See part one of this story to see how I got myself here in the first place.
I was able to do enough sleuthing before I purchased tickets to confirm that there actually was a conference at the location they were saying. I still had many questions and concerns, but I figured worst case scenario I spend some time in Vegas and have a story to tell.
As part of the sales pipeline I was asked about what pre-defined panel topics I might want to speak on. I found this strange, because most of the agenda was relatively generic predefined topics. They seemed quite willing to let me speak on basically any of them if I was willing to cough up some additional money. Which presumably meant was the same tactics they were using to bring on the other panel speakers.
I haven’t been to many conferences in my life, but my general understanding is that anybody speaking is a clear “expert” in whatever they are speaking on. At a reputable conference, a speaker is generally speaking not charged to speak and may even have their ticket and accomodations paid for.
The other thing that stood out to me was the length and number of “Recognition Sessions”. They had advised that as part of the award I would get a couple minutes to introduce myself after being recognized. With 6 recognition sessions there could easily be 100 people receiving awards. It was reasonably difficult, but I managed to find pictures from a previous conference that showed the room it was in and it was pretty clear to me that there was probably only space for about that many people - possibly less.
I remember taking this picture feeling relieved that there was some level of legitimacy and I wasn’t full on duped. This relief quickly wore off as a number of things happened through the day.
As part of the registration I had to submit which recognition session I would like to receive my award at. I had no idea what to expect out of these sessions so I picked the second day so I could watch at least one of the first day to get a sense of what the vibe was.
The first few sessions were fairly mediocre. There seemed to be quite a bit of disorganization and everyone trying to figure out what was supposed to be happening. It looked as though the moderator (who was really just a attendee of the conference) was given a list of questions and then made the best of the situation.
We finally made it to the first recognition session. I had already managed to skim through the program to confirm my suspicions that literally everyone at this conference was an “award winner”. Now I was curious what these recognitions would look like.
I was dressed in a short sleeve floral button up and shorts because it is Vegas and 110 degrees outside. I brought a suit along, but didn’t plan on wearing until the next day when I was scheduled to receive an award. I was worried that it was going to be way too hot for a suit. I couldn’t have been more wrong, the A/C was full tilt and after a few hours of sitting through sessions my teeth were practically chattering and I was looking forward to the break where I could go grab a sweater.
There’s some more confusion on the stage as they try to sort out what they’re doing and then proceed to start the recognition session. All of a sudden I start hearing the blurb I wrote up about myself and realize that I’m going to be the first person to receive an award. I’m unclear what’s happening, but wonder if maybe they would just power through everyone and then the time I scheduled for tomorrow would be when I’m given an opportunity to speak. I go up and have my photo taken with my award and then take my seat.
A couple more people are called up. I catch some more surprised expressions from recipients, but I also start seeing the organizers racing back and forth trying to sort something out. After quite a bit of fuss, all of a sudden someone new is the person presenting the awards. Then randomly one of the people is given the opportunity to speak. They call several more names and many of them are not in the room (presumably expecting to have received on a different day). When the list is completed, there’s more kerfuffle and then they ask if anyone that received an award would like to come back up to say something.
This has been mild pandamonium at this point, but I drag myself back on stage and introduce myself. I crack a joke about my outfit and that I will be in a suit tomorrow when I signed up to receive the award as a bit of a jab at the disorganized mess I am now a part of.
A few more people go thanking the conference for the honor of receiving this reward. I can’t help but feel gross knowing that everyone of these people paid the conference for this award. Sure there was some sales effort on the conference organizer side of things, but this felt not very different than me ordering a plaque online and writing on it whatever I wanted. Pro tip: this would be much cheaper!
Looking at my schedule, I assumed lunch was next. Instead we were told a “Show Stopper” session would be held in one of the other rooms and this would include all attendees from the other conferences (There were similar scams…I mean conferences for different fields held in the same space. e.g. Health, Law, Education, Marketing). I had a feeling this is where the real story was.
Show Stopper Sessions
You’ll notice on the agenda above, no concept of Show Stopper sessions exist. This is something they want only conference attendees to know exists. If these were truly impactful parts of the conference, they would be advertised as a way to get you in.
I’m hesitant to name names here, so for now I will leave those out. These Show Stopper sessions were really just another paid advertisement disguised as motivational speeches. This conference managed to pull together enough people gullible enough to buy an award for themself, and then were able to sell these Show Stopper sessions to people whose target audience is a bunch of gullible people to be further scammed.
I started to feel sick during this first one. To paint a bit of a picture, it was kind of like those televangelists. Except instead of religion being peddled, it was some mildly culty business courses being pushed on everyone.
Once I knew these were paid advertisements, I was less shocked by the other two. Still, each one made me feel grosser and grosser especially as it was becoming very clear that there was very little value in any part of the content of this conference.
I knew going in to the conference this might be the only saving grace, and this mostly turned out to be true. Unfortunately, despite the Internet 2.0 title, this was far more businessy than techy. I made a few good connections, but that was about it.
In the most literal sense, I don’t think the conference can be fully declared a scam. There was in fact a conference that followed the agenda that was advertised. I was told up front I would be charged for this award and I was conferred an award as advertised.
Even still I can’t help but feel like this is just a Ponzi scheme wrapped in new clothes. At first there is nothing but a plan for creating this conference. Then attendees are tricked into buying tickets with the allure of a “prestigous” award. Once there are attendees, new sales channels open up to sell advertising at the conference in various forms. Any possible value created predominantly comes from people paying rather than from the organizers who are clearly netting large profits.
I write all of this mostly as a warning about the quality and reputation of this particular conference. I will be attending Tech Crunch Disrupt and DockerCon in the next month or so and it will be interesting to compare what more legitimate conferences look like.