If you’ve been following this blog over the last few months, you’ll have noticed that I’ve been traveling. A LOT. In all, I attended 4 user conferences and 3 other meetings in 5 weeks. Aside from the surreality of bouncing between Orlando, Las Vegas and Orlando again in quick succession, a couple of things stood out during my travels. Since you know which conferences I attended (Bentley, Hexagon, PTC and Altair), I’m not naming names but you may recognize yourself in the comments below!

It quickly became obvious that user conferences are glitzier than ever. We’re talking video montages, stage effects, laser-like lighting, rock soundtracks … But it all inevitably leads to an overabundance of PowerPoint presentations delivered at rates that are far too fast for a multinational/multilingual audience to grasp. This is typically a problem for the vendor who is trying to squeeze in the 37th feature of a new release and has the opposite of the desired effect: At one such presentation, content was flying so quickly that my neighbors, whose native language was not English, gave up — what a wasted opportunity. If your content has earned its time on stage, SLOW DOWN. We really do want to hear what you have to say, so please say it in a way that maximizes our ability to get the details.

It is possible that the not-related-but-interesting motivational speaker slot may be on its way out. I am a NASA/space flight junkie and have had the privilege of listening to Gene Kranz, Shuttle astronauts and Space Flight Center directors talk about their experiences and share lessons learned. I’ve also heard remarkable people like Jackie Stewart, Chuck Yeager and Jack Welch tell their stories. But they all struggled to fit planned speeches into the context of their audiences — it always came off as very awkward when they tried to fit a mention of CAD or PLM or whatever brand into their remarks and it was not obvious that they were reaching the audience in any meaningful way. Many vendors now seem to be using this time slot to showcase a student technology competition like FIRST Robotics or Future Cities to re-energize their adult audiences. I think that’s a good idea.

Speaking of content, the conferences were an interesting mix of end-user and vendor-generated presentations, with each event taking a unique approach to the timing and proportion of each component. I always find user content the most interesting, since the vendor can say pretty much whatever they want about how their products are used — but the proof is when a customer says “this helped me do my job” and “this is pretty good, but it needs X”. I would say that the conferences that worked best had a mix of vendor and customer keynotes, and then broke for lots of smaller sessions where attendees could choose what to listen to. Some people don’t want to hear what the vendor says, ever, and go solely to see how their competitors do a similar task. Others are there to figure out the vendor’s strategic direction. It’s a hard balance to get right.

As an industry analyst, I have often been sequestered in special sessions — away from attendees at large (who knows what they might tell me when vendor representatives are not there to control messaging?). That appears to be changing. I was free to roam at all of the events I attended. I’m not sure if this is because the vendors are more confident of their products and the good opinion of their users, or the realization that many of us are going to slip away no matter what, but it worked. I came away more positively impressed than when the message is too tightly controlled.

In a piece of hopeful news for the vendor community, budgets for attendance at these events seem to be loosening. I happened to run into people at the later of these 4 events who had attended one of the previous conferences. The good news: more attendees, which was reflected in the higher attendance numbers at the PTC and Bentley events (the other two, Hexagon and Altair, had not been held before in the form used this year). The bad news: these attendees pass on what they heard at the earlier events, giving both positive and negative reviews. It was interesting to hear a cluster of attendees try to dissect Creo at the Altair event, without any input from PTC.

I’ve written it before: I love user conferences. They are the most interesting parts of my year and give me more to think and write about than is possible while it’s all happening. Look for more posts about user conference topics in the coming weeks. In the meantime, it is SO good to be home!