Last week I spent three days in San Francisco at the annual Macworld Expo attending classes and visiting product booths in the exhibit hall. This is the 27th annual Macworld conference but I haven't attended one for about 20 years. The truth is, other than Autodesk University, I rarely attend conferences on a regular basis. So attending Macworld and taking a few classes gave me a new perspective and appreciation for our annual Autodesk University conference.
We have it pretty good at AU.
Now, I realize that there is a $1000 difference between a full access pass to Macworld ($870) and a full access pass to Autodesk University ($1875, last year) but remember that the AU 2010 registration included all classes, meals, and four nights at the Mandalay Bay. Even though I can't really compare the events, apples to apples (so to speak), there was enough common ground that I couldn't help making mental comparisons the whole time.
Macworld 2011 offered seven different tiers of conference attendance, ranging from $45 for the exhibit hall only to $870 for the full access pass (Super Pass) to the exhibit hall and all workshops, classes and conference programs (less if you registered before 12/3/2010). The Super Pass let you choose between 100 different classes but if you only paid for the User Conference classes (excluding the MacIT and pre-conference workshops), that list became about 1/3 shorter. If you went for only the User Conference classes, you had the option of buying one day of classes or all three days, yet, while I was there, I didn't see a single badge scanned at the entrance to a classroom. I'm really not sure how (or if) they regulated the one-day people from the three-day people. I suspect everyone was on the honor system.
In contrast to the 100 Macworld classes, AU 2010 offered the choices between 600 lectures, labs and unconference classes. When you add in the AU Virtual classes, there were over 750 unique classes last year. That is a pretty big selection of classes and topics. At AU, I'm often struggling to decide between several compelling classes offered in the same time-slot. At Macworld, that was rarely an issue.
All the classes I attended at Macworld had excellent speakers who really knew their topics and communicated very well. I was not as impressed with the a/v technical aspects of some of the classes, i.e., microphones, projectors, cameras, etc. Some of the classes had very poor sound and often the projectors were very dark. In large rooms where multiple cameras were used to broadcast onto screens, the camera switching was usually pretty bad and speakers were often directing actions that were pretty obvious if you were paying attention. Those things become distractions. In contrast, the AU tech crews are top-notch and I can't remember the last time I taught or attended an AU class that had those kind of issues.
If you were a speaker at Macworld, it looks like you were on your own for metrics. At no point was I asked to sign up for specific classes so speakers likely had no real idea of how many attendees to expect. They also had to manually count the number of attendees that did show up because there was no one scanning badges when going into a class. Macworld used a similar online survey approach as AU but they made it just confusing enough that you really had to want to complete a survey and there were no banks of survey laptops in the hallways to make it convenient to do so. Encouragement to complete a class survey came in the form of pleading from the speakers and the occasional hallway placard with cryptic instructions. As someone who has taught as AU for 13 years, I would be very disappointed at how little information I would likely get back on my classes.
At Macworld, you were on your own for lodging and absolutely all food, drink and snacks. With the exception of water dispensers on the floors with sessions, there was not so much as bad coffee available without going somewhere to buy it. Granted, the AU price includes meals but you don't realize how much you take for granted all those between-class snacks and drinks until they are completely missing. Also, in San Francisco, your nightly hotel price range could be pretty wide depending on how much you're willing to spend versus how far you're willing to travel back and forth.
Last year, AU attendance was at 7000. The Macworld attendance was expected to be 25,0000 – I would guess it came in below that – but it felt like a lot less. The only time it felt like 25,000 was on the exhibit floor. The exhibit hall floor was often uncomfortably congested, largely due to how narrow many of the aisles were. Sometimes, it was impassable and you just had to stop and wait for a way out (like being in a mosh pit except, instead of slamming and bouncing, everyone is standing perfectly still). I saw a lot of cool stuff but it often felt like too much jammed into too small a space.
I think the thing I missed most was the sense of community you can develop at AU. If you attended Macworld every year, that feeling was probably there but, if you're new and don't really know anybody, it can feel pretty isolated. AU usually has plenty of opportunities to mingle and interact with other attendees. AU has evening events where you can drink, meet new people, catch up with old acquaintances, and network. Macworld just seemed to be missing all of that. The only venue I saw where that could happen was the exhibit hall, which was not really conducive to meeting new people or mingling. Also, the exhibit hall closed up at 6:00PM every day so, unless you just happened to know about some gathering somewhere, you were pretty much done for the day.
I hope this doesn't come off as sounding all negative about Macworld. I had a really good time, attended some great classes, and saw some interesting products. I don't mean to imply that it wasn't worth the cost of admission and, in fact, I hope to go again next year. It's just that … I know some of you don't attend conferences other than AU and sometimes you really have to struggle to justify it. I didn't intend for this post to be a "rah-rah" pitch for AU but, as an attendee and a teacher, I'm more convinced than ever that the value you get with Autodesk University is worth the cost on all levels.