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Which HR Conferences Are the Best? And Why?

I attend and speak at many HR conferences during a typical year, and often get asked which ones are the best. Every time that question comes up, one word pops into my head: Perspective.

Here’s what I mean by that. I often hear my friends who are HR executives complain that there were too many vendors at a conference, while vendors will lament the lack of buyers at the exact same event. Some people I talk with only care only about the keynote speakers and content, while others skip every session and network instead. For others, the location is the key determining factor.

Perspective matters. So, when asked which HR conferences are the best, it’s critical to understand the goal of the person asking the question. What one person values in a conference often is completely opposite of the next person.

However, the one aspect I find most people don’t bother to try to understand is one that I think significantly influences the experience: the business model. I’m going to admittedly generalize here to illustrate three common but different business models:

  1. The Big, Expensive Trade Show: The better-known conferences typically have a mixture of industry thought leaders, subject matter experts, and even celebrities speak at the event, while maintaining a large tradeshow with a multitude of vendors. I’m often surprised to find out that most attendees don’t understand that well-known speakers command a lot of money... anywhere from $25,000 to hundreds of thousands for celebrities (Barack Obama is reported to be one of the highest today at $400,000 a speech). To fund all of this, conferences typically derive money from the attendee fee as well as charging the vendors to exhibit and attend (a fee that is almost always a lot more than attendees pay). Many other fees are typically layered on in the form of workshops, mailing lists, etc.
    While this model often delivers interesting speakers, the HR executive should expect to be approached by many vendors throughout the event, and the vendor should expect that “booth traffic” will often be hit or miss. Most vendors will try to secure a speaking slot to position themselves as thought leaders, and for an additional fee, a conference will often grant them that privilege.
  2. The Vendor Speed Date: Several years ago. a different business model emerged that allowed the right level of attendee (usually VP or above) to attend for free, as long as they agreed to schedule 1:1 meetings with vendors who footed the entire cost of the event. While the venues often were creative (we’ve all heard the “trapped on a boat” stories), the model is not immediately transparent to attendees...again, I’ve been surprised by how many didn’t understand the requirement to meet with vendors, or that certain vendors paid their way to a podium. This model, for whatever reason, usually spawns the most aggressive salespeople when trying to fill an event.  
  3. The Practitioner-Only Soiree: There are a few conferences (like i4cp’s annual Next Practices Now conference) that promote the fact that no vendors will be in attendance in order to appeal to higher-level practitioners. While the attendee typically enjoys this environment, the business model is the toughest because vendors aren’t funding the bill for access to buyers. Because this is the least-profitable model of the three, the HR industry has precious few of this type of event.

There are other variances on these models, but the three I listed above describe the majority of HR conference business models and are important to consider when choosing what to attend. I obviously didn’t address free events, but you can expect those to be heavily attended by vendors, consultants, and job seekers.

Perspective and business model understanding aside, i4cp decided to ask a simple question in a recent poll:

How do you rate the following conferences in terms of value?

The Best HR Conferences 2019

While it was difficult to list every industry conference (we did have a write-in category), the three conferences our audience said had “great value” were:

  1. i4cp Next Practices Now Conference (75%)
  2. TED (71%)
  3. Learning 20XX - Elliott Masie (60%)

While of course I like the fact that our conference came out on top, I think the clear commonality is the lack of vendor focus at each of these. TED has always done a great job focusing on content first and foremost, presented in a non-traditional format. Elliott Masie’s conference has always been great for content and quality of presenters, but with this year’s acquisition by Closer Still, I expect several changes.  Traditionally the focus on vendors has been minimized, and it won’t surprise me to see vendors play a bigger role in the future.

Conversely, the “Big Expensive Trade Show” events fared poorly by comparison in terms of being considered a great value by attendees we polled:

  1. SHRM (20%)
  2. HR Tech (21%)
  3. ATD (33%)

i4cp members can view the dozens of conferences we rated, as well as other questions we asked such as how much people are willing to pay to attend these conferences. In fact, I’m hoping we can have an open poll on the member site that will always be available to express viewpoints as people attend conferences in 2019.

Next time you are asked what conference someone should attend, consider the perspective of the requester, and the business model of the event. It could be the difference between a several-thousand-dollar-waste-of-time or an investment that provides a magnificent return. 

Kevin Oakes
Kevin is the CEO and co-founder of i4cp. He is a world-recognized thought leader on the topics of corporate culture, the future of work, and learning, and is the author of the bestselling book Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company.