Hotel and Travel Conferences Need an Upgrade
By Vikram Singh, Global Hospitality & Travel Strategist
When it comes to hotel conferences and trade shows, I will go ahead and show my age by saying I have been to almost all of them. During the earlier part of my career, I was an attendee; later I became a speaker. After I received hotel revenue optimization enlightenment, I took it upon myself to go out and educate an industry that seemed perpetually stuck. Several hundred conferences later, a clear pattern has emerged. However, this pattern will need to change if events are to become truly relevant to the industry they serve.
The Quirky Keynotes
Hotel conferences, like all the conferences out there, love their keynotes. Enter the "I have nothing to do with your business" keynote speaker. Here are some of the usual suspects you might recognize:
- High-energy motivational speakers (yawn)
- Speakers who climbed Everest
- Speakers who climbed Everest while walking backwards
- Speakers who sold their million-dollar shoe company
- Speakers who are also amateur magicians
Try this instead: The keynote session has evolved into a way to show off how cool you are, instead of addressing what is really facing the industry. I am all for Everest climbers and magicians, but a nanotechnology expert is not going to help attendees understand why they are not keeping up with the competition.
The One-Hour Sessions
Not everything needs an hour. Conference organizers who give an hour to everything to neatly divide and balance out the conference make the day painful for the rest of us. An important thing to factor in here is a famous quote by Philip B Crosby: "Nobody can remember more than three points."
People can typically focus their attention for 20 minutes, and then all bets are off. The lights are on, but no one's home. On the speaker side, making things last an hour usually translates into stretching 30 minutes of excellent material into 60 minutes of meh. "Meh" is the enemy of good content and must be stopped. I've even seen speakers jamming on the stage to fill up time like they are Phish. (Sorry to my readers who are Phish fans!)
Try this instead: Give speakers a 30-minute window for content, 10 minutes for questions. This small change will bring about heavy editing, resulting in better content and happier conference attendees who will feel that they actually learned something.
Panel of Death by Boredom
Let's face the fact that panels have been boring since the dawn of human civilization. I don't think I have seen anything less productive than a panel discussion. I have almost died while listening to - and even while being a part of - a "panel of experts." You think you are going in for a scoop, some inside stories, and a fascinating peek into personalities. Instead you get bored to death. Here is how a typical panel discussion unfolds at hotel events:
The Moderator. The event sponsor or other tangential player acts as emcee, lobbing pre-arranged softball questions at the supposed experts. These are their responsibilities:
- They hold a microphone. A stand can do that job.
- They email attendees two weeks before the conference asking what questions they would like to be asked. Do the panelists need a heads-up on topics within their own area of expertise?
- They ask the panelists to "introduce themselves," even though you already know who they are from the event website/signage. These introductions take several minutes per panelist… precious time you had on Earth to do something meaningful.
The Panelist. This is usually a corporate-type person or another company sponsor (not important enough to be a moderator, of course!). They will pretend to answer questions emailed to them two weeks ago and look surprised. Also, they love the sound of their voice.
Here are my Top 3 panel highlights to date:
- I once did a Lord of the Rings analogy on a panel. The moderator and fellow panelists almost had a heart attack, but the audience finally woke up! I have not been invited back.
- I mentioned that the traditional hotel sales era revolving around having martinis @3pm is now over. Wyndham's SVP of Marketing at the time brought me a $30 martini to my next panel discussion (I don't drink alcohol), then argued that open source is a terrible idea for hotels. I have not been invited back.
- At a data conference in 2010, the head of Ecommerce for Hilton Garden Inn mentioned that mobile revenue is not a big deal. I told him that it was not a big deal for them because their mobile booking experience was a nightmare. I recommended that they look at this new company called Hotel Tonight to see how mobile bookings should be done. I have not been invited back.
Try this instead: Don't do panels. When I'm invited to join a panel, my condition is that I will not be following a script, which usually scares away the panel hounds.
The Sponsor Con
This I have survived…many, many times. Nothing is scarier than the moment when the conference speaker starts talking about what their company offers, followed by 20 slides on their new product release.
Hotel conferences worldwide are turning into conferences by the sponsors, of the sponsors, and for the sponsors. I completely understand that it takes money to run and manage conferences. But somewhere along the line, companies have completely taken over. Everything is for sale…from the name-tag holder, to the table on which you will rest your coffee.
I have held this opinion from a very early stage of getting into the event speaking business: Sales people cannot educate. I know it's an unpopular opinion, but this is not open for debate. I have attended and spoken at hundreds of events, and this holds true every time. I am not saying that salespeople have some evil agenda against education. But they do have sales targets and quarterly deadlines to meet.
The "sponsor to speak" epidemic in the hospitality business has taken a massive toll on the amount of useful information hotel owners and managers have been able to accumulate by attending industry events.
In my younger days as a speaker, there were many times I would do a gig for free to get "exposure." As the only non-sales guy at an event, it was not a challenge to excel. Fast-forward to today: I only do paid gigs. It needs to be clear that I am getting on stage to share and teach from my experiences, and not to get attendees to buy anything.
Try this instead: Marketing dollars burning a hole in your pocket? Why don't you sponsor a real speaker instead of the sales guy? You can still fly your banner on the stage, without confusing attendees with sales pitches thinly disguised as education.
Hospitality and travel event planners are perpetually on the lookout for buzzwords when selecting event topics and presentations. Here is a typical formula:
Buzz-wordy topics = Your event sounds relevant = Ticket sales
Here are some hotel industry buzzword examples for you: Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Automation. After years of trying to figure out why conferences rely so heavily on buzzwords, I finally realized that events are struggling to stay relevant. Using the latest buzzwords is their click-bait scheme to drive attendance.
Unfortunately, when you run a buzzcon, the content takes a hard nosedive. Most buzzword slides end up being what I like to called "Google-able content." If your attendees can find the information you're presenting on Google and you are not bringing anything from your own experience…then, in the words of the great Bill Pullman, "It's game over, Man!" There is a speaker I know who literally reads off a list from Google Trends at events. That is torture, and I almost called Amnesty International on him.
Try this instead:
- Make sure you really need the buzzword for your conference. If you must use it, then have actionable items right after.
- Make sure presented content is not already available on Google/YouTube.
- Ask speakers for fresh content. How does the new trend change travel in the next few months and years? Make sure they bring specific examples. Ex: Anyone saying "artificial Intelligence is going to change travel" should be drop-kicked off the stage if they do not have actual examples!
The User Con
Having worked for hotel software vendors, I have direct personal experience in the surreal world of the hotel software "user conference." I'm not sure where to start, so I will start with the basics. Most user conferences in our industry are not about hotels, innovation, or taking the industry forward. They are about the vendor telling the world how well they are doing. I am talking about big, multimillion-dollar conferences presented by companies who have not upgraded their product in years! Big is the operative word here. I have seen more money being spent on events than on people and product development. That pretty much summarizes the issue here. The user conference becomes an extension of the CEO/President's ego.
A personal anecdote here summarizes everything. Shortly before a multimillion-dollar production event for a software company, it was announced that the company was being sold to a direct competitor. The employees, some of whom had worked with said competitor in the past, were in shambles…fearing mass layoffs, career stagnation, and relocation issues.
As with any conference, there was a band playing on the final evening. Not a soul got on the dance floor. Most of the employees were reeling under the pressure of smiling and keeping face while their professional lives were being upturned. So, the band started playing and the first ones to start dancing together were the President and CEO, dancing with the joy of two people who had just become millions of dollars richer. I looked around at the horror and pain in the eyes of the employees…that image stays with me. To add insult to injury, the employees were then required to sing to the President and CEO. This is the most surreal moment I have experienced at an event.
Try this instead:
Don't be evil! The user conference is about the users and not about you. Focus on education and content instead of making your employees cry.
The Ted-Type Con
Another type of conference making the rounds is the wannabe Ted Talk type of event, minus the Ted Talk level of content. Here are some signs that you might be at this event:
- Registration Fees: $5000 to $8000 (early bird discount $4999). Come on, now! You know what kind of budgets most hotels are working with. Nothing says innovation like pricing out 99% of actual hotel owners and operators. It feels like a dystopian future where only the 1% can afford to attend and talk about how to succeed in the marketplace.
- Attendees/Speakers: Only CEOs, CMOs, and COOs (see above) are attending. Oh, yes, and the wide-eyed salesperson for a software company who wants to sell to the C Suite - or hand out their resume to them. Do you think anyone would spend $4000 to $8000 of their own personal money to be at this event because of the content? Man, it's so easy to spend other people's money!
- Content: I'm sure you have heard the "30,000 feet" overview cliche thrown around by all kinds of MBA grads. Now add another 380,000 feet. Yes, you are now officially in space, looking down at Earthlings. The content is super vanilla and not usable in real life. The CEO of Marriott is never going to say anything at an event that could jeopardize their stock price. Get real.
Try this instead: I know it is not hard for me to convince anyone to not spend thousands on this type of event. Go to YouTube and watch some Ted talks. Total cost: $0.
And now for something a little different… a quick list of my personal conference pet peeves.
- The video keynote. Please stop. I'll make an exception if you are working on the International Space Station.
- Standard PowerPoint template. Nothing screams "innovation and new ideas" like having speakers use a uniform conference-themed PowerPoint template to share such ideas.
- Speaker during lunch. There is nothing like the sound of clinking water glasses and silver to get the audience and speaker in the mood for soaking up ideas. People are already exhausted from the morning sessions, and need to nourish themselves before receiving the afternoon content. Please let people eat and make the customary small talk during meals.
- Landfill schwag. Personal horror story…buttered popcorn flavor chapstick.
- Business card collectors. If I want to give you my business card, it will happen naturally via a real conversation.
- The conference app. It hits the apps trifecta: expensive to make, bad usability, useless after one show. Get a website with pages on where, what, when, how to get there.
- Bad food. Come on! We are in the hospitality business!
- Slow WiFi: Sorry, your conference has failed. Everyone should immediately evacuate the building.
The conference promo video. Oh look… people are having so much fun AND learning AND eating gourmet food! Yes, make a video about the conference…but stop using this generic formula for all your hotel conference videos:
• Catchy EDM tune
• Location city shot
• People entering the building, always smiling
• Customary registration desk
• Presenters on stage with no audio (techno music intensifies)
• Engaged attendees listening
• People playing golf, shaking hands (having a jolly ol' time)
• Exhibitors engaging in deep conversations at the trade show (implied deal-making)
• Short clips post event from attendees raving about the importance of the event (their name and title clearly on display)
Try this instead: Stop paying for sizzle reels. Move that budget over to actually posting some excerpts of speakers sharing actual content. Remember you are the producer…not the talent. As for the rest of the pet peeve items…I think I've made my point.
Hotel vendors spend countless hours thinking about their branding and story for trade shows, then print the same message on everything and show up with the sales team to answer questions. I am all for a chance to do a face-to-face meeting with your peers and customers, but after a while everything starts to look the same. They're there just to be there. Exhibitors are at the event not to win, but to not lose.
Try this instead: Have more respect for yourself, your company, and the audience. Even if you don't have a new product announcement, offer up some new tutorials, new research, or a fun way to engage with attendees. Hey, have you heard of this thing kids love called YouTube?
The Buyers' Club Speed Dating Event
Now this is something that the SEC, FBI, DOJ and Interpol (international events) need to prosecute. The concept is that vendors pay $10 to $15K to attend a 2-day event where " qualified" buyers from hotel companies are hosted by the organizer. The organizer goes so far as to "guarantee" that vendors will meet a particular sales goal. (But this guarantee evaporates once the event is done and paid for.)
Events focus on a range of topics, from hotel hardware to hotel software, from towels to booking engines. I had the misfortune of attending one of these events as a vendor, and what I saw there completely transformed my approach to hotel events. I still cannot believe these events are legal. This event is the proverbial rock bottom of hotel conferences. More on this when I write my book.
Try this instead: Don't go there. To quote Admiral Akbar, " It's a trap!"
Conferences should be about connecting with people, and learning something new from personal interactions that you can't get from Google. Hospitality is an exciting business. Folks, we are literally in the business of events. Our industry events need to be at another level. Technology companies are doing circles around us. Events represent a great opportunity to upgrade ourselves and rise up together as an industry, not only by sharing relevant information, but also by showing what great hospitality looks like.