2010 Conference Trends: Is SHRM San Diego Ready for a Rebound?

From the HR blog at TLNT.
From the HR blog at TLNT.

I couldn’t have been more wrong about the 2010 conference season.

Late last June, right after attending the Society for Human Resource Management’s 61st Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans, I predicted that SHRM’s 2010 conference in San Diego next month would do no better attendance-wise than the 2009 event in Louisiana.

I had good reasons for thinking that.

First, attendance at SHRM New Orleans was way off what it had been the year before – paid attendance in 2009 was just under 7,000 compared to around 11,000 who were in Chicago in 2008. The big drop-off last year was due to the recession, of course, and the fact that organizations slashed most discretionary travel as a reaction to the big economic downturn and the huge pressure on everyone to cut business costs. As a result, SHRM New Orleans paid a steep price.

My prediction was also predicated on the notion that I also didn’t see any big economic upswing coming that would grow 2010 travel budgets by the time most organizations finalized them last fall. On top of that, I thought that a SHRM annual conference this year in San Diego carried the burden that most all West Coast conferences face – the fact that two-thirds of the U.S. population lives east of the Mississippi River.

It’s tough getting people to make the long trip to the Pacific Time Zone, even in good economic years (something that bugs the hell out of a native West Coaster like me), and I thought that the slow pace of economic recovery combined with a conference taking place in the far southwestern corner of the country added up to another down attendance year for SHRM. I even wrote over at workforce.com that you shouldn’t “bet on attendance (at SHRM San Diego) being any better than 2009 in New Orleans. In fact, it may actually be a little bit worse.”

Well, it’s time for me to eat those words. What I didn’t count on last year when I made what now looks like a bone-headed prediction – although it seemed incredibly smart and insightful at the time – was that there would be so much pent-up demand for people in HR and all the related talent management areas to get out and start attending industry conferences again.

That’s the only way I can explain what’s been happening this spring as conferences everywhere seem to be seeing a solid recovery from the dark days of 2009.

For example, WorldatWork’s Total Rewards 2010 conference held in Grapevine, Texas (near Dallas) in mid-May had 1,543 attendees compared to approximately 1,200 in Seattle last year – nearly a 30 percent increase. The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) conference in Chicago that was held at the same time saw about a 30 percent increase in attendance, as did ERE’s Spring Expo 2010 held in San Diego in April (full disclosure: ERE .net is a sister website to TLNT.com).

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On top of that, SHRM is reporting strong early sign-ups for the annual conference next month. With six weeks to go before the conference, SHRM reports 9.520 registrations so far for San Diego, compared with only 5,647 registrations at this same time last year leading into SHRM New Orleans.

Clearly, conference-going is picking up, and it seem to reflect not only an improving economy but also a pent-up demand to travel, attend conferences, and connect with peers after a lean 12-18 month period where people hunkered down as organizations cut such things out of their budgets.

So yes, I will eat crow and admit that my prediction last year about this year’s SHRM San Diego conference was completely and utterly wrong. You can blame that on whatever you like, but it probably just reflects bad forecasting and analysis on my part.

And, this points out the problem with forecasting – it is heavily dependent on what happened in the past, and as those disclaimers we hear so often regularly remind us, “past performance does not guarantee future results.”

I’ll see you at SHRM San Diego. Feel free to tell me how you came despite the out-of-whack forecast of some stupid blogger you can’t remember the name of.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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