Professional Conferences Are A Sleazy Con
By Phil La Duke
I’ve lost count of how many professional conferences at which I have presented. I don’t even submit abstracts anymore. Why? I got tired of getting bored participants who sat in judgment over my presentation. Mostly my reviews were very positive but there were always the outliers who thought I used too much humor, or not enough humor and one mouth breather who blasted me because I left my hat on during the presentation. The same organization changed its selection process by dividing the reviews of a presentation into four quadrants. I was told that while I scored in the top quadrant, I scored at the bottom of the top quadrant and therefore it was unlikely that I would be selected to speak. They assured me that it had NOTHING to do with my very public criticism of “professional” conferences and how they are conducted. They also refused to sell my book in their book store so I had NO chance of recouping my expenses.
That was the final straw for me. Professional conferences and “technical sessions” are dying, and if I could I would forcibly hold the pillow over their gaping maws as they gasp in vain for a breath I would laugh maniacally as I did so. I despise the entire hypocrisy that perpetuates the con game that is these National (or International) Meetings and Expos. People volunteer to present a topic. These people receive no compensation, they travel at their own expense, and in an increasing number of cases are charged if they want to attend the conference as a whole. In many cases, the speakers aren’t treated all that well. In fact, they are treated quite shabbily. The sole reward is what insiders call “credentialing”. I have three published (not self-published which a baboon can have provided the baboon has sufficient funds to pay the cost of printing etc.) that nobody reads, a blog that people only seem to read to get offended, and over 2500 magazine articles which I have no idea if anyone reads, contributed to other notable journals and books, and have been cited as an expert in a best-selling book on teamwork, a movie production textbook, and seven or eight doctoral theses by Ph.D. candidates. I’m not bragging, if anything I am illustrating how deeply they are scraping the bottom of the barrel for experts. If you go around calling yourself an expert the thin-skinned narcissists of Safety will be quick to try to tear you down. My real point is that when I list my qualifications in professional biographies I rarely mention my presentations at the National Safety Council or the American Society of Safety Professionals.
Exhibitors fare even worse. They are charged a considerable fee and often are treated as if the organization is doing them a favor. In some cases, the organization itself will put its own both next to someone who sells a competing product or service; as a result, fewer and fewer exhibitors attend the shows (although the Safety Organizations claim otherwise). When I first attended one of these shows it was overwhelming. It took at least three days to adequately explore the exposition hall. Vendors hired magicians, clowns, masseuses, and other attractions you couldn’t even imagine. They put on free exhibitions of fall protection and the latest in training simulations. It was exhausting but well worth it. The giveaways ranged from interesting trinkets to a chance to win an expensive prize. Now if you position yourself correctly you can spit from one end of the expo hall to the other with room to spare. Fully half the booths are unmanned and the others are staffed by people looking bored or talking on their cell phones; no one wants to be there.
What’s worse is exhibiting isn’t cheap, and chances are slim that a large portion of the people who happen by your both will be viable prospects, more like kids going door-to-door at Halloween filling their bags with candy. Despite the cost, many of the organizations that hold the conference sell, or are in partnership with people who sell, goods and services that are in direct competition with the exhibitors. So, let’s say you sell a course on defensive driving, the sleazy conference organizers are likely to put their own (or a partner’s booth) adjacent to the booth that you shelled out thousands to exhibit—and their booths are likely to be bigger, nicer, and more eye-catching than yours. I will say this before God and everyone, THIS IS UNETHICAL AS S (those of you who are offended by the word “s” should know that this is as tame as I could describe it. As I ran through my lexicons of words to describe the actions of these ss-sniffing s bags I started to sound like a sailor with Turrets Syndrome fresh off the boat after 8 months at sea.) Competing against someone who pays to exhibit is just one of a litany of cheap cons that these grifters perpetuate
The exhibitors also used to throw lavish parties and networking events. One rented out Shedd’s Aquarium in Chicago, another threw a luau, the parties were fully catered and had open bars, it was practically a bacchanal. But the rain of cash doesn’t end there. Corporate sponsors pour big money into conferences to have their names ostentatiously emblazoned across large signs and banners announcing their sponsorship of this swindle as if to affirm that a fool in his money may soon be parted, but a fool and someone else’s money are even more readily parted. And while I have no proof of this, I imagine the travel and tourism bureaus of the cities where the conferences are held wine and dine the organizers of these conferences; even if I had proof it would make no difference—it’s not illegal to entertain prospective clients, but one has to imagine that the possibility and high temptation for graft and corruption exists.
And while fat cats make good money at the top of the “professional organizations’” much of the labor and hard work of conducting the conference is done by volunteers. That’s right, in the exchange for a “free” admittance to the conference people actually have to WORK at the conference. Hmm… free labor, corporate sponsors, exhibitor fees? Sounds like a pretty sweet swindle.
But the money spigot didn’t end there. Companies sent entire departments to these events spending anywhere from $800 to well over a thousand dollars apiece. Lured by free food, social networking, being wined and dined by vendors, safety folks flocked to these events. So what did these conferences offer? They paid nothing for all but the most prestigious speakers, the exhibitors outlay exorbitant sums of money with little hope for a return on investment, and the industry sent their employees to exotic (by some people’s standards) locales. The money poured in, but what did it buy? Continuing Education Units. Someone (read these professional organizations) started selling the safety personnel on the idea that they needed to be certified. There were, the snake oil salesmen argued, too many uneducated, unqualified, dunderheads in the safety “profession”. I can’t argue against their point, BUT the solution of granting a certification like a CHMP, CSM, etc. (for a price of course) isn’t the solution. Well, it’s not the solution for weeding out the imbeciles in safety, but it is the solution to making money for nothing. In some cases that is LITERALLY true. One can get certified based on one’s work experience. Yes, of course, there is a test, but it is little more than an additional money grab (you can take a course in how to pass the test). The real larcenous genius here is not selling credentials, it’s in the CEU business.
Only a water-headed manager who is completely clueless would sign on to send people to a conference without a business reason (as it turns out getting drunk at a strip club with a vendor and waking up with a mid-level prostitute is no longer considered a legitimate business expense) so the industry decided that if you wanted to KEEP your expensive letters (seriously I wish they would replace the eses with dollar signs (C$P)) they decided that people needed to earn (read buy) so many CEUs to maintain their certifications.
Oh, and did I mention that in many jurisdictions the organizations that put on this wholesale rip-off are text exempt? Yeah, a completely legal swindle that you don’t have to pay taxes on!
This is the primary reason I don’t subsidize these organizations anymore. I could stand up in front of a group and clean trout for 45 minutes but as long as the people in the audience got their CEUs (and I took my hat off) everyone was happy.
Pandemic restrictions did what common sense couldn’t do: drive a stake through the ichor-filled hearts of the pit of vipers that are the professional development conferences. Good riddance to bad company I say. Now they want to charge you for a webinar. For those of you who have been in a coma for the last five years, a webinar is like watching an interactive video where they don’t allow you to interact with. Don’t believe me? The first thing they tell you to do in a seminar is to shut up, ostensibly because they are taping the session so they can sell it countless times while paying to produce it only once. I don’t think there is quite the market for sitting home at your computer watching a poorly lit idiot in a bad suit talk about his latest book as there was for tearing up the town in Las Vegas, or Singapore, or Bangkok or wherever your prurient proclivities lead you.
If you need CEU’s I’ll be glad to furnish them from Phil La Duke university.
About The Author:
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 2,500 works in print. He has contributed to Authority, Buzzfeed, Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global, and many more magazines and is published on all inhabited continents. He is the author of three books and a contributor to one more. His first book is a visceral, no-holds-barred look at worker safety, I Know My Shoes Are Untied! Mind Your Own Business. An Iconoclast’s View of Workers’ Safety. His second book Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention which deals with workplace violence, particularly directed at women, is listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. His third book, Blood In My Pockets Is Blood On Your Hands was recently released and will be followed by Loving An Addict: Collateral Damage Of the Opioid Epidemic due to be released in December. La Duke also contributed a chapter of 1% Safer, a not-for-profit book written by the “top game-changers and global thought leaders.” Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Phil-La-Duke-320996002174991/ or read his weekly blogwww.philladuke.wordpress.com La Duke is currently employed as a COVID Compliance and Production Safety Consultant for the film and television industry.