Last week, thousands of coders and developers descended on San Francisco for JavaOne, the biggest Java conference in the world.
Except this year's crowd was a little smaller than at past events.
The annual show drew about 20,000 compared to 24,000 last year, down 17%. Those figures are actually better than many other industry events, which have seen attendance drop as much as 40%.
When readers of TechTarget, which runs a series of technology-based Web portals including searchSAP, were asked in a poll if their conference and trade show attendance had been cut back this year, 34% said their travel budgets have been decreased.
Dropping conference attendance is a sign of an economic slump in the high-tech sector. As companies lay off employees and enact other cost-cutting measures, conference travel is often the first to go, said Joan Novino, executive director of Micro Endeavors, a conference and product road show planner.
But there may be other factors besides the sour economy that have resulted in sharp cutbacks in show attendance and, in some cases, the last-minute cancellation of entire events. The abundance of industry information available on the Web and even the ephemeral nature of some high-tech sectors have contributed to the decline, say conference experts.
Novino has seen a drop in conference attendance over the last few months. This is a direct result of corporate cut backs, dot-com closures and the stock-market slump, she said.
"Companies cannot afford to have their staff out of the office not being productive during this time of layoffs and cutbacks," she said.
Hot technologies still draw crowds
However, some of the newer technologies such as XML and Microsoft's .Net are drawing a lot of interest today as companies want to get a jump start on them, Novino said. In fact, 32% of the poll's respondents said they were still traveling.
Finding hard statistics on overall conference attendance is difficult because no single organization keeps such information. However, Marilyn Kroner, president of the Computer Event Marketing Association, said anecdotally she has heard attendance is down. At the same time, the profile of the average conference attendee seems to be changing. Attendees seem to be better prepared and eager to take advantage of conference offerings.
"However, even though attendance numbers are lower, there are some who feel that the quality of attendee seems to be better, which means companies are being more selective in who they are sending to attend conferences and trade shows," Kroner said.
Alternatives to the extravaganzas
In general, she said, she has heard the complaint that conference attendance may be getting out of reach. And it appears that IT professionals are seeking out cheaper alternatives.
The rise of the Web has led to a host of new ways to get information to IT professionals that previously they could only get at a conference or trade show. About 18% of TechTarget poll respondents said they are traveling less since they can get the same information on the Web.
From Web casts of product announcements and educational sessions to archives of presentation materials, a lot of the information available at conferences can be accessed virtually with a Web browser. Avoiding transportation and housing charges, IT professionals are going to smaller local conferences to obtain the information they need to try to keep ahead of technology, Novino said.
IT vendors also sponsor tours of their technology that users can see in their home areas. Such events, however, can be poor learning experiences because they are usually geared heavily towards marketing, said Mauro Tinelli, a technology coordinator in Milan.
Yet, those attending JavaOne last week said regional seminars and looking for professional development information on the Web does not compare to the experiences of a conference. They said being submerged in the newest technology for a week offers distinct advantages.
David Castro, a software engineer for Retek Inc., said conferences such as JavaOne give him an intensity of information that he probably would not pursue on his own with resources he found on the Web.
Trekker Armstrong, TransCanada Pipeline in Calgary said "You kind of like to know 'Is the industry really rallying around all this stuff? Are other people doing this too?' It's nice to know you're not alone."
Plus there is the chance to meet and talk with the titans of technology such as Castro's encounter with Java guru Josh Bloch. "Last night I was at one of Josh Bloch's BOFs (birds-of-a-feather sessions) and I got to hang out with him for a half hour."