My Final HR Tech Conference
Finally, after reading and writing about it for 10 months, I've finished my 16 years as founding co-chair of the HR Technology® Conference. Now the truth can finally be told: I didn't do it all myself! And all the people who have made it such a runaway success will be working with my replacement Steve Boese.
By Bill Kutik
Much to my surprise, there was no dearth of accolades -- both in social media and the meat world -- before, during and after my final HR Technology® Conference as co-chair. My Klout score (not that I care, of course) must have gone up five points from all the tweets and re-tweets mentioning my name! The LinkedIn conference group hosted several discussions about my stepping down and more than 20 blogs just appeared out of nowhere previewing the event. And lots more afterward. Imagine that!
I had long expected the "Thanks for the Memories" party for me at HR Tech to include video tributes from old friends and colleagues. I was still touched by them and their kind words and the effort that went into making and editing them. Not everyone has an AV department to do it for them.
After 16 years, I took the party to be my opportunity to make a confession and give an Oscar acceptance speech thanking everyone involved. I was worried the band would drown me out if I went on too long. Instead it was the noisy folks in the back of the room that made it impossible for anyone to hear my remarks, so I repeat (and expand) them here.
The confession is that, for 16 years, I deliberately fostered the illusion that I was responsible for just about everything at HR Tech. Short of sweeping the floors, I posed as the go-to guy for whatever.
Anyone who knows anything about producing a large conference and trade show knows that's ridiculous. But since so few vendor CEOs and CHROs do, I got away with that chimera for years. Its purpose was shameless opportunism: identify the show with me, build my brand, make myself irreplaceable and eventually pretty well known in our world.
I'm so ashamed.
So now that I am not irreplaceable (having been replaced by Steve Boese), I want to shatter that carefully wrought fantasy and thank just a few of the dozens of people responsible for making HR Tech the runaway success that it has become. Early on, Steve kept saying how much more is involved in making this event happen than he imagined. You bet.
Let's start with those involved the longest:
David Shadovitz, editor and publisher of Human Resource Executive®, has been conference co-chair from Day One and continues with Steve. He's also edited my HR technology column for his magazine for 24 of its 27 years. That connection was based on just a handshake in April 1990 at the old AMA HR conference in San Francisco.
I am awestruck that David has put up with me for 24 years! Longer than my mother did.
For the conference, every year he picks the keynoters, runs the Top Products awards luncheon plus its entertainment and contributes his encyclopedic knowledge of HR executives and their departments to the rest of program -- invaluable. Happily, my column continues and we can continue to disagree over proper capitalization, hyphenation and more serious matters of taste and propriety. Usually his, not mine.
Fred Kurst has sold the expo floor since Day One and also continues today. At first he did it alone, but for more than eight years now Nancy Sommar has been ably serving vendor customers in more and more of the country. They are aided, abetted and managed in their efforts by Rebecca McKenna, publisher of HRE, who brings two decades of market knowledge to the task. Funny, when we started in 1998, I thought the people selling magazine advertising already knew the vendors and should naturally also sell the show. Happy to be proven right, even a decade later.
A lot of people imagine I am the reigning expert on the vendor history of our industry. Well together, Fred, Nancy and Rebecca can recite the last six heads of marketing at just about any vendor you pick and often where they went to work afterward. As great salespeople should. Fred understood the trade show business long before I did and generously explained it all to me, especially the metrics of success.
Ken Kahn owns it all: the conference, the magazine, a second magazine, lots more conferences and online newsletters and databases galore. Obviously, he was there from the beginning, when he bought HRMS/Expo 97 (which I had chaired) and renamed it HR Tech. More important than the money, Ken provided the soul of the show by insisting on the journalistic separation of church and state.
For the conference, that meant speaking slots were never sold to vendors. Nothing wrong with vendors and their money, but attendees already pay for the content, so it should be in their best interests, not a buyer's. Ken didn't just reluctantly support that money- losing model, he insisted on it. Almost no conference, except professional associations', does that anymore. If you think HR Tech is more honest than most, Ken is the reason why.
Jeanne Achille of the Devon Group jumped in to handle PR soon after we started. What a godsend, since after two decades of specializing in high tech PR, she knows all the HR vendors like an analyst and was a consummate counselor and industry player for me, never a flak. Four years ago, it was her idea to start (and ran at first) the Conference LinkedIn Group. Jeanne deserves diamonds (but gets zirconium) every year for two things -- controlling our madhouse of a press room onsite and earlier birthing the show’s "new products press release" – coordinating hundreds of vendors, analysts, press and bloggers for both with the aplomb of the maestro she is.
Frankly, I was always astounded when people complimented me on how well run the conference has always been. I never had anything to do with that. Instead it was always the Conference Department, now headed by VP Ed Chase and the able and overworked meeting planners Vicky Dennehy and Amanda Kyle. They're assisted by the amazing Angela Wilkinson, who juggles a thousand details at every moment. Together they do an HR Tech (or its close equivalent) more than once a month. Imagine that!
I was never allowed to talk to customer service, so I can't really thank Craig Luttman and his staff handling our burgeoning registrations and figuring out how to put foreign-country addresses into our enthno-centric software that only accepts the standard U.S. address format.
I've saved the best for last – the marketing team – my partners all year long. By the second year of HR Tech, I realized it didn't matter how great the program might be; if it weren't put in front of the right people in the right way, we would never succeed. So I connived to get a series of three marketing directors to do it exactly the way I wanted. Naturally, I never really succeeded. But they listened more than they had to because, for at least 14 years, I wrote every single word about the conference that went out to the public through various channels.
Missy Ciocca made her art department the hippest place in the building. The bullpen surrounding her graphic designers had character, creativity and warmth. And she never bit my head off when I always wanted things done a little different or a little better. Happily, after working with art directors for 40 years, we spoke the same language. And my years in television and film equipped me equally with her husband, Joe Ciocca, who produced all our videos. Lately, Renette Fortune has been getting us into social marketing. But the brick in the foundation was designer Laura Willis, who through thick and thin, turned out our brochures and graphical emails and magazine advertisements with taste, skill and alacrity.
My last marketing director and partner, Lee Ann Tiemann, was the best. She contributed strategy, not just execution. And burdened with many other shows, she never once snapped, when I would indicate by word or deed, "You mean there are others besides HR Tech?" Together we expanded the reach of the show around the world – even to China. Lee Ann's assistant, Christine Shaw, is magnificent beyond words. I am the most exacting and persnickety editor imaginable, and by the end of this year, she was turning out first drafts of promotional materials that I hardly needed to touch.
Plus, from the beginning, Christine has been the guardian at the gate of the Conference LinkedIn Group, which I will continue to moderate. That means she pounces on any new discussion moments after it is posted, reads it, reads what it links to and decides whether it meets our rules: naturally the strictest of any group on LinkedIn. If it doesn't, she deletes it and tells the poster why. In addition, she vets everyone who wants to join the group, now edging toward 17,000 members.
I call her the Miraculous Millennial because she does that all on her own with no supervision. But if she's not sure about deleting something, she always asks me, and most of the time I'm not sure either! So much good judgment in one so young.
Happily, Steve Boese will be working with everyone just mentioned. So you can expect the same, if not better, next year at HR Tech. And I'll have time to talk with you! I've always wanted to attend this great event I read so many people praising, but that luxury has eluded me since we really took off.
See you in Vegas.
HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chair emeritus of the 17th Annual HR Technology® Conference & Exposition, returning to Las Vegas, Oct. 8-10, 2014. You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group, which doesn't 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.