Information Today, Inc. (ITI), producer for the past 24 years of the National Online Meeting in New York City each May, announced that it is skipping the industrywide conference in 2004 and will return in 2005 with a "reinvented" event that will bring in "the new breed of information buyers." Three smaller conferences will take place simultaneously at the New York Hilton on May 11 and 12, 2004, but the long-running annual meeting that traditionally brought together producers and buyers of electronic information across the spectrum has drawn to a close.
Though not shocking—attendees and exhibitors alike have complained of lagging participation for several years, and the conference itself was rebranded in 2001 (http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=17683)—the move is nevertheless viewed with sadness. For 2 decades information professionals had two annual online trade shows to choose between; now they have neither. In addition to the New York May event, an Online World conference, was held each fall (through 2000) and rotated among cities nationwide. Together throughout the 1980s and '90s these two yearly gatherings created a community and helped form an industry.
Seasoned observers say it is the transformed nature of that industry that has caused the online conferences to lose steam after an energetic and invigorating run. Information Today CEO Tom Hogan recalls launching the first National Online Meeting (NOM) in 1980, thinking it might last five years—that online searching would become "old hat" within that time and specialized conferences would be unnecessary. Technological changes kept the event alive. Online searching matured—from "dumb" terminals via dial-up to separate computer facilities that competed with each other to host databases—as more data became electronic and as personal computers, CD-ROM, and networking expanded capabilities. The meaning of "online," as it defined the scope of the meeting, grew to embrace all forms of electronic information. Over the years, NOM added a library systems conference to its program, and in 2001 ITI reformulated the 3-day "springtime in New York" event as the InfoToday Conference & Exposition, incorporating National Online, KnowledgeNets, and e-Libraries.
The biggest technological change to hit the online world—the Internet and Web—achieved what online industry activists had tried to do for years—it popularized "online." ITI created Internet Librarian as a separate national conference on the West coast in 1997, and then added Internet Librarian International (in the U.K.). Both yearly events, plus ITI's Computers in Libraries conference and exposition in Washington, D.C., each March (coming up to its 19th year), continue to draw large crowds from the librarian/information professional community.
Also weathering the vicissitudes of a changing information industry, poor economy, and reported reluctance of attendees to travel, is the Online Information conference and exposition held in London each December (http://www.online-information.co.uk/). Although the 27th London Online meeting in 2003 attracted only 800 delegates, they came from 57 countries (with perhaps 10 percent from North America), and the event boasted 250 exhibitors. The 2004 meeting—and an "Online Information Online Event" starting in March—will go on.
But even that important meeting pales in numbers when compared to professional association meetings and trade shows. Special Libraries Association (also in New York in 2003, just a month after the ITI show) is international in scope with an important exhibit hall. The American Library Association produces two gigantic conferences with exhibits annually, drawing crowds numbering 15,000-25,000 and including overseas exhibitors and attendees.
Neither of these organizations is resting on its laurels through revolutionary changes in the profession. ALA is holding focus groups at its Midwinter meeting to discuss how to make its conferences "more relevant to the ‘Gen Xers and Gen Y's.'" Commending ITI's announcement, SLA executive director Janice R. Lachance remarked that such reinventions are "a common facet of any business system and something our profession has always done."
With the successful integration of Online, Inc. in 2002 (http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbreader.asp?ArticleID=17183) and other strategic acquisitions and alliances, ITI has become the largest for-profit publisher and event planner in the U.S. for the information professional market, reaching public, school, academic, corporate, and independent librarians and information professionals, virtually all of whom, of course, now use electronic information. When questioned about the target audience for the reinvented 2005 meeting, Hogan asserted that ITI will not abandon information professionals, but that it wants to embrace new constituencies as well: "market researchers, publishers, content managers, and other information consumers in professional and commercial settings ... to accurately reflect what is going on in our field."
During this hiatus year, ITI continues with a series of smaller, focused meetings in several venues. In May, the New York Hilton will be host to three simultaneous events.
- ITI's traveling WebSearch University convenes in New York for the first time, providing well-known experts in an intensive learning experience to help competitive intelligence professionals, market researchers, financial analysts, and librarians get "beyond Google."
- Streaming Media East 2004, with a multitrack program and exhibit hall, will enable technology and business professionals to explore streaming technology in business, education, and government environments.
- A new program, Enterprise Search Summit '04, will address IT managers, information and knowledge architects, content managers, and Web publishers and developers; it will feature practical information on selecting and implementing enterprise search software and the integration of structured and unstructured content within organizations.
With these and its larger Computers in Libraries and Internet Librarian events, it's clear that ITI has at least six characters in search of authors adept enough to discern the right staging and story for several audiences. Will they become reprisals, sequels, or a panoply of really new shows? We have been advised that there are no sacred cows. So don't necessarily count on an extravaganza in May, or New York, but do count on the ability of ITI to embrace and define the evolving information market and leverage its various segments to produce shows—of whatever size—that can be compelling. "Online" has had a rollicking good run. Now it's time to turn out the lights.