Laboratory Informatics Conference Challenges

Even though I’m now working on a customer site, I haven’t forgotten about the conferences I just attended and the challenges they face. The current conference situation is that there are just too many conferences for laboratory informatics. Some are quite specific, such as this one last week for ELN, and there are also many for Biobanking, I hear. Not only are there too many, but it is difficult to find customers to speak and these conferences are looking to hear from real-life projects over what consultants or software vendors might say about projects, in general. But many companies are making it harder to present in that some have rules that you must be at a certain pay-grade level to present.

Too Many Conferences
As I mentioned, there are a multitude of conferences. Some of really quite expensive even before adding the travel costs and the issue of leaving work for a few days. Customers AND vendors can only afford to attend a certain number of them because there are just so many. On top of that, we keep wondering if single-topic conferences will go away, such as the ELN conferences. My opinion is this: when a topic is newer and “hot” then it will have at least one conference just for that topic because people are so interested in attending a conference on that topic. As the topic matures, that single-topic conference will go away and people who would have attended that single-topic conference will stop attending it and will start to attend the more general-purpose laboratory informatics conferences, if any. Thus, as we start to see the ELN topics mature and the multiple conferences struggle, these ELN conferences will eventually end up as defunct as the old LIMS conferences. It might not happen next year or the year after, but it will eventually happen. Everyone will talk about how sad they are and then, years later, talk about the “good old days when we used to have that great LIMS or ELN or whatever-single-topic-it-was conference” but it will be time to move on to the next exciting thing that will get its own conference.

Too Expensive
As I just mentioned, some of these conferences are extremely expensive. If they deliver on the price, then they are worthwhile to attend. But even if they’re excellent, there would be only so many a person could put into their budget for the year. Even if the person gets the conference fee waived, for some reason, the travel costs and costs of being away from work still add up.

And that’s not just an issue for the people who merely want to attend, but anyone who wants to have a booth can tell you the cost is quite significant. On top of that, if the vendor also wants to speak in one of the presentation spots, that is usually an additional and also large cost. As such, the people that sponsor the conferences with their booths, talks and by paying for the receptions – even they can only afford to attend a certain number of these. In fact, even some of the largest vendors no longer try to have a presence at more than a handful of conferences each year. The cost just doesn’t justify it.

Too Much Alike
Another problem with the conferences is that too many of the same people are available to speak at all the conferences. That would be consultants such as myself, the same users that speak at many of the conferences – it just makes the agendas look so similar for each conference that it’s hard to differentiate one conference from another. That, plus the fact that many of the same topics are covered by all the conferences. So, between seeing much the same topics and many of the same names, it’s difficult for a new conference-goer to select one conference over another.

One reason that I think we won’t get a greater variety of customers speaking is that most of them are required to pass their presentations through their legal departments and some of them tell me it’s quite a hassle. One customer told me he volunteered to lead a roundtable because he did want to participate in the conference, but it’s just too hard to get presentations approved in order to give an actual talk.

Also, some companies are now stating that only people Director-level and up are allowed to present. Think of this – many of the people leading these projects are a lower management level than Director and, by the time they become a Director, they might not even be hands-on enough to speak distinctly about the details of these types of projects, depending what size company they’re at. Thus, if companies continue on this trend to allow only higher-and-higher levels to speak, we might  be left with few speakers to select from.

Quality Content
People who attend these meetings do require quality content or they probably won’t bother to return. This is the case not just with the customers, but probably also the consultants and software vendors. So, it’s not a matter of just finding some warm bodies with unique topics and different names to participate in the proceedings. It’s gotten quite competitive to create unique lineups. That includes the consultant and software vendor talks, too. If a consultant or a software vendor speak, there is always the fear that the presentation will merely be a commercial for whatever they’re selling. In those situations where that turns out to be the case, because people are spending time and money on these conferences, they are just that much more disgusted that they had to sit through a commercial.

The Solution
Mainly, the solution is that these conferences will continue to consolidate. Those that continue to succeed will remain around, at least for awhile. Those that are doing poorly will probably have to be put to rest unless they can come up with some truly compelling reason to stay around. With fewer conferences, we’ll need fewer presenters, too. That, plus the sponsorship model might change to create different sponsorship opportunities to those who would like to make their presence known.

Gloria Metrick
GeoMetrick Enterprises

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