In October, I came back from Santa Fe, New Mexico refreshed, rejuvenated, recharged, and ready to hit the ground running when I returned to the office. I wasn’t there for a spa weekend or a vacation; I went to the International Regional Magazine Association’s (IRMA) Annual Conference. But the experience there with other regional magazine pros was certainly as eye-opening as any skin peel could peel.
IRMA is not a typical organization and the conference is anything but run of the mill. The goal is to facilitate a free flow of ideas among peers. To that end, there are no competing magazines in terms of territory or potential advertisers. While at first blush, that might sound somewhat exclusionary but you would be amazed at some of the frank discussions and “trade secrets” revealed among the members. But I’m not telling any tales out of school.
Aside from the opportunity to learn from regional magazine compatriots, attendees got the chance to simply vent about struggles common to all publishing professionals in today’s roiling economy. Any topic that’s currently at the forefront was discussed, but in a way that dealt more with finding common solutions for everyone rather than trying to “one up” your competitor.
One of the hallmarks of these conferences is the lack of PowerPoint presentations. Experts get up and speak, but typically the sessions evolve into roundtable discussions rather than your typical follow-along slideshow. Telling your own war stories with others in the same battle goes a long way over a stack of stapled handouts that will simply go into a cabinet when you get back to your office.
But, as we all know, just like all magazines are not created equal neither are magazine conferences. For example, I bypassed a similar conference when I saw the list of “experts” that were invited to speak. One in particular was a former colleague. I decided that if that person was considered an authority by the host organization, my company’s money could be better spent elsewhere.
Then there was the conference that was purely an ego-stroking exercise for the organizers. Rather than sharing ideas and presenting solutions, the editorial track consisted of the organizer sitting on various panels with previous employees, bosses, or just friends at other magazines where the first 15 minutes were spent letting the speakers regale the audience with tales of how great each other was. Pretty much every session was an excuse for a mutual admiration society.
As the conference wore on and I hopped from session to session, it certainly seemed that the entire program was tailored so that the editorial track organizer and his buddies could have a free weekend in the host city, all courtesy of the sponsoring organization, mind you. Then there was the vendor who was a presenter/speaker who used various magazines as examples of the right way to do things, touted the genius of their editors time and time again, but lo and behold … every magazine was the “expert speaker’s” client. No wonder they were so great. The speaker actually asked one of his clients—an editor-in-chief—about the process he used as it was “so genius.”
Needless to say, I won’t be attending that conference again. Aside from being a waste of time and money, the organizers and speakers did not interact with attendees at all. For a group of similar people thrown together, it was oddly cliquish.
But, as I mentioned, the tips I picked up and the ability to learn from my peers, not to mention the camaraderie and the much-needed laughter I found in Santa Fe was more than enough to justify my attendance … and it was certainly worth every cent I paid out of my own pocket to attend.
My only question now is: Can I submit my travel expenses to my insurance provider since according to my plan it covers psychiatric treatment? And believe me, the IRMA conference was the best group therapy session imaginable!