If you think what I write sometimes goes too far, you should hear some of the stories that I am not able to share with you. For example, I cannot tell you the details of the complaints I hear from certain quarters about the multitude of revenue assurance conferences. You may be guessing that this comes from telco employees, bored of the hard sell from vendors and the same presentations being repeated over and over. No, this unrest comes from the vendors, asking if they get value for money. I can see their point. Those conferences cost a lot of money, and it has to come from somewhere. The conference company is trying to turn a profit. The hotel is trying to turn a profit. Somebody has to pay for all that food, and all that travel. If telco staff learn something, it may worth what they pay to attend – but that is a big if. Whether the conference is good value for operator attendees rather depends on whether the chosen speakers have something to say that is worth listening to.
One difficulty is that speakers are selected either because their job title looks good in the brochure – which does not guarantee that they will speak well on the podium – or because they pay for the privilege. I have somehow, over the years, managed to get myself to a point where I am one of the few that fits neither category. And that it is only because I take the risk of saying plenty of things that nobody else is going to! (Although, to be fair to me, I see my words and slides are still often copied – without credit being given.) But in the end, even the best speakers cannot attend every event. They have to be selective. I have spoken at three conferences already this year, and have tentatively agreed to a fourth. When I recently received another invite to present at a conference in an exotic location, I was briefly tempted. However, I declined. Exotic location or not, the prospect for making new business is slight, and the return on the time spent on travel and attending the event is poor. What would really make a difference is if I was confident of engaging with a dynamic audience, prepared to teach as well as learn.
In the end, the expense of conferences has to be borne by someone. The amounts paid by attendees covers only a small proportion of the total cost. The bulk is provided by the vendors, in exchange for the right to promote their products and make new introductions. The problem is, just because a few representatives of operators attend the conference, does not mean they have the appetite, or funds, to buy. And they may be the same people who the vendor met at the last conference.
Is there a solution? Perhaps. Anyone who works for a conference company should stop reading now. The antidote to conferences is the unconference, an idea that emerged about a decade ago and has gained momentum since. This is how unconference.net describes an unconference:
An unconference is a facilitated participant-driven face-to-face conference around a theme or purpose.
In contrast, a traditional conference is characterized thus:
Presentations selected months beforehand, sponsors buying speaking slots, boring panels of talking heads, and high fees.
I do not know about you, but the latter description sounds all too familiar to me. There will always be a need for good conferences (though maybe we would be better off if they were fewer in number, but bigger in size and better in quality) but really, if revenue assurance is a worthwhile activity performed by people of substance, there should be room for unconferences too. The big difference with unconferences is that everyone who shows up is expected to contribute. Think of it like the natural extension of those roundtables that are increasingly popular at conferences, but where nobody is allowed to say “I am new at this, I just want to listen…” Unconferences keep costs low, because the draw is being with the other participants, not staying in a swanky location. The aim is for the event to break even, not to make money for anyone. Attendees pay the least amount necessary to take part, and everyone pays the same. Preparation is kept to a minimum, so the only way to know what is going to be said is to attend. That makes each unconference unique, increasing its value to attendees. Unconferences are about everyone sharing, not a majority of listeners sitting and listening to a minority of speakers. So it only suits attendees with genuine enthusiasm for the topic. This has its own attraction: enthusiasts want to meet, talk with, and listen to other enthusiasts. Are there enough enthusiasts, in any part of the world, to run a decent unconference on the topic of revenue assurance? I am not sure, but I would be keen to hear what people think. In the end, success depends on active participants. Asking who might be interested, and seeing who responds, should be as good a measure of the potential for success as any.
I know what you some of you are thinking: the vendors would look at an unconference as a cheap opportunity to sell, so would show up and try to bore everybody else with their relentless sales tactics. One solution would be to ban them. However, I am not that sceptical about vendors. Remember how this particular post began – even the vendors get cynical about their opportunity to make sales when they realize that nobody in the audience wants to buy. If the vendors did not have to pay so much to attend, perhaps even they could afford to be plain and simple enthusiasts for a day or two, and leave the hard sell at home. I think it might be worth a try. What do you say?