Pay to Play: The Problem with Fashion Conferences

Pay to Play: The Problem with Fashion Conferences

It seems like everyone is in the fashion tech conference game these days: fashion magazines, journalists, recruitment agencies, event companies that hadn’t even heard of fashion tech before a year ago…. and the truth is that many of these conferences are a waste of your time.

Here at Third Wave Fashion, we get asked frequently about which events are worth going to, and while some definitely are-so many are not. Many fashion and fashion tech events engage in the shady practice of “pay to play” where the speakers are chosen based on the level of sponsorship. When you see that the speaker list more or less matches up with the sponsor list, that’s the game that the event is playing.

This game is not in your best interest, it’s in the conference’s. These events are rarely more than money grabs. Fashion tech is hot right now, and everyone wants in.

The best events are thoughtfully curated: they offer a carefully selected mix of big name draws, cutting edge thinkers, and underground movers & shakers. They provide inspiration for the future, practical advice for right now, and the opportunity to meet new people and hear new ideas.

One thing we’ve seen over and over again with fashion tech conferences is that the quality of attendees declines year over year. The first edition might have VPs and directors, the second year has managers, and by the third year the interns and new hires have gotten their hands on the tickets. The conferences continue to claim that the same brands are participating, of course, but the decision makers have fled the building.

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Why? Well, in a word: quality. The same speakers with the same ideas get stale. Event producers with a limited number of connections hire the same keynote speakers again and again-or even worse, sell the slots to the highest bidder. The ideas that were ahead of their time last year might be of-the-moment this year, but next year they will be passé. In conferences, quality is a game of constant revision.

Conferences are not an easy business to be in: they take dedication, thoughtful curation, and not a small amount of moxie. But when everyone is throwing their hat into the ring, it can be hard to figure out what’s worth your time.

Here’s what to look for in a high-quality fashion tech event:

  • They focus on content first. Focus more on what you will learn, and less on the “who’s who” of who’s there. A big fat list of brands that are speaking or attending is similar to a page on an agency’s website with a wall of logos: nearly everyone can offer this. Instead of perusing that list, spend time looking at the description of sessions and talks; is it content that you’re excited about? Does it feel “need-to-know” or merely repetitive?
  • A combination of obvious buzzed about players with non-obvious newcomers. Of course it can be enlightening to hear your work-idols speak, but it’s important to attend events that dig deep and find new and interesting people to surface. You don’t want to go back to work merely feeling like the ideas you had were reinforced; you should have new horizons and a tingly, excited feeling in your brain.

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  • Keynote speakers that change from year to year according to moves in the industry. Did the same buzzy person headline the event several years in a row? That’s not thoughtful curation, that’s relationship banking. Expect more.
  • A speaker and sponsor list that make sense, but don’t massively overlap. There is nothing wrong with a few sponsored talks (this is a business after all), but when the transparency around it is missing, you’re probably paying for content that in turn, someone is paying to give you. Basically, you may be paying to get sales pitches. Decide if you’re comfortable with the amount of overlap between the two.
  • A history in the industry. Look at who is putting the event on, and spend a few minutes investigating what they have to gain by doing so. Does it seem like they are producing the event to help shape the industry, or to make some cash while the getting is good?
  • Speakers that do the work they’re talking about. Too often, we’ve seen smart people thrown onto panels that are completely outside of their expertise. This is done to appease sponsors while listing big names-and it’s rude to both those speakers and to the audience.

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  • They charge the right people. As an attendee of a conference, you don’t want to become the product. You should be paying, and sometimes even paying a lot. If you’re not paying for the content, someone is probably paying to get in front of you. Startups should only be charged nominal fees, and sponsorships should offset costs, not fund a flurry of early-bird and friend-of-a-friend discounts. Be ready to pay for quality, or risk being the product.
  • There is real opportunity to connect. End-of-day cocktail hours are likely not enough. If you’re taking time out of your busy life, you should feel not just enhanced, but connected to what’s new. Look for adjunct workshops, opportunity to talk directly with speakers, curated networking events, and tools for getting quality introductions to other attendees.
  • There is diversity on stage. If you want the full picture, you need a fully diverse speaker line-up. Groups entirely comprised of white men are as offensive as they are outdated. We all benefit from a diversity of ideas and perspectives; seek out events that put people from a variety of backgrounds on stage. You’ll end up with a much more well-rounded idea of where the future is headed–and who’s building it.

We love fashion + tech events when they are content-focused and well produced. Conferences can be a great way to get out of the box, get inspired by new ideas, and get tapped into what’s new. You deserve high quality events that respect the trust that comes from choosing to spend your time and money with them. If you’re thinking about attending an event, use the above guidelines to help your guide your choices. And, when we participate in events, you can consider our endorsement to be a signal in the noise.

We’ll see you in the front row.

This blog post is adopted from an article that was originally published in the print edition of Third Wave Magazine, Issue 02. Haven’t subscribed yet? Let’s fix that! Subscribe here.

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Feature image from Third Wave Fashion has been your fashion tech think tank since 2011. We publish the first ever printed fashion tech magazine, Third Wave.  Follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our newsletter to stay on top of the latest in fashion tech + wearables. You look nice today!