"Lotus" conferences, user groups, and sponsors... changes in store?
This last week I've been thinking about the substantial number of Lotus conferences and user group meetings I've gone to during my years of working with Notes and Domino. I purposely say "Lotus", "Notes", and "Domino", because that's what the branding has been for the vast majority of the time I've been involved, and IBM still hasn't dealt with the rebranding of Notes and Domino contrary to statements of intent. It's still Lotus Notes and Lotus Domino, for better or for worse. But that's not the purpose of this post. :)
It used to be that Lotusphere was the big hitter, followed by Devcon and the View conferences. They were always packed and sponsors abounded. User groups were mostly lunchtime or after-work affairs in metropolitan areas with local developers and administrators meeting for beer, pizza, and a presentation by someone. If you could get a sponsor to buy the pizza, you were doing great. Otherwise, everyone was happy to chip in a couple of bucks for the necessities.
Then (in my view and opinion), ILUG rewrote the rules. The Irish Lotus User Group decided that they'd try the improbable... put on a multi-day user group meeting that resembled a conference, get some significant sponsors, and appeal for attendees and speakers from anywhere in the world... and charge nothing. With some incredibly hard work and a few great breaks, the event surpassed expectations and quickly became the model for what user groups could be. So long as a group could get one or two large sponsors and a handful of smaller ones, attendees no longer had to come up with hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars to get high-end content from the top speakers in the Lotus community. The community was serving themselves and upping the game when it came to learning.
While this model worked well for attendees and the community overall, it created a major inflection point for paid conferences. How do you present material that others are sharing for free, charge people to attend, *and* make a profit since that's your business model? In short, you can't. Devcon is gone, the View conferences have combined and are in a struggle to survive, and Lotusphere is less than half of what it was during its glory days. The new user group model isn't to blame for all of that, but it's a significant factor. Add in the economy, companies spending less to train, the cost of travel, more material available online, fewer technical people needed for cloud-based software, and the loss of market share, and you have a recipe that doesn't bode well for turning a profit to run a Lotus conference.
And then there are sponsors...
In all the conference and user group models, sponsors are the key ingredient. Without sponsors, you either have to charge people (a lot!) and/or the vendor has to pick up the entire cost. And let's face it, one of the benefits of an in-person conference is the chance to see what vendors are selling, learn what things might be available to help your organization, and to get cool schwag. Vendors are important to any conference, and they are the reason the user group model works at all. No vendor sponsors, no quality user groups.
Usually you have one or two "gold level" sponsors who step up and provide a significant amount of the resources needed to make things happen (the key word is "money"). It's possible to round up a larger number of sponsors at lower dollar amounts, but it really helps if one or two sponsors provide the bulk of the money. Otherwise, the organizers spend all their time chasing sponsors and collecting money, and much less time coordinating the actual event. It makes a huge difference.
My concern for Lotus conferences is the key phrase "large sponsor". All you need to do is look at the backpacks from Lotusphere to see the story. LS2008 - IT Factory, HP, Blackberry, Nokia. LS2010 - IBM, Blackberry, Group. LS2012 - IBM, GBS, HTC. I have far more backpacks around here, but I think this makes the point. IBM has always depended on a group of major sponsors for Lotusphere. How many of those groups listed above are still sponsoring, will sponsor, or even exist?
Group (GBS) has been the go-to money sponsor for the last three years. They've generously provided money and resources to Lotusphere and user groups. LS2012 was basically the Group vendor showcase with everyone else around the edges. But let's not ignore the elephant in the room. They have lost over 90% of their market value in the last year, and their year-end fiscal report (the year ended March 30 but the report hasn't yet been filed) is likely to show continued (and in my opinion, heavy) operational losses yet again. I'm confident that sponsoring at the mega-level they have in the past is not even an option any longer. I'm not even sure that the existence of Group in their current structure is even possible, but that's another discussion.
IBM, for a company that continues to surpass Wall Street expectations and set records with quarterly and annual profits, treats user group event sponsorship like they are on the verge of bankruptcy. After significant and prolonged discussions and battles, some money usually does end up flowing in for large user group events, but it's sad that they have to be begged and convinced to provide money for an event that is promoting *their own technology*! What does this say for the support and strategic positioning in the market of their products?
Looking forward to 2013, what will the IBM/Lotus conference landscape look like? It'll be interesting. IBM will continue to run conferences that promote their strategic direction, and they should. But from the outside looking in, these conferences appear to be more strategy and marketing, as opposed to the "here's how you install software X to accomplish Y" that Lotusphere provided. There's even been chatter that "Lotusphere" will be a track in a different conference branded with the IBM name. We'll see how that plays out. I think that the "Lotus" (and I use that brand broadly to mean what long-time community members often think of) user groups will also have to work a lot harder to get the resources that they need to make things work at the level we've come to expect. Smaller (relatively speaking) vendors will need to step up and fill the gap that seems to be opening up with the loss of the mega-sponsors, and the topics covered in the meetings might end up being more diverse in order to satisfy a different sponsorship group that might be willing to step up.
As with all predictions (and you can make the case that I'm doing just that), reality will be different than what was put forth as a foregone conclusion. It's why Italy is playing Spain for the Euro2012 championship instead of the "certainty" of Germany playing Spain. But if this causes someone to stop and think about what they might need to do if things are not "business as usual" going forward, then it's been of some value.