The Conference "Pay-to-Play" Mentality: Is it in Your Best Interest?

By David Metter

I want to start here. This may be my Jerry McGuire moment. Maybe I should end here…but this has been eating at me for a while. 

I’ve been in this industry for over 25 years. I started out selling cars at a Chrysler Dealership in Dayton, Ohio. Somehow, I have navigated my career through all facets of the dealership including an executive marketing position for a large dealer group. I have also had the opportunity to work on the vendor side with a start up CRM company in the early days of CRM. My latest startup venture, AutoHook (the artist formally known as HookLogic) was acquired by Urban Science this past year. Along the way, I have had the fortune of building great products, growing businesses, and speaking at events all around the globe. I don’t tell you all of this to stroke my ego, only to frame my position. 

As a dealer, especially as a CMO, it felt like I was asked to speak at EVERY event. Because we were first in with a number of digital marketing initiatives, I had a lot to share, both success and failures. I would often feel like I was on tour. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed sharing my experiences with other progressive dealers. I love my industry and want more people to have success. Dealers who can speak can be in demand at conferences but I have noticed a trend lately. There are less and less dealers speaking, with those spots filled with more vendors. Why is this? Have all of the progressive dealers gone away? Are they afraid to speak? 

On the flip side, I have noticed that the majority of the speaking spots are somehow tied to a sponsorship package. I remember a day when you submitted a topic and content that was relevant to the participants, wasn’t a sales pitch, and you were picked to speak, regardless of your checkbook. Yet, lately, when it comes to many of the conferences our industry has hosted, there is a strong emphasis surrounding the “pay-to-play” mentality. Vendors and auto companies can only present if they pay thousands of dollars to do so. Is this really the best way to educate our dealer audience with the information that is most beneficial to them and their business?

All too often the companies who spend the most money on conferences, that secure the biggest and best booth space or a prime speaking position are not in line with the companies that have the most useful story to tell. I don’t say this because I am envious of these companies or I don’t have the budget to compete. I say it because it’s the truth. It’s gotten so bad, that at one of the largest conferences this past fall, many of the speaking halls were near-empty because the content and speakers were practically the same as previous years…and yes, you guessed right - they were from the same main sponsors.

Even if the content or a speaker is chosen for a spot, it might not get the prime speaking position. At another conference this fall, there was a panel discussion that had “heavyweights.” The session was highly rated by the conference attendees and every seat was taken with people standing in the back of the room. However, they were relegated to a “breakout” because the larger sponsors occupied the larger, main auditorium sessions - and you guessed it, those sessions were not as full. 

It seems that more often than not, my experience, my name, and my brand are simply not enough to secure a speaking position at a conference. It’s sad to say, but as an industry, we need to be better than that. We need to share our wealth of knowledge in order to help others and to inspire our audience rather than just share from those that spend the most to host these events.

I am not alone in my thoughts on this topic. Many vendors have expressed the same sentiment, and attendance at a lot of conferences is dwindling. Are we losing sight of the entire purpose of these networking and educational events? Are the messages being delivered merely the ones backed by the biggest budget, or the best content? Are we providing these audiences with the knowledge they need to truly take their business to the next level?

Personally, I’ve questioned the offers to present at conferences if they are directly tied to a speaking spot. I want to be picked because I have a compelling message and the conference is confident that I won’t sound like an infomercial. Arguably, I am a better presenter than I was 10 years ago. I am WAY more mature and have more successes and a ton more failures to share with the attendees. When I am asked to present, I go above and beyond because my first priority is to make the content worthwhile for the audience, as they are paying good money to be there and learn. Let’s be clear, this is not me taking the opportunity to bash the large conferences as they do have a lot to offer dealerships. However, I strongly encourage you to take a step back and be discerning about who you choose to listen to and which sessions you choose to attend.

So, what do I endorse? I see a higher quality of knowledge being shared at smaller, local events that keep the vendor space equal. I see better content being shared in dealer 20 groups that allow presenters to share valuable insights without having to sponsor the event to do so. Dealers share their “best idea” with their non-competing peers. I also see content being shared on the industry blogs, in free (not paid) webinars, and in whitepapers (again free). And I am going to put our money where my mouth is. We are going to be very selective of where we present and make all of our content open to our industry.

Our first example of this will be a mobile marketing strategy whitepaper that is filled with great information from industry experts. It is not an AutoHook sales and marketing document. It will help those dealers who are searching for a mobile marketing strategy. Instead of forming panels at conferences, we will set up webinar panels and open it up to more people; especially those who can’t convince their ownership to attend the conferences.

I want this topic to be out in the open as it is reflective upon everyone involved in the automotive industry, including myself, and you – if you’ve made it this far. We need to consistently represent the values and principals that we’re proud of and that define us.

How do you feel about the exponential rise of the “pay-to-play” mentality?