This was a year of many firsts for me, including four conferences I attended for the first time: Interop Las Vegas, Cisco Live, Nth Symposium, and VMworld. This is a long one, but I wanted to share my comparison and suggestions for future events.
Disclosure: I received support from Tech Field Day, HP Storage, and VMware in attending these events. I was a delegate to roundtables with Tech Field Day at all but Nth, and a HP Tech Day delegate at Nth. None of these sponsors were promised any special consideration in my coverage (or lack thereof) of the events, nor was I compensated for any participation in or around their events.
Both Cisco Live US and VMworld US were huge affairs, effectively a full week with 20k+ attendees, keynotes, breakout sessions, noticeable social media engagement, and all the challenges that come with housing, feeding, entertaining, and educating a large crowd, not to mention navigating that crowd.
Cisco Live was at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. About a dozen official Convention Hotels were within a few blocks of the convention center.
VMworld was at the three buildings of the Moscone Center, and conference facilities in two or three nearby hotels as I recall. Attendees had choices of hotels within a mile of the conference center.
1. Registration and Scheduling
Registration for both events was pretty simple. Both events offer a schedule builder–I believe both events use the same scheduling site/service. Cisco Live gets bonus points for extending the scheduler to allow us to note evening events, and even having event codes for some vendor events.
VMworld had 5 minute increments which seemed like overkill, and their scheduler stopped at the end of the sessions. I ended up using the mobile app and my Outlook calendar and hoping I kept them in sync, to keep up with vendor events after hours.
Recommendation: Simplify and expand the scheduling system. In addition to allowing scheduling outside of conference hours, I would like to see the ability for vendors, sponsors, and community organizations to get scheduler codes to help attendees keep track of their schedules. This might also enable them to simplify the different reservation systems they use for some of these events, although Eventbrite seemed to work well for many VMworld events I attended.
Also, consider building offline caching features into your conference app. Some foreign people may not have generous data plans, and your wireless network (or your hosting provider) might have issues with 20-30k people using it from multiple devices. We’ve seen both things happen, right? Although both environments were reasonably stable most of the time.
2. Catering and Meals
Cisco Live provided pretty good meals for us. I was surprised by the quality, and the staff (both event and catering) greeting us with cheers and smiles as we entered the dining hall each time was an unexpected bonus. I felt like a hero returning from war, as hokey as that sounds. The walking distance choices for eating outside the conference center were either pricy, or challenging the definition of “walking distance.”
VMworld’s catering experience was a bit lower-key, and was rather disappointing by comparison. Quite a few people I heard from and spoke with just skipped the meals. The three meals I ate on site were rather plain and bland, with suboptimal beverages to go with them. Luckily there are a LOT of good eateries, with a range of formality and price, within spitting distance of Moscone.
Recommendation: Map the dining tables for easy location/reference. In a room with hundreds of identical round tables with white tablecloths, it’s hard to communicate where you’re going to meet. Label the tables with row and column, maybe even sell sponsorship of the table mappings, and let attendees find friends, colleagues, or birds of a feather more easily.
3. Courtesy Transportation
Both events provided courtesy transportation to a selection of conference hotels, as well as buses to the official convention party.
VMworld stopped the buses during midday, but this wasn’t clear at the bus stops at the convention center (and the stops near the hotel were not marked at all). I suspect this helped with pollution and traffic around the downtown area, but it made it inconvenient to get around.
Cisco Live had regular bus departures throughout the scheduled events, but bus stops at the hotels weren’t marked (sure, the dozens of Cisco Live backpacks were effectively marking the bus stop, but they weren’t always there).
Recommendation: Mark the bus stops with location and schedule, on both ends of the route. If a bus route has one stop for multiple hotels, note that clearly. Don’t count on the bus drivers to communicate it. They’re not all that talkative. Also, provide info on public transportation alternatives (especially for San Francisco, where the MUNI buses and MUNI Metro/BART were often more efficient than courtesy buses).
Further Recommendation For Vendor Event Transportation: Communicate the event and transportation schedule clearly to attendees, put a representative at both ends of your transportation (don’t count on people tweeting or phoning to figure out why the limos are an hour late), and take into account that a lot of people will be overbooked but still want to join you. (I had one suboptimal event transportation incident at each conference, and won’t name names, but there was room for improvement.)
4. Keynotes and Hang Spaces
Cisco Live totally covered keynote access for people who couldn’t/wouldn’t go into the keynote theatre (whether for claustrophobia reasons, running late, having to do work while at the show, or wanting to enjoy the MST3K style mode of keynote viewing). Video displays all over the convention center showed the presentations live, and I believe some hotels in the area carried the keynotes on closed circuit channels as well.
VMworld provided some viewing opportunities in the Hang Space, which was like an expansion of Cisco Live’s social media lounge but became more of an overflow viewing location. The dedicated blogger tables were great for bloggers in attendance, with power and even wired networking, but they didn’t have a good view of the viewing screens.
Recommendation: Increase the social media space and expand remote keynote viewing. I expect Cisco will enlarge the Social Media Hub next year based on its increasing success and popularity. Hopefully when they bring CLUS to San Francisco, they will be able to keep the easy access to remote Keynote viewing, and maybe share their secrets with VMworld for next year.
5. Social Media Visibility
My depth in the tech community is in great part due to social media, so I’m particularly interested in this item. I’m somewhat surprised that so many non-Twitterers attend these events; the social media back channel makes both more enjoyable and manageable, and I think you miss out on a lot of the experience if you just go with the digital billboards and printed materials.
Cisco Live had a more interactive official/branded social media presence under the @CiscoLive account. From a social media hub on site, they were there with promotions, shirts, phone chargers, snacks, receptions, and Cisco people responding to all sorts of inquiries on Twitter. They gamified the tweeting around the event (and yeah, I got in pretty deep there, winning one day’s scoreboard and coming in a close second the day before). They’re still responsive two months later in fact, although more focused on ongoing events and Cisco Live 365 resources now.
VMworld’s social media response was more personal/inside–Corey Romero (@VCommunityGuy) and John Mark Troyer (@jtroyer) are very visible within the VMworld community and the forums, and they also take care of vExperts and other certified vPeople, but there wasn’t much of an official branded presence for the conference. The @VMworld account mostly announced things and retweeted, but didn’t respond to people much that I could see.
Recommendation: Enable and encourage more outreach to people who don’t use social media yet, or those who don’t know about the conference’s social media features. Announce hashtags, twitter-related events, and the like near the blogging/social media hangouts. Keep enabling twitter handles on the official event badges.
6. The Expo Floor
This one doesn’t really fall to the conference organizers, but I wanted to share some feedback to exhibitors/sponsors who are looking to improve their guests’ responsiveness.
Ease up with the badge-scanner vultures. In my pre-VMworld blog post I advocated having separate scanning queues for “I’m interested in your product” vs “I just want the tee shirt or a chance at the free iPad.” It should be easy to do this in your booth–if the scanner is in the hands of someone wandering around outside the booth, assume “tee shirt.” If the scanner is in the hands of someone answering questions, give them the option of “I want to talk to you more after I recover from the conference.” But at the very least, make sure your scanner people aren’t like the card snappers on the Las Vegas strip. Please.
Consider compact and functional schwag. I brought home 20 shirts from VMworld, and nearly 100 across the four shows combined. My fiancee isn’t very happy about this. Flash drives (8GB is the sweet spot these days), cell phone charging batteries (something that can give a modern phone a full charge), or customized gift cards (Starbucks, a local coffee shop or restaurant, or even your own online store) are more useful and easy to cart around than a ton of shirts, screaming monkeys, coozies, or stress balls.
Reconsider “must be present to win” drawings. If you haven’t noticed, these expo floors tend to be big and crowded, especially around beverage times or the very end of the day. We may not remember where your booth is or which day/hour your drawing is. And some of us want to go to sessions or use the restroom or eat now and then. Get our Twitter handles or email addresses, and if we win, get in touch and work out the details. Bonus points if you’re willing to ship an enormous giveaway item (kudos to Coraid for offering to ship a big Lego set this past week–I wish I’d taken you up on it rather than carting it home on BART+Caltrain).
Consider staying till the end of the expo. A few people noticed empty booths on the last day of VMworld, and I seem to recall a couple of blank spaces at Cisco Live as well. If you do have to pack it up–transportation and other events can get in the way–leave some sort of indication that you didn’t just get swept up by a tornado, and offer some way to get in touch if someone couldn’t make it to your booth in time but wanted to learn more.
Thanks for reading this far. I had a great time at all of the mentioned events, met some great people, built relationships for my professional development and my work life as well, and also enhanced my appreciation of my own bed and pillows.
I have tried to offer some constructive suggestions for improving aspects of both big shows, and would welcome any feedback from folks involved with the conferences or other attendees (or would-be attendees).