Now that the heat in New York City rivals the heat we experienced in New Orleans a few weeks ago I thought I’d write a post about the SLA conference. Although it was hard to be outside for too long in New Orleans, the city was terrific. We had wonderful meals and drinks at
Cochon and NOLA; the Economist Intelligence Unit had a great cocktail reception at Mothers and the music was everywhere. It was my first time to New Orleans, and despite the hardship the city continues to endure, it was fantastic. But…
As a vendor organization we have objectives to achieve in terms of an ROI on our costs to attend and exhibit at the conference. Our ROI calculation includes both tangible and intangible factors. The tangible, of course, is how much new business we can generate year-over year that can be directly attributable to the conference. The intangible factors include the value of seeing existing customers in one place, the camaraderie of a customer appreciation dinner and the opportunity to reinforce existing relationships. For me, another important intangible is meeting with existing and potential content partners, but this could be achieved at much lower cost than exhibiting at the conference.
The investment we make each year is significant. We always have a new and interesting booth/stand. This year Alacra’s super team of Carol Ann Thomas, Helena Plater-Zyberk and Fran Falchook put together arguably the best booth, complete with a tarot card reader and palm reader from
Fortune Tellers at Bottom of the Cup and best customer dinner, at the highly rated Muriel’s. Eight Alacra employees attended –food, flights and hotel rooms. It gets very expensive, very quickly for a company like Alacra.
While the SLA organizing committee and vendor relations team always do an outstanding job, they can’t conjure up attendees out of thin air. Last year’s attendance in Washington D.C. was understandably poor given the economic environment. Still, the exhibit hall last year seemed active because of the DC location – there were many local academic and government librarians mulling around. And there were also a number of day trippers from Philadelphia and New York. This year there was none of that. The exhibit hall was practically empty. The Business & Finance Division luncheon we sponsor every year had few practicing corporate or business librarians who actually have budget to buy products and services. And the information professionals that did attend were almost all familiar faces. Just like last year, it will be impossible for Alacra to make a return on its SLA investment this year.
The concern, of course, is whether the downturn in quality attendance (quality from the vendors’ point of view) is secular, rather than cyclical. The locales of next two conferences – Philadelphia next year and Chicago in 2012 should certainly help attendance. But I heard too many vendors remark, “We can’t do this anymore,” or “We’re going to be smaller next year.”
A group such as SLA exists for the members, not the vendors. However, vendors can only support a trade association or an event to the extent it receives support in return. The relation
ship has to be symbiotic. It took only a few years for London Online to lose the majority of its content oriented exhibitors who were squeezed out largely by hardware and software vendors whose products fell beyond the scope of an information professional’s area of expertise. I sense the same evolution happening with SLA, with no set of replacement vendors to provide the organization with support. We’re past the SLA’s Alignment Project and the attempted name change. So here are some questions for discussion:
1) What is SLA’s plan to make the next conference more compelling for visitors and vendors alike?
2) How can SLA expand the organization’s mission to catalyze growth? Can we more aggressively bring in professionals who work with real-time information? Compliance information? Risk information?
3) Besides bringing in a larger number of qualified attendees, how can vendors work with SLA so we get a better bang for our buck?