Why HR conferences matter (and what people want from them)

As delegates reflect on what they saw at last week's ERE Recruiting Conference, former TLNT editor, John Hollon, reflects on what makes a good HR post-Covid conference

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Jun 1, 2023

Just like seasonal flowers, HR and talent management conferences finally came back to life last year – and without protocols or restrictions weighing them down.

I went to three of those events last year and wrote about all of them for TLNT, but I always remember what Samara Jaffe, the executive director of the HR Transform conference told the crowd as she kicked off her event in March 2022.

She asked everyone to please cut them some slack, saying: “Even conferences — and conference organizers — are going to need time to get back on track.” She added a truism that is equally important: You can’t judge post-Covid conferences by pre-lockdown standards.

This was good advice then and it still is now.

I took it to heart as I wrote about last year’s HR Transform, Unleash America and HR Technology conferences.

I tried to be kind and less critical by giving organizers time to get their conferences back on track, and I factored in the many challenges event organizers still face as they work out the bugs from events that had been shuttered for two years.

But, that was then and this is now.

Conferences deserved their break in 2022, but this is a new year and event organizers have had some time to figure things out.

They’ve had a year to get up to speed, and many have even had a 2022 event to fix any bugs and work out how to put on a great event in 2023.

So here’s the big question: how are post-Covid HR conferences doing so far? Are they getting back to normal? Did they learn from last year and apply that learning to what they’re doing now in 2023?

I’ve already been to a few in 2023, but as I sit and reflect on the HR events so far this year, I’m already seeing some trends emerging.

Here are three worth mentioning:

Delegates want content that’s timely and engaging

It was clear to me, back in 2019, that the content at some events was getting a little stale. Not only did you see a lot of the same speakers with the same message popping up at various events, but it was getting harder to find presenters with new insights on cutting-edge talent management issues.

The global lockdown seems to have put an end to that.

For example, Dr. Vivienne Ming, a theoretical neuroscientist who has spent decades studying both human and artificial intelligence, had a lively presentation on Teaming up with AI: Unleash the Smart Teams of the Future at Unleash America last month in Las Vegas. She said that although “AI may be the most powerful tool humans have invented, it is just a tool. What matters is what we do with it.”

Her talk was insightful AND timely. It was also on a topic that a lot of people have on their mind.

That’s what all conference speakers need to focus on in 2023.

Great breakout sessions are still the heart of ANY good conference

Conference breakout sessions – whether they be a solo speaker, a panel discussion, a moderator interviewing an expert, or something else — are the bread-and-butter of HR and talent management conferences.

Keynotes can be good, but they are frequently a venue for big name speakers touting their latest book or a broader topic that may be interesting but isn’t what most attendees are looking for.

Back in 2015, I wrote here at TLNT that: “deep thinkers expressing deep thoughts seems to be the standard fare for keynote presentations.” I was referring then to speakers at SHRM’s big national conference, but the description could be applied to many similar events.

That’s why breakout sessions are so important. Not only are the audiences a lot smaller, but you get to choose between a number of topics and styles in any given time slot.

This is where HR Transform excels. They have a lot of breakout sessions, and while they were pretty good in 2022, they took it up a notch this April in Las Vegas.

They also pushed the envelope with a session on Leveraging Psychedelic Drugs to Deepen your DEI Practice. I wrote about this in my post last month here on TLNT, and although I questioned a lot about it, I repeat what I wrote then: I’m sure you won’t see other conferences having a session like this.

If they want to be timely and cutting edge, HR conferences have to push content even if it doesn’t quite work. Events that do more of this will be the ones that build back faster as we all work to get back to normal.

A great “conference experience” is key for any successful event

In a world where we have the “candidate experience” and the “employee experience,” it only seems right that talent management and HR conferences are judged by a similar standard — the “conference experience.”

But what is the “conference experience?”

As a veteran HR conference-goer for more than 20 years, it’s pretty simple. A great “conference experience” is one where the event organizers make sure that everything about the event runs well and that nothing gets in the way of attendees maximizing their conference experience.

HR Transform in March went like clockwork — easy to navigate, efficient, and all the little things worked well. The agenda was clear and easy to follow. Breakout sessions were clearly marked with engaging content, and nothing was hard to find. Food and coffee/drink service was solid.

Alex Lofton, CEO of Landed, described HR Transform like this: “Hands down one of the best run, most on-point content rich conferences I’ve been to.

Yes, it was an excellent “conference experience.”

Sometimes it’s easy to ignore the little things because there are always bigger things to focus on

People are hungry to get back to normal

Here’s my take: I’ve seen some really good conferences fall by the wayside over the years.

I knew of one conference where a new executive decided to stop letting prominent influencers attend for free. These people created much of the buzz around the conference, but in this executive’s zeal to save a little money, all he really did was get rid of the very people who were making it a must-see event. This was a short-sighted decision that turned a hot conference into just another event. Attendance dropped dramatically as people migrated to flashier events with better management.

The HR and talent management conference space is booming as people are ready to get back to their pre-Covid life.

I saw that last year and the feeling was even stronger at these 2023 events.

Conferences are a cyclical business, but I think the cycle is on the rise again.


In the mood for your next conference fix?

– The Talent 42 Tech Recruitment Conference is now less than a month away.

Book your tickets here: 

– Plus: SourceCon returns this fall:

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