Is it worth going to large, international tech conferences anymore?

Hello from Seattle! This week I am attending Microsoft Build 2019. The weather is nice, as opposed to all the previous times I have been in Seattle during the past 20 years.

Note: I wrote compact recaps from all three keynotes from Build – you can view them here (Vision Keynote, Azure Keynote, Microsoft 365 Keynote).

For me to get to Seattle it’s a tedious and long journey. Admittedly not insanely long, but typically between 15 and 22 hours door-to-door. Time difference is 10 hours, first few days are basically just coping with lack of sleep and tiredness.

A large conference such as Build, at 6,000 or so attendees, is also time away from family and work. For me that usually means 7 nights away from home and while I love to travel I prefer travel with the family, not solo.

Time away from work also adds plenty of cost and expenses for a week like this. A ticket costs $2,395 (2139 €), and economy flights for me are usually in the ballpark of $1200 (1070 €). With hotels, I try to stay close to the venue, as it allows for more convenient access and I don’t spend precious hours traveling while in Seattle. Typically on a week like this, the rate is between $300 and $500, per night.

Total cost for attending a conference such as Build, is north of $5,000. It really is a lot of money, thus there should be a lot of value for attending in person.

Don’t understand me wrong — my intention is not to bash conferences, as I organize many myself and I understand the financial risk and challenges that entails for an organizer.

I spent a fair amount of time thinking, why do I attend a large, international tech conference in person. For the money, time and effort there has to be a tangible value and return on investment (of time, mostly) but it seems to be hard to measure or quantize.

To start off this short exercise in justifying the cost and effort, let’s list the obvious reasons for attending. These are, in no particular order:

  • Meeting with people from Microsoft
  • Meeting with other attendees, MVPs, RDs, and people from similar communities
  • Attending sessions

It seems most sessions (and all keynotes) are either streamed live or at least recorded and made available after the event. Often for free, or accessible if you purchased a ticket. In a way, attending a live session to feel the vibe is useful but I often just want bits and pieces, not the whole 60 minutes of content. Recordings are especially useful for me while traveling or when doing my evening runs.

Meeting with people is obviously important and valuable and many people I spoke with agree on this. Having informal meetings, side discussions, spontaneous chats and being introduced to people is most valuable to me. I simply cannot reach out to as many people virtually, and many times they wouldn’t have time for me as they, too, are busy.

To add to this list I’ve found the expo area a sort of forgotten benefit I get as an attendee. I can spend hours roaming the booths in trying to understand the offerings, the problems companies are trying to solve and sometimes being able to weave new business opportunities and joint projects. These sorts of meet-and-greets I’ve found to be often even more useful than ‘just’ attending sessions.

As the final aspect that I feel brings in huge value are the off-venue dinners, casual drinks, and parties. I always go into these with a mindset that I need to listen more and talk less. This is easy for me, as a Finn we like to talk less naturally. This allows me to get to know people better and usually topics revolve around other things than business, or projects. Which I find is great as everyone has their own interests in life that I might know very little about but am keen to hear about.

To bring closure to this — yes, it is worth it. I am sure there are aspects I’ve missed. Each time I start packing my bags after a conference like Build I feel satisfied and even happy. But this also means I’ve had to make an effort for it. It simply isn’t enough to purchase a ticket, book a flight and make a reservation for a hotel. That’s just the entry fee — and based on what you get out from the week results in perceived and received value from the event.

The feeling and level of satisfaction I have when I depart from Seattle this week is what tells me that I found the value for myself.