HR Tech Las Vegas: Crowds, Jugglers, and Another Try at a Great Debate

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Oct 5, 2011
This article is part of a series called ERE Media Conferences.

Here’s a question for HR Technology co-chair Bill Kutik and his many minions who work on the annual conference: who came up with the bright idea to book two guys who juggle chain saws as lunchtime entertainment?

Now, don’t hear that I object to the jugglers. Actually, I loved ’em, and they were really the perfect entertainment choice for a conference in Las Vegas — and the perfect metaphor for all that was going on at the 14th annual HR Technology Conference and Exhibition here in Sin City.

That’s because I have never attended a conference or trade show where I ever did as much juggling — juggling what to see, juggling what to do, who to meet, or simply how to just pack in as much as I could at an event where there was far more you could choose to pack in than any human could. Add in the Vegas sirens song of far too many cocktail parties and sponsored late night club events, and I’m quickly on sensory overload.

HR Tech now one of the 2 “must go” conferences

As conferences go, HR Tech has moved to another level. The amount of frenzied activity that takes place both in and around the event have made it very similar to the SHRM national conference in June. That is, it’s an event that you have to carefully prepare yourself for because it is on a scale that is all consuming once you’re there.

I said this here at TLNT last year after attending HR Tech in Chicago, and it bears repeating. It’s not that this conference has suddenly become something good, because it has always been that. What has changed, however, is that HR Technology has evolved from good into one of the very top HR-related “must attend” events that I would recommend to anyone who wants to quickly get plugged into the human resources/talent management arena.

Or to put it another way, there are two big conferences you need to go to each year if you REALLY want to understand what is happening in HR — the SHRM national conference in early summer, and the HR Tech conference in early fall. There are other worthwhile events, of course, but these are the two that you plan everything else around because you can’t afford not to be at them.

In other words, the HR Technology conference actually exceeds Bill Kutik’s over-the-top and unrelenting braggadocio about it, and that is a tough standard to meet, indeed.

So with that said, here are some observations after three days of meetings, speakers, breakout sessions, after-hours parties, and all manner of discussions here at the first ever HR Technology in Las Vegas:

A big conference that just got a lot bigger

Getting specifics on how many people actually attend a given conference is always hard to get no matter what the conference. Part of that is because people come and go and register right up to the very end, and part of it is because every conference organizer seems to count attendees, vendors, exhibitors, volunteers, press/analysts, and comps a little differently.

The official HR Tech attendance number is supposed to be be available in another week or so, but here’s what we know now: last year’s event in Chicago was the largest HR tech ever — and this year in Las Vegas was clearly larger.

I’m told that last year’s head count was around 4,000 (that probably represents everyone who attended in every category combined), and, that this year was roughly 40 percent larger. That would mean another 1600 participants, or 5,500-5,600 total. That sounds like a lot, and although it WAS a really big crowd at the Mandalay Bay, my rough estimate came to around 4,800-5,000. No matter what the final head count, that’s a sizable crowd (Editor’s Note: see the clarification on the attendance in comment from Bill Kutik below).

Another Great Technology Debate

Last year saw the first ever Great Technology Debate, moderated by Bill Kutik, on Day 2 of the conference, and Jason Averbrook of Knowledge Infusion squared off against Jim Holincheck of Gartner. It’s a fun event that usually doesn’t get to wonky or technical, and I felt that despite a great effort by Holincheck, Jason Averbrook won the first time around. Of course, Averbrook was only in the debate because he pinch hit at the last minute for Naomi Bloom of Bloom & Wallace when she had to bow out due to a death in her extended family.

This year, Averbrook got to defend his debate crown against Naomi Bloom. Problem was, these two debaters are simply too simpatico on most technology matters — something that Kutik admitted before this year’s debate got started.

But Bill also said that he tried to find some areas of disagreement to pose as questions for the two, and that the bottom line of the annual debate was simple. “We are shameless in inviting back the best people,” he said. “They have new things to say each year — and that’s what makes them the best people.”

Probably the biggest disagreement came over the term “talent management” (Averbrook: It never ends and must be tied to a business outcome. Bloom: I don’t like the term and use strategic resources instead) but overall, it was less of a debate and more of a good discussion on current trends in HR Technology. Although the crowd voted about 65 percent to 35 percent for Averbrook as the winner, I’d call the Great Tech Debate 2011 pretty much a draw.

What about those jugglers with chain saws?

Rarely do you see speakers or mealtime entertainment work so perfectly with their surroundings, but that’s how it was with the two juggling comedians who bill themselves as ‘The Passing Zone.” They were funny, amusing, and yes, they even juggled chain saws.

Their act after the new products award ceremony on Monday wouldn’t have worked in Chicago, or virtually anywhere else in the world, but it was the perfect lunch entertainment for a conference in Vegas. Here’s hoping Kutik & Company brings these two back the next time that HR Tech is here in Nevada, because they were the best lunch entertainment I’ve ever seen at the conference — or just about any other conference as well.

And speaking of HR Tech 2013 …

Next year, the HR Technology conference will be back to its longtime home in Chicago from Oct 8-10, 2013. My sense is that will make the event slightly calmer and less frantic, but who knows? I keep getting surprised each year I attend, so I suspect that the year 2013 won’t be any different in that regard.

But, Kutik is bringing the event back to the Mandalay Bay and Las Vegas in 2014 for a few years, and going back and forth between Chicago and Vegas is probably how HR Tech will roll for the foreseeable future. There’s no problem with that in my book, because clearly, this event has become an annual happening and seems to feed off its environment no matter where it happens to be held.

This article is part of a series called ERE Media Conferences.