Taxonomy Meetings 2011 – A Year of Change or Realization?

What are the meetings that cater to people who use controlled vocabularies, like taxonomies? Where should a taxonomist go, click, or attend to learn about the latest implementations and uses of controlled vocabulary strategies? Every company thinks long and hard both about what they do and where to find customers for their products and services. The Information Industry is no different. In the Age of the Internet when everyone’s “knows” about searching and information; it seems like the “information Industry” should be booming, its conferences should be huge, and the attendance incredible, but that is not the case. Why? If the information industry and our little taxonomy segment of the business has gone mainstream, then where are all the people you would expect at the long established industry meetings? The meetings we have attended for years are dying on the vine. The SLA Expo was sparse, the Information Today meetings are smaller, Online Information (formerly International Online) was nearly empty, and NFAIS remains the same size each year.  ASIS&T is growing significantly. Frankfurt Book Fair is bigger than ever. Specific User Group meetings are increasingly targeted and well attended.

I believe there are several factors at work. The diminishing meetings have had challenges for years. Nor are we alone in this trend. It is national and perhaps international. Other options are now available. Nationally 126 million people attended meetings in 2009. In 2010 only 80 million attended. “There were 12 percent fewer attendees in 2010 than in 2005 – and 19.7 percent fewer in 2009 than in 2006,”  notes the Baltimore Sun.  The trend is downward significantly even with the problems of the economy. Let’s take them one at a time.

SLA Conference and Expo – an expensive and glitzy meeting held in conjunction with the SLA (aka Special Libraries Association) annual meeting. This meeting has had as many as 7,000 attendees and many auxiliary events such as user group meetings and advisory boards surrounding it. The meeting itself is significantly smaller now. The membership itself is down to half its numbers from 14,000 to about 7,000 including an unknown, but likely held steady, at about 2000 student quotient. This means they no longer command as large an audience. In spite of a well-meaning board trying to cater to the un- and underemployed by reduced fees, the membership has been shrinking. The Expo has held two functions in the industry. One, of course, is to show the companies wares to the attendees, people who work in corporate and other kinds of unusual libraries and often command large purchasing budgets. Second is the meeting of most of the players in the industry in a single exhibit hall allows for intellectual property rights discussions and business arrangements/deals to be made. But several things have happened to make this a less attractive venue.

Years ago SLA mandated that a company could not sponsor a division’s activities, that is get close to the real customer group, unless you were an exhibitor. That meant paying for the booth (about $5000 for the smallest), paying for furniture, electric, carpet, Internet, card reader, plus the art and brochures, and giveaways, etc. (much more than $5000). Then you need staffing for the booth including airfare, hotel for at least two, but usually more staff. (Another $5 – 7,000 in direct cost per person plus a week away from the office.) After that you get to be the target of every division to sponsor their events – at $500 – $5000 each (there are 28 divisions and almost all of them will call you). So SLA needs to be at least $30,000 line item in the budget, but is usually over  $50,000 plus staff labor and opportunity cost. The business aspect of companies (a less degrading label than “vendors”; What are we circus performers?) talking with companies has been good, but the increasing number of companies “suitcasing” (that is, without a booth), has made the exhibitors targets of not only the divisions and SLA, but also those who did not pay the freight to be in the show. Meanwhile, the attendees are walking the aisles, looking for giveaways, not making eye contact since they have no budget to spend.

More recently the Divisions have realized that they could get more out of their target companies, if they held out the carrot of a speaking slot. If you pay X you are a sponsor, if you pay Y you can also have a speaking slot. That all works as long as there is a large audience to talk with. But over the past two years there have been very few people attending the meetings. The sessions of substance are well attended. I went to the Taxonomy related ones and they were often standing room crowds. Buying of speaking slots, however, degrades the programming options and also makes the exhibitors feel cheap. My expertise, which I have been able to found and run a company on, is only worth hearing, if I pay you to listen? It feels like  some kind of prostitution going on here!

At SLA 2011 many sessions had to do with how to get a job, get a raise, change careers, etc. These are helpful to the out of work perhaps, but NOT a persuasive reason for an employer to send a staff member to the meeting. Why should they send their staff to a meeting to learn how to get a different job? The early program was full of such sessions and a turn off to many of the employers and potential attendees I spoke with. They need to send people to the meeting for a skills and industry update and refresher.

So few attendees because the programs are not delivering content and while business discussions for exhibitors have held them in the hall for the past few years, is that enough to make the show a go? Here are new options out there as you will see later in this article.

Over laden with regulations, booth fee increases, and limited staff resources, have resulted in a thin meeting on top of an already downward fiscal spiral for SLA. Can they pull it out? Perhaps they can, but probably not with the current strategy. That exhibit hall finances much of the SLA annual operations. An organization which gets more than half of its annual income from a single face-to-face meeting in the Internet age has some hard thinking to do.

Information Today built its reputation on the once premier meeting in the industry – the National Online Meeting. It sprang into being when SLA and ASIS&T missed the rise of online searching and the incipient internet offerings as a potential big force in their lives. More recently this meeting has been cut into sections and targeted to specific groups like “Computers in Libraries, Internet Librarian, Taxonomy Boot Camp, Knowledge Management World,” and etc. Each of them seems to draw a small, but loyal crowd of attendees. The business aspect of the meeting has been lost, not much deal making goes on here, and the exhibits are shrinking. Here too, if you are a potential exhibitor, you are generally not allowed a speaking slot unless you pony up for a booth.

This has led to a platform of consultants, who plead inability to exhibit, hawking their services from the podium. The quality of the program is diminished and the people with industry knowledge look for another avenue to get to the customer. The previous model of perhaps if they were speaking, they might also exhibit, has changed to no speaking unless you exhibit. Further the segmentation of the meeting has meant that the exhibitors cannot form the deal making side of attendance that is so important to their livelihood.

International Online was also an Information Today meeting (okay, Learned Information and when they sold it they had to change their name to the very successful industry newspaper they publish – not a bad thing). Traditionally held the first week of December in London, it was THE place to be for the buying and selling of digital rights and to see what new things were being released in the New Year. A vibrant, exciting meeting with a crush of people, big parties in the evenings, cutting edge presentations, and many user group meetings surrounding the IOM. One person commented that about 90% of the Intellectual property rights deals and changes for the year happened in that week in December. This year the meeting was a shadow of itself. Most of the big players did not exhibit, very few people walked through the hall. If you set up lots of meetings in advance, it was okay, otherwise a dud. What happened?

It became two unconnected meetings. One was the conference with delegates (attendees) held on the third floor a block away from the exhibit so the attendees seldom came down through the wet London cold to the exhibition. At the same time it became very expensive! Greed in the face of an economic down turn certainly plays a role, but this is not the only factor. Next year it is moving to Docklands from the Olympia and changing the format and venue. The meeting we knew is gone.

NFAIS has gone a different way. It is a membership organization of about 120 companies. But the leverage of the intellectual value added including controlled vocabularies is not the current focus of these former abstracting and indexing organization’s meeting. Their focus is on the “next big thing,” the trends in the industry. The program committee does NOT select member companies to speak. So if you are a member, you will not be on the podium except as a possible moderator. But NFAIS members would like to hear from members who are in a similar situation and find out how they have dealt with the problem. It is a cutting edge meeting, well planned and thought out, but does not grow due to self-imposed limits.

ASIS&T, the American Society for Information Science and Technology is often considered an academic meeting where professors can get their students’ papers on the program to showcase them. The Board is academic. The members are a mix, more academic than practitioners, but still a fair number of people looking for new technologies and a way to implement them on the home front. I used to survey the audience and decided it was in three segments. The academics sat in the front of the hall ready to comment and debate with the speaker, the practitioners and managers in the middle soaking up what they could from the presentations and questions, and the entrepreneurs and other misfits in the back, standing or on the aisles with an easy exit plan.  It is still that way except that the middle has thinned out considerably. The meeting this year was a pleasant surprise on many fronts. It was a substantive program. Lots of hard hitting application and real life talks, less of the presentations on a sample of 10 – 30 and extrapolating unrealistic results. The talks were longer – 30 minutes and allowed enough time to actually describe the substance and then have penetrating questions. The student papers were moved to a huge poster session – 92 posters replacing the Presidential reception with dinner in the middle and posters around the edge – great for conversations, good learning experiences. Well done. Some even had to do with taxonomies.

But for a lot of application and implementation discussions, the action has moved to the ASIS&T IA Summit. The information architecture meeting now has as many attendees as the annual meeting (around 700 people) and has its own Web site and branding. Here it is far less academic and much more hands on discussions. I found the meetings clannish, but the discussions were worth listening to.

Frankfurt Book Fair – a few years ago this meeting was only for print publishers, although it was THE meeting for print. But as digital media has taken hold a new pavilion was added and the digital activity in Building 4 is now incredibly active. The rights trading is definitely done at this show now. The parties and the satellite meetings have mostly moved here. Publishers and the Online community have merged to be here in Frankfurt in October.

User Group Meetings – remember they used to be satellite meetings around the bigger meetings, but their members were no longer attending the big meetings. They now go for the shorter, pure vendor update, and presentations, which deal directly with their service, product, or software. They use these specialized events to learn what’s new and how to use it better. It pays off back at the office and you meet others who are using and leveraging the same things. I attended several of these during the year. They were uniformly well attended by enthusiastic people wanting to know more about the products and services so they could better manage their investments. Meetings that are viable are those that engage the attendee and the User Group Meetings. I attended several this year and they are of two types. 1) those which follow the rock star level of presentation – like MarkLogic  and SilverChair, 2) and those which are hands on updates on the applications and use cases to leverage the customer investments like Atypon and Data Harmony.

Summary:

Okay great – we know where the companies are going to get their work done, make deals, and to learn new things, but what about the individual? Where are they going?  What are they now doing to learn and keep skills fresh?

The Internet has made many things possible that were not possible before. We can convene a meeting electronically in a very short time. We can have discussions over Skype or Webex or GoToMeeting. We can develop documents using collaborative wikis.  We can have conference calls for people in many locations and several continents without leaving our desks. People have turned increasingly to webinars and web searching to find new things and answers. We follow blogs to read opinions and discussions to add to and enjoy.

If we go to a meeting, we are expecting something else. We want to find community. We want to build relationships, which can then be maintained on the Web once they are established. We want to have discussions. We want to help build, brainstorm, learn, and develop in a group setting. We want to make a deal, discuss the terms, and build trust, face to face. Teaching new skills, reading thought pieces, and announcements can now be done in a web-enabled environment.

Selling (Prostitution) of the speaking slots by the real vendors, those who put on the shows, has had a deleterious effect on the quality of the meetings. The costs have reached a tipping point where they no longer provide a good return on investment for attendee or exhibitor. It is no longer useful to have a big party for your users or to set up a user group meeting in conjunction with one of the big national meetings. But more than that, the challenge remains on how to engage the attendee. How can they be part of the meeting rather than a passive audience? How do you get a sense of community?

There are several budding online communities, which seem to be flourishing. Taxonomy Community of practice is one; the Taxonomy Division of SLA is another. The ones on LinkedIn and Facebook have not yet taken off. The rest are in user groups. Access Innovation’s Data Harmony User Group meeting will be held in Albuquerque February 7-9, 2012.

Come join the community!

Marjorie M.K. Hlava
President, Access Innovations