This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2004-07-05 at 12:00 p.m.
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Rating Industry Conferences

by Adam C. Engst

An old joke says that to be successful, a college needs to provide a winning football team for alumni, sex for undergraduates, and parking for the staff. It's one of those self-deprecating jokes where the punchline depends on the particular point the speaker is trying to make. Living in Ithaca, home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, I've heard the joke in various forms ("well, one out three isn't terrible") numerous times. As I returned from the successful MacDesign Conference and started to plan for the intimate gathering of a few of my closest friends that could be Macworld Boston this year, I was struck by the level to which the basic thrust of the joke in fact applies to industry conferences as well. For any conference, there are only a few groups of people for whom certain things must be true for success to be achieved, with the main groups being attendees, exhibitors, speakers, and press.

So let's have some fun and see if we can put together a scorecard to rate conferences from a variety of perspectives (obviously, you may only rate a conference for the category in which you have experience). For each of the items below, assign +1 point to the conference if success was achieved in that area; give it 0 points if it was neither successful or unsuccessful (or not applicable, as in the case of a session rating at Macworld Expo if you didn't attend the sessions); and allot -1 point if the conference flopped in that department. In extreme situations, I'll allow +2 or -2 points for truly great things and utter disasters. I'll report back on my rating for Macworld Boston in a few weeks, and if someone wants to whip up a snazzy Web form for calculating and recording these conference ratings for posterity, tell me when it's done and we'll publish the link.

Attendees -- Nominally, attendees are of course the most important audience, since without them, the conference has no reason to exist. But a conference must do a great deal to please attendees.

Exhibitors -- As much as every conference must focus on attendees, since they're the heart of any show, many conferences also provide space for industry companies to exhibit their products. Obviously, a trade show floor with exhibitors is the focus of a large, general show like Macworld Expo, but even MacDesign and the O'Reilly Mac OS X Conference have had small expositions. And since exhibitors pay to have booths, it's important for the conference organizers to meet their needs as well.

Speakers -- In recent years, as the rise of the corporate Web site full of product information has made the big trade show floor with lots of exhibitors less compelling, conferences have focused more on training sessions and other talks by industry experts. Speaking as someone who presents at conferences regularly, there are a number of things that can be done to make speakers happy and ensure good sessions.

Press -- My last audience usually attends the larger trade shows, but members of the press can show up at any conference, and the coverage they provide during and after the conference can prove extremely helpful for drawing future attendees. Keep in mind that members of the press are also attendees, so they can include many of the attendee categories when rating a conference.

Adding Up Your Results -- I'm sure there are other criteria on which you could rate a conference, so feel free to add a wildcard category for something that's not included above. For instance, if the conference does a good job of allowing people to attend remotely, that might be worth an extra point or two.

When you're done, feel free to post the results to TidBITS Talk along with any other comments you may have so others can take your experience into consideration when considering future attendance at that particular conference.