CFUNITED - Thoughts on the non-technical stuff
June 27, 2008 ·
First off, I'd like to extend huge congratulations to the team that organized CFUNITED: Liz Frederik and Nafisa Sabu with technical assistance from Elliott Sprehn (and, of course, several on-site folks who man the registration booth and run around making sure everything's OK). Despite all the others, we know the powerhouse behind CFUNITED these last several years is Liz and Nafisa and it wouldn't happen without them.For speakers, CFUNITED is a fairly well-tuned machine with a good, timely flow of information and valuable benefits in exchange for delivering drafts and other information and material to the conference in a timely manner. The speakers' dinner was nice and quiet (although Clyde's had no idea how to cook steak). Choosing to record all the sessions with Adobe Acrobat Connect was a brave experiment and, in my opinion, a great success overall. Sure, some recordings had rough audio and some speakers somehow didn't manage to conquer Connect but well over half the sessions are now available on Charlie Arehart's UGTV. This is a huge step forward. Of all the conferences, CFUNITED excels at networking. It's the biggest (CF) event with the widest audience and the best chances for meeting other CFers and talking about work problems and work opportunities. It wasn't all good tho' this year. I want to talk about some things that didn't go as well (and are mostly out of the control of Liz and Nafisa so this is not a criticism of them). Content I gave my talk twice and went to eight other sessions (plus one keynote). There were two sessions that I wanted to see but missed (due to getting caught up in networking conversations). I've gotten used to the fact that I'm not very likely to fill my schedule at CFUNITED but this year pickings seemed unusually slim in terms of advanced content. It also felt like more speakers were giving their talks and then leaving town. I think back to cf.Objective() and Scotch on the Rocks where I was able to fill my schedule fairly easily. Part of the problem, of course, is that talks I'd seen at those two conferences were repeated at CFUNITED, further reducing my options - and there were several talks that were variants of topics that come up every year at CFUNITED (I heard several attendees complain about "the same old topics" this year). Track chairs could do more to pick new topics and push speakers to write new talks. I know it's a lot of work. I've committed to two new talks for CFDevCon because I feel it would be unfair to their audience to reuse the two talks I did at Scotch on the Rocks. I was asked to repeat my Event-Driven Programming talk at MAX but it will be substantially different so that folks who saw it at Scotch on the Rocks or CFUNITED can come again and see something new. Adobe's keynote was great (of course) with positive news about ColdFusion's sales and lots of juicy information about Centaur. Michael's opening keynote was... painful. I've already touched on this in my review of day one but it really needs to be said again. Keynotes are supposed to be upbeat, engaging, informative and enjoyable. Perhaps even spectacular and rehearsed (MAX and similar large vendor conferences). Michael was quiet, unprepared and downbeat. It felt amateur and it was boring. A shambolic Q&A session is no way to start a conference. He really needs to just come on stage, get people excited about the next three / four days and introduce the "main act" and get out of the way. Michael's sessions at CFUNITED tend to be very "touchy-feely" and full of audience participation. Fine. Keep it to the sessions. It doesn't work in a keynote. Then there was HostMySite's keynote. I stayed away - I couldn't imagine what they could talk about that would be worthy of a keynote rather than just a case study on their business. Lots of other people stayed away too as far as I can tell and the reports that filtered back to me from folks who attended said it was pretty awful. I like HMS as a hosting company but this is a good example of why even top sponsors should not automatically get keynote slots! Birds of a Feather Sessions What was with only one BOF slot? Everything had to compete. It would have been far better to have had more slots and used fewer rooms. Oh wait, there was that two hour networking event wasn't there? Well, let's hope the food and drink there were good enough to warrant not having more BOF slots. Since all six BOFs competed, we had to pick one and only one. I went to the Open BlueDragon BOF (to show I'm not "against" the project). Matt Woodward told an audience of about half a dozen about OpenBD and what was coming in terms of new features and project infrastructure (including the open source wiki project). It was good to hear about discussions on the committee, especially around license considerations (although he emphasized that LGPL was not being considered). Several BOFs had similarly low attendance (I heard the remote workers BOF was abandoned after a few minutes). Ray's SciFi BOF was fairly well-attended (my wife went to that!) and I heard that the Railo BOF was fairly well-attended (about 30 people?). Cut back the networking event and give us more BOF options next year! Attendance & Catering An observation rather than a complaint: attendance seemed way down this year. Last year I believe somewhere around 950 attendees packed into the Montgomery Conference Center / Marriott. This year it seemed closer to 700 (and I heard that number from a couple of sources but haven't been able to confirm it yet). I'm sure the economy had plenty to do with it - CFUNITED is an expensive conference in an expensive location - but I'm guessing that WebManiacs in Washington, DC only a month earlier also hurt CFUNITED. We seem to have an embarrassment of conferences in the second quarter of the year and that can't help anyone's budget plans! Despite the lower attendance, the catering seemed to have aimed at a still lower number. Sodas and coffee ran out every day (I managed one Coke on Saturday afternoon and I think I managed one coffee, despite trying to get soda and/or coffee and a snack every day). Food ran out. The unionized staff at the convention center couldn't care less. I heard several reports of attendees asking if there was more "X" and staff either just shrugging or saying that the event organizers hadn't bought enough / had gone over budget. Some attendees missed lunch altogether because food was all gone early in the 90 minutes allotted to lunch. Even when there were "leftovers" they seemed to be cleared away too swiftly for latecomers to take advantage of. Even before the conference I'd heard concerns expressed by folks who'd had dealings with the Washington Convention Center in the past - and MAX Chicago also suffered from unionized staff indifference and obstructive behavior. I'm going to put the special event in the catering category. I didn't go. I'd been told TeraTech wanted $150 for guests to attend the two evening events and that seemed outrageous to me. I heard (after the event) that they'd reduced the price to $100 but that still seemed expensive. A couple of attendees said they'd heard of tickets available for just the special event at $50-$65 and one attendee claimed their guest got in free after bitching about the ticket price. I was of course interested to hear what folks had to say about the event at the Crime & Punishment museum. All I heard was negative, both about the museum itself and the poor selection of food and drink at the event. Several attendees said they wouldn't have paid the $15 entrance fee if the event hadn't been included in the conference. I'm not sure what to suggest about "special events". Most conferences try to organize them and most conferences seem to charge for guest passes. MAX Chicago wanted $100 for a guest pass (and that event got terrible reviews from most people I spoke to) and MAX Barcelona wanted $75. I complained so much about that, I got a comp'd guest pass and it most certainly was not worth $75. cf.Objective() did not have a special event (the committee talked about it but the cost and logistics made it very hard to justify). Instead they held a sponsor-funded reception on the evening before the conference, left attendees to their own devices on Friday evening and ran four tracks of BOFs in two time slots on Saturday as well as an Adobe BOF in between those slots. What do attendees prefer? Location & Layout When I checked in on Tuesday, I was stunned at how big the convention center is. My first thought was "Wow! CFUNITED is going to be pretty lost in this big building!" (and this was only half the total convention center). CFUNITED had six rooms spread across the main floor (there were dozens of rooms on that floor and I think the second floor was also full of conference rooms). The vendor area, dining area and keynote area were in the "basement" - a vast, cavernous concrete space with three little squares curtained off in the middle. CFUNITED looked very lost in that giant space. Of more concern was the location of the vendor area - next to the breakfast / lunch / keynote areas. None of the attendees would be in that space except first thing in the morning and then for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. Vendor after vendor bemoaned the lack of attendees in the exhibition area. I felt pretty sorry for them. I didn't even make it to any of the vendor booths myself because I was usually embroiled in conversations with attendees when I wasn't in sessions. The hotel was a bit of a hike from the convention center but it's been much worse at past MAX events. The Marriott / Montgomery Conference Center was a great location in that respect (although many attendees had to find hotels nearby and had much longer walks or cab rides or other transportation woes). The hotel was extremely nice but it was also extremely expensive. I winced at last year's $192 per night for the Marriott but $252 is a huge burden on attendees (that's over $750 plus the cost of the conference itself and whatever travel costs). The sports bar wasn't too outrageous (and the food and beer were pretty good) but the Cure bistro was highway robbery ($12 for a large beer! Although the food was interesting and enjoyable). The bistro staff seemed indifferent to attendees each time I went in there (again, the sports bar was better). The hotel restaurant was good and the service was attentive but when you're paying $14 for a simple burger, it had better be good (it was). Final Math I added up the sessions and there were 20 regular slots, 3 keynotes and 1 BOF slot. For $849-$1099 plus $750+ for the hotel. For cf.Objective() there were 17 regular slots, 1 keynote and 3 BOF slots for $499 (e/b) or $649 (full) over three days in a $120 a night hotel (so $240 for most people's two nights). Let's say your travel costs were the same (mine were $300 for cf.Objective() and $600 for CFUNITED but let's leave that out) and you got the early bird pricing. You paid $1,600 for CFUNITED vs $740 for cf.Objective() or nearly $900 for an extra 3 sessions and 2 keynotes, but 2 fewer BOFs - and a "special event". The differential at full price increases to $1,000. Unless CFUNITED changes substantially next year, I will not be speaking or attending again. I'm finding it hard to justify supporting a conference that is so expensive for attendees. Again, almost none of the above falls in the laps of Liz or Nafisa. Their hands are tied on many issues by their management at TeraTech.