The Problem with Vendors as Speakers




I consider myself fortunate to get to attend a number of HR conferences each year, and even more so to be invited on stage with a live microphone at many.  I’ve had that honor in eighteen states, as well as in other countries on two continents.  I enjoy it immensely (probably because it helps me overcome my shyness) and have made no small number of friends and professional contacts along the way.  When I joined Dovetail two years ago, though, I was very surprised to receive a call from a colleague congratulating me on the move, and letting me know I would not be invited to speak at their conference.  I was now a vendor, and vendors aren’t invited to speak.  I was disappointed, but I understood.

In the last two years, I’ve been invited to speak at a few new conferences, specifically because of my role.  For anyone who isn’t aware, there is a long-standing tradition at some shows that speaking slots are sold to vendors, who are then expected to either present themselves or to have a client present and tell everyone how great they are.  And, you know, if they get around to sharing some other content, that’s nice too.  While I’ve always been wary of taking a spot that has been paid for, I’ve done several of them.  But my approach has always been to make sure I am up front with our session.

“I work for Dovetail.  This is my role.  If you want to talk to us, here is where we will be.  Now let’s get to the content.”  Pretty much the same thing I say when I’m invited to speak at any event.  I then do my best to share content that is interesting, meaningful and not at all salesy.

It would be easy to spend an hour just talking about our product and why we think you would love it.  But I’ve always tried to be aware of the money attendees spend to be at the event and provide them some education and entertainment for their investment.  It seems like the very least I can do.  Recently, for instance, I presented a two hour workshop on data privacy.  It was, I think, pretty well received.  I’d like to think that it is because the content was relevant and insightful, and the delivery was at least mildly entertaining.  But I also know that the three workshops that had already been delivered were so sales-oriented that attendees were literally demanding their money back.  And good for them.  This wasn’t a pitch conference, it wasn’t a competition for the best in innovation and technology development.  This was a conference about and for those in the HR shared services space.  I’m surprised more people didn’t follow suit.

In case you weren’t aware, here’s how some (not all) conferences make money.

  • Charge attendees.  This is often predicated on the great content that will be shared and the fantastic networking opportunities with other industry/niche leaders.
  • Charge attendees more.  Pre-conference or post-conference workshops are a great add on.  If you can be there a day early or late, you can spend extra money for more in-depth, hands-on content.
  • Charge vendors.  This is often predicated on the attendees being their “target audience,” not to mention the fact that all the other vendors in that space are attending, and have bigger booths than last year.
  • Charge vendors more.  That gives you access to a speaker slot.  And yes, you are encouraged to have a client come present and share their story, though you are of course free to write all the content, produce the slides, and get up on stage with them and do a sales pitch.  And if your client can’t make it, no problem.  You can fill the hour yourself!
  • Charge vendors EVEN MORE.  For that, you can have a two hour “workshop,” sometimes known as “sales pitch.”  Attendees spend extra money specifically to be there, so you know they won’t leave!  And don’t worry about getting hassled about sticking to the format or topic.  You get a captive audience for your money.

So everyone is paying to be there.  As an attendee, you are told your money will get you great content and networking, but what it really gets you in many cases is a number of sales pitches.  As a vendor, you are paying to sell directly to the people who are so good ay unsubscribing to your email list.  Are all the speaker slots sold this way?  Not usually.  For a two day conference, you can expect one each day to be a booked speaker.  If there is more, it usually means the conference did a bad job of selling to the vendors.  Also, I want to be clear not all conferences to do this.  The big shows (SHRM, HR Tech, HR Tech Europe, etc) don’t need to.   Yes, occasionally someone slips through the cracks and turns a session into a sales pitch.  But they are the exceptions, and are usually not welcome to return.

So what’s an attendee to do?  It’s pretty simple.  Just realize that you have the power in the relationship.  If you are in a session that turns into sales, get up and leave.  It’s that simple.  And make sure the conference organization knows full well why.  Tell your friends.  Tell your enemies.  Tell your passing acquaintances.  And let that speaker/vendor know that their sales pitch is not appreciated.  Feel free to tell them as you are leaving.  If they don’t respect you enough not to sell, no reason you should respect them enough not to interrupt their pitch.

There are some really smart people working in the vendor space.  As long as this kind of nonsense is tolerated they will be minimized in their opportunities to share their knowledge and be looked upon with scorn by the good people who put together conferences that really are about good content, not just good margin.  Speak up and make your feelings known when you attend a session.  Unless, of course, you like the sales pitch.  If you do, then I’m sure each and every vendor would be happy to give you one without wasting everyone else’s time.

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