NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When it comes to conferences, it's Digital Age deja vu all over again.
"The value of an event to the conference owner is in the engagement they get, not from the dollars they collect in fees," said Jordan Schwartz, CEO of Pathable, the Seattle live-event app development and support company. "That age is over."
Schwartz first opened my mind that the live event business was not all it's cracked up to be about six months ago, when we talked through how his firm uses social media to aid engagement at conferences, sales meetings and conventions. Schwartz, who put in a decade at Microsoft before starting his firm six years ago, argues that the live happenings he helps host wrestle with what are by now familiar, grim Info Age economics. Today's affairs have little choice but to pass up real dollars today for hard-to-monetize "relationships" that may, or may not, pay off tomorrow. Schwartz contends that what helps drive this live event dysfunction are hip, mega meet-ups such as CES, Burning Man and, yes, even South By Southwest, which gets going this week in Austin.
"It's a mistake to talk about other conferences in the same breath as a South by Southwest," he explained. "It's powered by a reputation that is almost impossible to re-create these days."
Far more common, says Schwartz, are large events such as the American Society of Anesthesiologists' annual convention of 16,000 doctors. Or Salesforce.com's Dreamforce local brand tours. These live gatherings often face the daunting and low-margin prospects of managing the itty-bitty details of a three- to five-day affair -- then maintaining and monetizing those relationships over the entire year.
"The biggest mistake I see is groups looking at the event as just an event," he said, "and not as part of a larger engagement strategy that drives sales or memberships. Unless you have fingers on that longer-term narrative, making it on tickets and booth fees is very difficult."