Life in Conference Hell

A Spy in the House of Work

My friend Todd, who works in corporate engineering resources, is unpinning his name tag. For good. No more conferences. That last trip put him over the edge. "I thought I'd gone to a conference on Life in Purgatory," he says. "It turned out I was wrong. It was Life in Hell." The first presentation was on creating the virtual office. "The same guy with the same jokes and the same slides," Todd said. "Everything was virtually the same as at every other conference."

These days conferences are pandemic. Somewhere in the world every 7 seconds a keynote speaker would like to remind you that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of danger and opportunity. Somewhere in the world every 4 seconds a panel is about to commence agreeing with each other. Somewhere in the world every 9 seconds a breakout group is about to, well, break out. Conferences are about as special as those mail-order catalogs that arrive on your doorstep every 72 hours: the stuff is always the same, the pages are just rearranged.

We can break free. We can resist. From now on, when a conference brochure beckons, simply substitute my all-purpose Spy World Business, Economic, and Technological Forum conference alternative. It's just as much fun as a real conference, without the bad food, crashing demos, and uncomfortable chairs.

Conference Theme: There's a growing backlash against corporate America!

You could fly halfway across the country and subject yourself to that inevitable long-winded speech about the need for companies to balance global profitability and corporate compassion. Or you could Interview Your Executive Assistant! She'll tell you that this year's bonus just matched the recent increase in the cost of parking (which the company won't pay) and that her HMO covers checkups and organ transplants — but nothing in between.

Conference Theme: We're a networked society! The Web is the future!

It's flattering to be invited to pay $3,000 to join an elite gathering of the world's most influential techies, all of whom dress like Hamlet and refuse to make eye contact with you while talking relentlessly on cell-phones. But don't go! Instead Talk to the Loneliest Person You Know! He'll tell you IRL (online-speak for In Real Life) that he has no life. Neither do most of the 10 million other lemmings Steve Case has been heaving disks at for the past couple of years.

Conference Theme: Birth order is the way to recruit execs!

Sure, you could sign up for one of Frank Sulloway's cookie-cutter presentations on the magic of birth order. But why go all that way just to be told the seminar's overbooked and you can't get in? Besides, you already know the drill: oldest children are orderly conformists, youngest children are adventuresome risk-takers. The Spy alternative: Call Your Mom! You owe her one! She'll remind you that you were the one who wanted that cute file cabinet for your eighth birthday — which your adventuresome little brother then blew up.

Conference Theme: Employment security is history! Make yourself employable!

For only $1,195 you can hang out with a bunch of laid-off middle managers, eat stale cheese and crackers, and listen to a laid-off senior manager who wrote a book on surviving downsizing tell you to network your way to a great job. Or you can Go Have a Beer with Your Unemployed Brother-in-Law! Hey, twelve-hundred bucks buys a lot of brewskis.

Conference Theme: Women break the glass ceiling!

Skip the conference and just Ask Your Boss. (Oh, she takes hers with milk, not cream.)

The Spy is a writer and frequent conference attendee.

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