The 2005 SHRM Conference & Exposition: The Ghost of Boom Time Returns

By most accounts, this year’s SHRM Conference & Exposition in San Diego was spectacular – back-in-the-day-dot-com spectacular. When the exhibit hall opened last Sunday night and the four of us attending from HRmarketer.com walked through the doors, each one of us did a cartoon double-take, jaws dropping to the floor.

We certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore. We shook our heads and wiped our eyes feverishly; we thought maybe we were in Vegas at the 1999 COMDEX show.

No, this was the San Diego Convention Center, it was 2005, and it was the big annual SHRM show. This year's SHRM event had 800 exhibitors (25 more than last year) and 250 of these exhibitors were new. Some of the larger vendors – like the big job boards Monster, CareerBuilder, and Yahoo! HotJobs – had purchased island booth space and set up intricate booth displays complete with tiered stages and multi-media presentations, held continuous extravagant giveaways (HR folks stood in line for hours), and sponsored lavish post-expo parties. For example, on Sunday night Monster held its "Monstertini" party at On Broadway, a club in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. The following night, CareerBuilder rented out the San Diego Zoo and had Hootie and the Blowfish play for the crowd (at a cost of about $1 million according to an article from Workforce Management about exhibiting at SHRM entitled Exhibitors Become More Strategic About Which Conferences to Attend). And that same night, HotJobs held a party at the Marriott featuring the Village People.

CareerBuilder also had those lovable chimps in their booth, and you could get your picture taken with them (although the lovable chimps looked as though they were bored with the onlookers and were ready for a nap). When the expo ended on Tuesday afternoon, there were at least 50 restless people hemming and hawing while waiting in line to get their pictures taken with the poor burnt out little fellas (along with restless lines at every other booth that were still giving away goodies until the last minute – marketing is painfully satirical at times, don’t you think?).

The big boards weren’t the only large vendors with huge marketing investments at this year’s SHRM show. Other vendors with elaborate yet very functional island booths included O.C. Tanner, Mercer Human Resource Consulting, Kronos, Peopleclick, Spectrum HR, Ultimate Software, and Webhire. However, we were surprised that a number of big names in the HR space – the Hay Group, Accenture HR, Oracle and Hewitt Associates – chose not to exhibit at SHRM this year for one reason or another. According to the Workforce Management article Exhibitors Become More Strategic About Which Conferences to Attend, Hewitt declined to exhibit this year because of budgeting considerations, and Oracle chose not to exhibit because the conference’s attendees didn’t fit the company’s target client. Wait a minute – did they already forget that they purchased PeopleSoft?

For those who did exhibit at SHRM, was it worth the marketing investment? Most of the vendors we spoke with said yes, although it is difficult to measure ROI. Exhibiting at events like SHRM is more about investing in brand recognition and networking than it is about quality lead generation, so the immediate results are less tangible. In fact, one of our HRmarketer members at the show said it best: “Exhibiting at SHRM and other key events in the HR space is equivalent to purchasing ads in the primary HR trades – it’s worth the brand awareness even if it doesn’t generate immediate sales leads because there are usually over 10,000 attendees at the show.”

In fact, SHRM reported that overall paid attendance this was about 12,000, which was actually up from the 2004 conference in New Orleans. (It’s important to note that a much higher figure was used this year and last – 17,000 attendees – but that number includes nonpaying exhibitors and volunteers who attended the San Diego and New Orleans conferences.)

Brand awareness is very important when dealing with thousands of attendees who aren’t in the position to buy. But attendees who aren’t decision makers today might still be purchasing influencers – and could eventually become purchasers in the future (see our recent blog posting entitled To Exhibit or Not to Exhibit. Things to Consider.).

According to our informal research and regardless of booth size or location, over 95% of HRmarketer members and other vendors who exhibited at SHRM this year were satisfied with attendee booth traffic (purchasing influencers) and the number of actual decision makers who stopped by their booths. Recruitmax, PDI, WetFeet, SmartSearch Online, Crisis Care Network, HR Services, Cort Software, ExecuTRACK Software, TalentKeepers, CyberShift, and many more HR vendors selling a wide range of HR and HR-related products and services were all quite pleased with this year’s SHRM marketing investment. For those measuring their ROI, it will still be months before the true return is known depending on the number of qualified leads, length of sales cycle, etc.

The consensus from the vendors was that HR is buying!

And per our last blog posting (which we can’t emphasize this enough) – research shows buyers need to come into contact with your brand multiple times before they take action. This is why it is important for HR vendors to execute a consistent message on a regular basis using a variety of marketing activities including participating in industry events (i.e., exhibiting, speaking, etc.), distributing press releases, monitoring query services to secure media placement opportunities, writing and placing byline articles, writing and publishing white papers, advertising in industry trades, and securing award recognition.