Can My Evangelist Keynote Your Summit?
I am lost and adrift.
This pandemic has changed my life and career permanently and the jury is still out on how it will all pan out for me and my wife. As much as I am annoyed by the incessant commentary about “these unprecedented times”, these are truly unprecedented times – at least for us. Seeing our luggage gather dust and our laptop backpacks sit in the corner of the office we share is disconcerting after so many years of relentless business travel.
Before the pandemic, I was a Platinum flyer on Delta and my wife a Diamond member. We both were traveling frequently and internationally for our respective jobs. The last week of February, I was returning from San Francisco just a day before the 15-days-to-flatten-the-curve lockdown. In San Francisco, I had been speaking at the RSA Conference: a confab of nearly 50,000 cybersecurity practitioners and vendors that has been an annual event since 1991. I have lost track of how many RSA Conferences I have attended in my career, but it is well north twenty-five now. In fact, I was at that first panel discussion with a handful of attendees in my USAF uniform and presented a refereed paper at the 1994 sessions in Baltimore. The conference grew from the NIST/NSA Computer Security Conference until it was managed and branded by crypto vendor RSA in the late 90s. It moved to San Francisco about that time as well. The 2020 version had the largest attendance yet and nearby San Francisco hotels commanded prices topping $600 a night.
My headquarters for most of my information security career was centered in Washington, DC. For the last ten years, you couldn’t swing a dead cat in DC without hitting an ongoing cybersecurity conference. Of course, calling them conferences is so last century. The hotness of the last decade has been to refer to them as a cybersecurity summit. I suppose it makes it sound like everyone is a VIP and all the talks are enlightening strategic insights from brilliant industry leaders and insiders. The number of people on social media claiming their technical talk was a “keynote” is outsized to the number of opportunities. I guess that is one way to flatter your speakers when you are collecting $1800+ per attendee and paying your speakers in “exposure bucks”. See: https://theoatmeal.com/comics/exposure.
Up through the 2020 dead stop, cybersecurity conferences – err, summits – were a huge racket. I am not implying anything nefarious or illegal was happening: it was just a very profitable business model. In DC, snagging a politician or senior government employee to speak was critical. These people by law can’t collect an honorarium for their remarks and the more senior the speaker, the more you could charge attendees and vendors to hear them speak. If they head an agency with fat federal contracts for cybersecurity work, every technology business development director and sales vice-president would ensure they were in the audience for a potential handshake, business card exchange, and introduction. Vendors would drop big marketing money into showcasing their products at a booth or table as attendees and speakers walked the floor.
In my professional field there are also entire cadres of practitioners who have gained fame (if not fortune) being on the speakers’ circuit and racking up frequent flyer miles traveling from event to event to give a pitch. You can see who they are on LinkedIn when they identify as a professional keynoter, thought leader, or (one of my favorites) evangelist – supposedly a real business title with religious overtones. It’s amazing how they can continue at such a pace dragging along the same briefcase of information.
I have been involved in running a few of these live events and know the inner workings. Most are profitable, but I can assure you they are not good for your personal equanimity. I once was proud I convinced a Congressperson to be a “real” opening keynote for a large conference. As we were lined up near the stage that morning awaiting his arrival, my mobile phone rang in my pocket. His aide-de-camp was calling me an hour before his speech to tell me he wasn’t going to come. Something was awry at his home. I looked out over the crowd and at the Congressman’s image plastered all over the conference hall and programs advertising his keynote. People were filing in. This had been a done deal for four months. There was no Plan B. I’ll let you imagine how I felt as my CEO glared at me nearby.
To keep this true story short, let’s just say I was able to browbeat the Congressman’s aide into begging our keynoter to leave his house and come speak in spite of his family issues. To this day, I feel chastened by the language I used as well as the wheedling and prevarications necessary to make it happen. I didn’t like what I became in this situation.
Fast forward to March 2020, and these events stop on a dime. As of this writing, they are still in a holding pattern as organizers have rushed to convert their programs to the virtual world. For many, that has meant trying to replicate the conference experience through an application where speakers and attendees can interact from the safety of home. This is a good interim tack, but it eliminates many if not most elements that attendees value with the on-site experience. Simply dumping a three- or four- day event into Zoom rooms for a low-cost option solves the immediate problem of what to do with your speakers, but doesn’t address the immersive environment that includes vendor booths, hallway meet-ups, evening receptions, and other social activities.
At first glance, these activities may seem superfluous to the stated objectives of professional education and business development. They appear as perquisites to provide social amusements for those privileged to attend. However, they have a far more profound impact that simply cannot be recreated in a virtual environment. These are the settings where people forge professional contacts, find new career opportunities, and reach new clients and business associates. Without the face-to-face interaction, these are much poorer events that don’t have near the profitability of live ones.
Most organizers I have spoken to recently are simply trying to hold on until it’s time for us to once again convene publicly in the name of good business. As pandemic concerns continue, however, jobs are being shed and business opportunities are being lost. I am sure many organizations are losing money. Certainly the hardest hit must be the venues, hotels, airlines, caterers, taxi drivers, security companies, and janitorial services who all make these event run smoothly. From another perspective, I’ll wager marketing budgets are being quietly shifted to other business exigencies as the crisis remains.
I don’t have a clue when these business staples will reemerge. It took the Unites States two years to get back to mostly normal during the Spanish Flu pandemic. I suspect that’s a good gauge as we work to develop and deploy a vaccine and protect the vulnerable. It appears as if this business model is just holding its breath as event organizers and marketing teams try to keep some momentum in the virtual world. I do predict what comes out the other end of this pandemic will not be identical to what happened in the Before Times. Let’s take this time to reevaluate this business model and determine if there will be better ways to replicate the business connections of conferences – or summits. I want my frequent flyer miles back!