Some Secrets Behind the Success of the HR Technology® Conference
I'm "retiring" only as founding co-chair of the HR Technology Conference, not from the industry. Join me on this trip back to the beginning, but expect no trenchant insights into how the conference reflected (or even hastened) the changes in HR, technology or business. No, mostly it's just about me and how the conference became successful.
After 15 years, I'm stepping down as the founding co-chair of the HR Technology® Conference following the October 2013 edition in Las Vegas. I'll continue writing this column and taking part in many other industry activities. So I'm certainly not "retiring" from work. Who can?
Being a pack rat, I have the brochures and show guides from every year, which have made for some interesting reading lately. And, of course, nothing disappears anymore unless your hard drive crashes (or your storage Cloud dissipates). So for the record, we launched in 1998 in Philadelphia with about 300 paid and unpaid attendees and 92 exhibitors. My Outlook file for that premiere has exactly 35 documents, including many faxes to my co-chair David Shadovitz!
This year, we wrapped up in Chicago with 3,100 paid and unpaid attendees, 257 exhibitors and 350 documents in that one show's Outlook file. More importantly, counting everyone at both editions who cared about HR technology, we had about 600 of them in Philly and 6,000 inside McCormick Place!
Now if the conference were a stock, would that be impressive growth over 15 years: 10x? Not being financial, I'm clueless. My first stock purchase, Philip Morris (when it was my brand and I figured how could they go wrong selling cigarettes and beer to the world?), is worth 7x what I paid for it in 1999. Of course, it also paid a dividend.
Obviously, it's more than the raw numbers. Lots of people have said lots of nice things on the Conference LinkedIn Group, including a song written by our PR diva Jeanne Achille. (I assume you know anyone can join the group: just click on the link.) But I like to point to two ideas -- rather than my personality characteristics or KSAOCs as some others have -- that made the conference so successful.
The first was the recognition in 1998 of a gigantic gap in the people being served by a conference or trade show about HR technology. At one end was IHRIM, then as now, a professional association superbly serving the needs mostly of HR IT system analysts and managers in the trenches running and maintaining HR systems hands-on.
At the other end (then) was the Andersen Consulting Software Spectacular in HR and Financials (attendance only for large company senior clients) and the always very high-priced Conference Board events. I thought: How many trucks could you drive through those two ends filled with thousands of HR directors, vice presidents and CHROs? From Day One, they were our target attendees, especially senior HR executives with ultimate responsibility for technology-buying decisions but without the personal knowledge to make them. More recently, HR generalists who may not personally touch HR technology, but who are touched every day by it and therefore need to learn a lot more about it.
Note that Jim Holincheck, who appeared on our stage at least a dozen times (including the very first Analyst Panels), created and ran that Andersen event with his then boss, Brian Sommer, now an independent analyst and loyal attendee. And, yes, I will finally admit in public that I copied (but heavily modified) our popular Shootout sessions from their event. I added the gladiatorial, blood-in-the-sand aspects: in short, the entertainment.
Now that requires a second admission: one KSAOC that did really help. The first person to note it was Darlene Smith, who ran superb and large user conferences for Taleo for years, doing much of the content herself plus the logistics, which happily I never had to touch for the HR Technology® Conference except to second guess the great group at LRP who did them.
She emailed me upon hearing the news and noted my "unerring instinct on what would make good content and a strong agenda." Thank you, Darlene, for recognizing that domain knowledge is necessary but not sufficient to program the conference. I am indeed a showman, and it is an instinct, as you wrote, which someone has or doesn't. From the beginning, I always recognized that a conference and trade show are part of Show Business. Maybe down on its lowest rung with street mimes and subway musicians, but part of Show Business nonetheless. Fail to recognize it, and you fail.
So I always applied what I shamelessly called my "shallow Hollywood values," even to the most serious topics. One example of Hollywood: Attendees are attracted to corporate names they know and to speakers with titles they share or aspire to. A simple idea, certainly, but try enforcing it in 40 sessions a year for 15 years! More fundamentally, if you don't entertain attendees at least a little, they won't learn nearly so much.
The second founding idea came from understanding that like every industry, HR technology was a small town physically distributed around the country and (now) around the world. And that like every small town, everyone more or less knew everyone else, had hired and fired each other, and married and divorced (actually or metaphorically). But new people were constantly moving in, and we rarely actually saw each other in person, lacking the equivalent of a post office, supermarket or diner where you bump into friends and acquaintances in a real small town.
So we needed an annual Town Meeting. Luckily, decades ago I edited a weekly newspaper in a New England town still small enough to have one as part of its governance structure. Open to every registered voter, the Town Meeting (they always capitalized it) had to approve the town's budget, even line by line. So I knew what it looked and felt like. And creating one for our industry was my other goal from Day One.
Of course, that required attracting a critical mass of the right people. Since attending the HR Technology® Conference involves spending money, while New England town meetings are free to the qualified (and happily, also to the press), it took us quite awhile to get there. I know Dave Duffield helped by saying five years ago, before it was true, "Everybody goes because everyone is there." Well, now nearly everybody seems to agree that's true, especially major nodes on our industry network like Naomi Lee Bloom and Jason Averbook.
So sure, I'm pleased to have reached two important goals after 15 years. But I'm not leaving because I have. They are both ephemeral and can disappear in a few short years. To reach those goals, I worked incredibly hard to make the HR Technology® Conference better every single year to attract more people and bring old ones back. Mostly, attendees tell me I succeeded. Now it needs someone else with new ideas to continue that effort and maintain its annual Town Meeting status.
I don't expect my successor Steve Boese to fill my shoes; I expect him to create his own. And given his perfect set of prior work experiences, including actually running HR systems himself, I know he will. It won't take very long for people to stop calling it, as I'm told they do, "Kutik's show."
I have a simple reason for leaving: I don't want to work so hard anymore. The calls and emails for 2013 literally started the day after the 2012 conference closed. I am already writing and approving marketing materials in December for our October conference. I want time to read the New York Times (on paper, of course) front to back every day (skipping sports, except the America's Cup, natch). To travel to Patagonia and Antarctica, go on safaris in Africa, pilot a sailboat in the Mediterranean and maybe visit Everest Base Camp (once they finish building the luxury hotel there!)
In short, I want a better work/life balance, which working alone and largely from home for 23 years, has always been impossible. Well, then perhaps I can achieve a so-called "work/life blend." And if that actually comes out of a real blender, there better be lots of chunks of free time in it.
HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chairman of the 16th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Exposition, returning to Las Vegas, Oct. 7-9, 2013. You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group, which does not require prior or future conference attendance to join. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show®. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.