vendors are present. Many attendees are less forthcoming about their plans and problems because they know that they’ll get pitched during or after the event. When the event is “no vendor,” that simply isn’t an issue.

    One of our long-time and largest clients said to us after one of our “no vendor” events that what we did that day was take a room full of customers and turn them into a room full of advocates. I still get goosebumps when I think of that praise.

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