Are you being served at user group meetings?

User group meetings are not going away, but Senior Technical Editor Dan Hebert is speaking out on your behalf to encourage vendors to migrate back to the roots of user group meetings.

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By Dan Hebert, Senior Technical Editor

REMEBER THE humble beginnings of user group meetings? A small band of dedicated and serious machine builders, end users, and/or system integrators got together at an airport hotel for a day or two. Vendors sent a couple of their senior product development engineers. Frank discussions addressed implementation issues, workarounds, and bug fixes.

Vendor input was limited to addressing user concerns, with a little time allotted for the vendor engineers to outline product roadmaps. Even these sessions featured lots of end user input, as opinionated customers constantly interrupted vendor presentations to let their voices be heard about desired product developments.

Oh, how things have changed over the past decade, and not for the better. User group meetings now are the fastest growing part of the event and conference landscape. The list of automation vendors that stage their own North American user group meetings has grown to include virtually all of the major players.

The largest user group meeting attracts close to 10,000 attendees, and there are many meetings that feature upward of 1,000 attendees. Meetings are no longer held in airport hotels, but in convention centers or in large self-contained resort hotels.

Vendors clearly like these events, because they are diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars from general automation industry shows like ISA and NMW to their own user group meetings.

Control Design attends nearly every user group meeting, and we’ve started to hear rumblings of discontent from end user attendees. They wonder just who is being served at some of these events.

Many of us long for a good old-fashioned industry event. We once could go to ISA and NMW and see all the major vendors, and meet with senior management and technical people from each vendor. These events were well-attended and were a great place to network and touch base with our friends in the automation industry.

Press conferences featured major industry developments, and the vendors’ senior technical people often made the presentations at the technical conferences. There was meat on those bones.

Those days are gone. We seemingly now attend industry shows to see vendors that don’t have their own user group meeting. A few of these vendors have senior staff at the events, but if we want to meet with senior staff from absent vendors, we need to go to their user group meetings.

This is unworkable for most of you. Although you need to keep up with the latest technologies from a number of vendors, you simply cannot go to all of the pertinent user group meetings plus ISA and NMW. And while we lament the inconvenience caused by the decline of the major automation shows, many of us now are questioning the purpose of the user group meetings.

These meetings no longer are run by end users; they are run by the sales and marketing folks from the vendors. The meetings now are attended by scores of sales and marketing personnel from host and partner vendors. These sales and marketing folks use time before, during and after the user group meeting for internal meetings. They also use the meeting to promote their wares to you.

This is quite a concept: Get you to pay hundreds of dollars to attend a user group meeting, and then subject you to days of thinly disguised sales presentations. They might throw in a guest speaker or two, have a token number of end user presentations, and still call it a user group meeting. And they’ll pre-screen all end user presentations to eliminate frank discussions about product implementation issues.

We are seeing a backlash among our readers, hence the reason for writing about it. Many of you have told me that you no longer attend user group meetings because there is not much actual end user interaction. You’re frustrated by the proliferation of these meetings and the consequent decline of the major automation shows.

User group meetings are not going away, but I can speak on your behalf to encourage vendors to migrate back to the roots of user group meetings. Vendors should make sure that the majority of the attendees are machine builders, end users and system integrators. They should require most of the sessions to be presented by users, not by vendors.

If it means scaling back the meetings to a day or two instead of three days plus, then so be it. Better to have a smaller user group meeting that focuses on user group concerns, instead of a bloated brouhaha driven by vendor sales and marketing agendas. Bigger is not always better.

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