Friday Rant: The Conference Sham — Below the Event Surface

As Spend Matters' readers know, I attended Purchasing's Smart Sourcing Summit last week in Chicago. All in all, it was a great use of time and the content was fresh, thought provoking and represented a level of discussion that's usually reserved for non-procurement events. Moreover, there was no quid pro quo as far as I could tell regarding event sponsors spending a few bucks and then having the opportunity to head up on stage. But unfortunately, this practice remains all too common at other industry events where technology vendors can't present -- or have their names tied to practitioner presenters -- unless they pony up a five-figure check to the conference organizers. In fact, in one situation I'm aware of, a conference organizing company approaches practitioners to solicit their involvement. Then, once they've secured the organization's involvement, they go to that company's vendors and tell them that if they want their name associated with the practitioner's presentation in anyway, they'll need to become commercially involved (i.e., writing that check).

For those vendors who decline, the practitioner is not allowed to mention his/her technology providers during their slides or chat. For those vendors who pay up, they're actually allowed to go up on stage with them. Moreover, vendors at these events can often pay to sponsor the show in exchange for a direct speaking slot, which, as we know, creates a rather risky situation when it comes to presentation quality because the organizer is selecting speakers on something other than their ability to educate and entertain the audience. But do typical attendees to shows like this -- including a number in the procurement and shared services worlds -- know this is going on behind the scenes? I highly doubt it.

When it comes to speakers, conference organizers should be held to the same accountability and transparency standards that the FTC is holding bloggers to. If someone is getting a paid slot to directly or indirectly pimp their wares -- or to have a conference organizer lavish praise on them in front of a room -- shouldn't the attendees know about the underlying financial transaction? Well, if they go to the events from nearly all of the third-party promoters and conference organizers in the space (except Purchasing) they'll never know if someone is taking the stage because the organizers thought they had something important to say or whether they're buying their way into the limelight.

As a final thought, this type of behavior is not such a bad thing in and of itself, provided transparency exists in the first place. But when it does not -- as is the case much of the time as far as I have observed at these events -- such behavior not only demeans the concept of thought leadership and education, but can also lead companies to make decisions about providers without realizing they're not hearing about all the options and the broader picture based on someone's willingness to shell out the bucks. Seriously people (and you know who you are), all I'm asking for is just a bit of disclosure -- not to change the underlying business model if it's working for you.

Jason Busch

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