Q. You are very well known among many in our industry, especially as former EVP at Ziff Davis and editor of many of the ZD computer magazines during their heydays. For those who aren’t as familiar, highlight your experience in the trade show and conference space.
A. It’s been the proverbial long strange trip. I began as a journalist with a penchant for physics. As a result, I wrote about science and technology back before it was cool. I’m one of the PC long-beards. I co-wrote a book about online databases in the late 1970s over the DARPANet (the Internet’s daddy) using paired Godbauds micros (one of the early kit-based PCs). At Ziff Davis, I helped launch PC Magazine, ran PC Week and PC/Computing, and oversaw the Ziff Davis product testing lab and benchmark testing software. Later, as EVP at Ziff Davis, Bill Lohse and I oversaw the acquisition of big tech events like Interop and Seybold. Later at Softbank, Bill ran all the events, which now included Comdex, and I was responsible for the content at Interop, consumer events and special projects. I then spent many years helping start-ups get going. A number of those had event components, most prominently Inman News, which has a conference that dominates in residential real estate along with online news and analysis. Somewhere in there I found the time to write a lot of books on topics ranging from Intel microprocessors and Interferon to a social history of Virginia.
Q. You’ve been out of the events industry for a while, what made you come back to launch Pivot?
A. Two reasons. First, as social networking becomes the metaphor for communications and media, face-to-face interactions become a natural peak experience in that process. In the past, events were a counterpoint to media. Now, events are media. This caused me to think that events are going to rise in importance and value over the next several years. Even more importantly, watching the massive disruption wrought by social on the careers of friends and the fates of major media companies and brands, I recognized the characteristics—anxiety, new metrics, new technology, a need for new partnerships—that have driven market making events in earlier days. So, when Bill came with the idea for Pivot, I knew he was onto something and was eager to get on board.
Q. Often, we see trends in B2C trickle down into B2B. How do you think that “the rise of the social consumer” will affect trade show/ conference attendees and event marketers?
A. It is actually much bigger than the trend you mention. First, the bright line between F2F events and online activities is wearing down. Physical events are featuring avatars and online sessions have live conversations going on. I think we are seeing the early stages for a hybrid experience that will blend the best of F2F and online into something new and extremely powerful. This will be true both in business and consumer contexts. We are already seeing some companies move in this direction. This isn’t a digital event; replicating physical events online doesn’t seem to have worked. It is going to be something new.
The overall trend that is going to impact events, especially tech events, is the radical flip (can I say Pivot?) in how technology innovation is occurring. In the past, we saw tech innovation start deep inside big organizations. These innovations then gradually seeped into the consumer space in a process that sometimes took decades. Now, tech innovation is happening on the consumer side first. Think iPhones, Wiis, direct-order digital movies. These new capabilities are now being force fed back into corporations. Workers are demanding corporate tech as cool and easy-to-use as they have at home. This is going to tear up all kinds of long held structures in tech and IT and the supporting events along with them. Every B2B event is going to have a “c” component and require a “c” flair to be relevant to its audience.
Q. Given the constantly evolving shift in the media landscape, are you surprised at the ongoing relevance of face-to-face?
A. Nope. As Douglas Rushkoff, who hosts one of our conferences and is a genius, notes, people getting together to talk, to learn, to solve problems together, that’s normal. That’s how human beings are genetically wired. It is how Og the cave man solved problems. It was the function of the agora in Renaissance villages. It is the picket fence. Technology has finally gotten us to the point where humans use technology to act like humans, rather than forcing us to adopt strange new behaviors in order to reap technology’s advantages. This shift is the most natural in recent history, and being natural will be the most powerful.
Q. What do you think the next generation of events will look like?
A. A combination of cable television, a night at the theater and the best conversation you ever had in a bar. Intimate, creative, focused and deeply alluring.
Q. How must event professionals evolve to keep pace with the changes taking place?
A. I think the biggest challenge event professionals are going to face is where they should fit in all of this. Are they ghettoed into just doing F2F activities, or should they flow into the digital sphere overseeing everything that produces a particular kind of value from deep customer or prospect interactions? Does that mean event execs morph toward being customer service or sales execs? Do event skills become part of the web or app team, or should they lead those teams? These are turbulent times, which means everything is up for grabs. Fun, but scary, too.