The Great Atlantic & Pacific User Group Trek: Bentley in Atlantic City, New Jersey & Deltek in Coronado, California
Jerry Laiserin

Vendor-sponsored user group conferences span a stylistic range from corporate dog-and pony shows* to cult-like initiation rites. Very few such conferences succeed in breaking the mold, but two recent events provided heart-warming (and brain-tingling) counter-examples. Read what you missed.

Software vendors evolve through technology lifecycles that parallel those of their customers. Startup companies (or mature companies offering new products they hope will appeal to new users) need access to audiences comprised of folks who are not yet customers. This need was once filled by industry-wide trade shows and exhibitions, but if the most recent iteration of the AEC Systems show is any indication, such shows may have outlived their usefulness. The event organizers bravely claimed "slightly more than 5,000 highly qualified registrants eager to see the newest products and solutions from top vendors in the industry," and "over 150 exhibitors."

While post-9/11 stress may explain part of the drop-off from last year's 7,000 claimed registrants and 200 claimed exhibitors, show management once upon a time used to trumpet 25,000 attendees and 600 vendors—just a few short years ago. Furthermore, as if the 80% (25,000 to 5,000) and 75% (600 to 150) declines in audience and content, respectively, were not sad enough, linguistic legerdemain may be masking even worse news.

The use of the term "registrants" rather than "attendees" may align with rumors of "no-shows"—or the possibility that more people signed up (registrants) than actually walked through the doors (attendees). The choice of the term "exhibitors" rather than "vendors" also is interesting. Of some 145 company names listed on the "exhibitors" pages of the pre-printed exhibit guide, some two dozen were publications or publishers, not "vendors" (including separate exhibitor listings for the show itself and its corporate parent). Perhaps five more appeared to be organizations and associations. Approximately eight exhibitors seemed to be staffed by local-area dealers/resellers, rather than direct vendor representatives. Finally, ten or eleven of the remaining exhibitors who actually are vendors were sharing booths. Thus, depending on how you do the math and parse the terminology, the difference between the number of "exhibitors" and the number of "vendors" might have been as much as 50%.

However, we came here not to bury trade shows but to praise user group conferences—the venues employed by established companies to nurture existing customers and showcase new products to their most likely buyers. Such conferences serve the later lifecycle needs of both users and vendors. The best are so good at matching these needs that literally thousands of users gladly pay their own way (travel, plus registration fees) and take as much as a week away from the office to attend.

Deltek in Coronado, California
Deltek Systems is a leading vendor of software solutions for project-centric businesses, especially in the AEC and infrastructure industries. Already well-established in the "C" or construction segment of AEC, the company embarked a few years ago on a mission to serve the needs of the "A's and E's," or architects and engineers, as well. Through a series of strategic corporate acquisitions, Deltek rolled up two of the largest vendors of project accounting/financial management systems for A/E's, as well as the market-leading product in A/E proposal development/marketing management. With wholly-owned tools for both the "back office," or business management functions, and the "front office," or client relationship management (CRM) functions, Deltek was and is ideally positioned to be a key player in the broader software trend towards professional services automation (PSA), which aims to make firms smarter by integrating practice management, project management, and marketing around centralized databases of client and activity information. Deltek's vision for this integrated future of A/E business is appropriately called Vision, and is aimed squarely at providing everyone within a firm an unobstructed view of the business.

In mid-May, roughly 1,000 present and would-be "Vision-aries" converged on the historic and magical Hotel Del Coronado, directly on the Pacific and across the harbor from downtown San Diego. These attendees all were users of one or more existing Deltek products, such as Advantage accounting (formerly from Harper & Shuman) or Deltek CRM (formerly RFP4Windows). As with many user conferences, the seminars, panel discussions, and keynotes were split between tutorials targeted at getting the greatest benefit out of the existing products and features, versus informative sessions and hands-on labs designed to let users test drive new products and features.

Direct observation of many of these sessions, as well as casual chats with attendees over the several days of the conference, revealed an extraordinarily high-level of customer satisfaction—indeed intense loyalty—to the existing products, and a refreshing openness to migration towards Deltek's Vision. Granted, user group conference attendees are a self-selected sample that is unlikely to include the truly disgruntled, but the positive energy level at this event was remarkable. Since many in the crowd could be classified as "accountants," it's also worth noting that Deltek's "party on the beach" theme permanently dispelled any prejudicial notion about accountants being a dull bunch (full disclosure: after earning my post-architecture-school MBA degree at business school, I sat for and passed the certified public accountancy (CPA) exam, but have never practiced that profession).

Details of Deltek's Vision and its position within the overall PSA market for A/E firms will have to wait for a future discussion. Suffice it to say for now that the feedback from Deltek's User Conference points toward a bright future indeed.

Bentley in Atlantic City, New Jersey
Winging from sunset to sunrise, and from Pacific to Atlantic, Bentley's International User Conference (BIUC) at the Atlantic City Convention Center followed hard on the heels of the Deltek event a continent away. Although Atlantic City once had genteel oceanfront resort hotels to rival the Hotel Del, the phalanx of casino/hotels that replaced them offer none of the magical experience or authentic amenity of the originals. Atlantic City gaming establishments pale in comparison to their Las Vegas cousins. Further, where mega-development of the fabled Vegas Strip has energized the surrounding community into the fastest growing metropolis in the country, three decades of casino development seems to have sucked all the remaining feeble life force out of struggling Atlantic City.

BIUC 2002 was really a postponement of BIUC 2001, which was cancelled in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. With many such events being rescheduled to this spring, Bentley found themselves displaced from their accustomed venue at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Nearby Atlantic City and its meetings and convention folks did a heroic job of providing BIUC a suitable home on just a few months' notice (events such as BIUC typically are booked into convention venues several years in advance).

Astute observers of the AEC scene, such as Susan Smith in AECvision, Randall Newton in MSMonline/MSMinsider, Mary Ramsey of CAD Gurus, and others already have provided ample coverage of conference highlights, including the inspiring keynote talks by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Pentagon Renovation Program Manager Walker Lee Evey. What made BIUC truly special was the high proportion of sessions, presentations, and panels that were presented by users. This emphasis on real world success stories of products in action added immeasurably to the positive experience for the more than 2,000 folks in attendance.

On a personal note, looking back over the history of digital technology for the AEC and infrastructure industries, I find the level of capability these tools offer in their latest incarnations to be truly amazing. I've had the privilege of judging many multi-vendor technology competitions and diverse vendor-sponsored design competitions over the years, and was honored to be among the judges of the 2002 Bentley Success Awards. Obviously this program touted the benefits of Bentley software, but it was the skill and imagination of the software users that really shone through—not just among the winners, but among all the entries. The level of sophistication and multi-dimensional integration that today's users bring to bear on design problems represent both an affirmation of the vendor community's success in delivering useful solutions and a challenge to that community to continue providing innovative digital support for creating and re-creating the built environment.

*Note: no animals were harmed during the making of this metaphor.

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