HR Tech 2012: Why I’m Glad It’s Finally Moving Out of Chicago

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Oct 10, 2012

I have a confession to make: I didn’t get to see or attend as much of this year’s annual HR Technology conference in Chicago as I normally do.

There are a couple of good reasons I could point to — the overwhelming number of vendors who wanted to chat, and me trying to pack too much into too little time — but the main reason was just that it was uber-expensive to attend HR Tech this year in Chicago. With “special” conference room rates starting at $300 plus a night, and, the highest tax burden in the nation for travelers, the Windy City is rapidly pricing itself out of the conference business.

I stayed four nights last year when HR Technology was in Las Vegas, and I’ll probably stay that many when it returns there again next year (for good, I hope). But this time around, I simply couldn’t bring myself to stay four nights in Chicago so I could grossly overpay for a room and get held up for exorbitant taxes in one fell swoop.

A big Farmer’s Market for HR software

Such is the “Chicago Way.” Tell Rahm and the gang I would have spent a little more overall $$$ if they hadn’t been so damn ready and willing to stick it to out of town yokels like me.

So, that’s the bad news. The good news is, well, that’s all the bad news I could find about this year’s 15th annual HR Technology conference.

I said this last year after the bash in Las Vegas, and it is something to remember if you aren’t sure of what HR-related events to attend: HR Technology has evolved over 15 years from a good, solid conference into one of the very best HR-related “must attend” events. It is one of two big conferences (along with the SHRM national conference in June) that you must attend if you REALLY want to take the pulse of what is happening in HR.

With HR Technology, that’s true because what you’ll find there are lot of vendors who have worked pretty hard to create (and hopefully sell) any number of technological solutions to your HR and talent management problems.

You can pretty easily get a good sense of what the big issues are in HR by simply attending HR tech and looking at what concerns the various vendors are trying to address, whether it be a mobile platform for learning, better integrating social media, or how to automate and tie performance reviews to your raise pool with one nifty piece of software.

This is what conference co-chair Bill Kutik and his minions have created here: a vibrant annual event where the best and brightest in technology offer up answers to your most pressing HR concern and issues, sort of like a big Farmer’s Market for HR software solutions. For my money, it’s a great place to comparative shop and figure out what your organization should be investing in, or, get ideas about what you need to get your executive team to ante up for.

Others have different opinions, of course. My pal Laurie Ruettimann over at The Cynical Girl blog has a slightly different take on HR Tech, although she seems to be approaching it from an entirely different point of view.

To each his or her own. Caveat emptor. YMMV.

So with that said, here are some brief and admittedly sketchy observations from what I hope is the final HR Technology conference to be held in Chicago:

What does HR Tech have to do with the Sky Mall catalog? 

I have a much greater appreciation for the art of scheduling of conference speakers these days given my work on TLNT’s own Transform conference, so I understand that what you actually get is not always what you thought you were getting. That’s another way of saying that the quality of conference speakers varies a great deal.

Still, I found Tom Koulopoulos, President and Co-Founder, Delphi Group, to be highly entertaining in his opening keynote presentation. Anyone who can poke fun at the technological “advancements” found in the Sky Mall catalog and use it to hook an HR Tech audience early on a Monday morning is all right with me.

Naomi Bloom’s Master Panel discussion on Bringing HR Into the Cloud was also enlightening, and notable for the heavy hitters she lined up to chat with from tech giants such as Oracle, SAP, ADP, Workday,, and Ultimate Software.

Naomi is a great moderator and someone who has forgotten more about technology than most of us will ever know, but she also has a nice touch when it comes to guiding a group of high-level tech geeks through a conversation on SaaS and what it truly means to operate in “the cloud.”

Kutik keeps bringing Naomi back to speak and moderate at HR Tech, and for good reason: she is uncommonly able to reduce the tech babble from a group like this to something real humans can understand and relate to. That’s not an easy trick to pull off.

Unfortunately, I missed the final day’s speakers which included Oracle President Mark Hurd (formerly the CEO of Hewlett-Packard), as well as industry analyst and author Marcia Connor. Hurd was scheduled pretty late in the game and after I made my travel plans to get out of Chicago, and the conference, before I seriously damaged my company credit card.

Well, I guess that’s my loss because I would have liked to have heard what the somewhat infamous Mark Hurd had to say. Kudos to Kutik for getting him on the program, even if he was added late in the game.

No juggling chainsaws, I’m afraid

Those who recall my post on HR Technology from last year’s conference in Las Vegas may recall how taken I was by the guys who entertained at lunch by juggling, among other things, chainsaws. It was quintessential Las Vegas entertainment, I said, and perfect for an HR technology conference in Sin City.

This year’s entertainment was not nearly as flashy or dangerous, but as my colleague Lance Haun noted here yesterday, master guitarist Mike Rayburn was incredibly talented AND entertaining. After all, who else can play Queen’s classic and musically complex Bohemian Rhapsody by himself on a guitar and make it sound wonderful?

No, it’s not juggling chainsaws, but it was pretty good nonetheless.

Next year: It’s Vegas (again), Baby!

Next year’s HR Technology conference will return to Las Vegas and the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino from Oct. 7-9, 2014. This appears to be HR Tech’s new home for the forseeable future, and as much as I am fond of a lot of things in Chicago, I know the event will fare a lot better in that environment.

McCormick Place, Chicago’s Convention Center, is just too big a venue for a conference the size of HR Tech, and it showed this year when they announced that they broke last year’s record for total attendance (it was around 4,600 in Vegas; specific numbers for this year are still to come) and it felt like a smaller crowd than last year.

That’s due to the venue and how McCormick Place dwarfs all but the very largest shows and events. The Mandalay Bay Convention Center is really the right size for HR Tech, and my guess is that the energy and buzz surrounding the event will rise again when Bill Kutik takes his show back to the desert. Plus, the Mandalay Bay and surrounding hotels can better accommodate the many parties that take place a lot easier than having them spread all over town, as was the case in lovely Chicago.

That’s fine by me, of course, because I need more than two days to really dig into the HR Technology conference, and the more reasonable prices and room taxes of Las Vegas will surely make that possible — even with the distractions of Sin City that will undoubtedly get in the way.

Forgive me, but I’ll enjoy balancing that out.