When organizers for Seybold Seminars Conference in Boston came up with "Be an agent of change" as this year's conference theme, they probably didn't realize just how much change they would be facing.
Seybold is the place for publishing gurus and devotees to get together and glory in the latest and coolest tools, make predictions about the future, and generally revel in the geekiest nuances of the professional publishing industry. But with the economy as the hottest topic on everyone's lips, this year's conference seems unable to shake the gloom of the current dot-com downturn.
The first signs of trouble came Monday morning at a conference opening session called Visions of the Future: Beyond Web Publishing. All three of the original panelists-John van Siclen, senior vice president of corporate development and product management at Interwoven; Dick Brass, vice president of technology and development at Microsoft (who spoke at a later session); Brian Lamkin, senior vice president of product marketing for professional publishing solutions at Adobe; and Jeet Singh, president and CEO for Art Technology Group-cancelled the day before. That left organizers scrambling to assemble new panelists and change the focus of the session.
"When we came up with topics six months ago, we didn't foresee the severity of the current climate," Seybold Seminars and Publications President Gene Gable told the assembled crowd. "We got the impression from you that hearing from a panel of vendors was less important. So we've put together a panel of business owners on the front line of Web business."
The new panelists included Pamela Pfiffner, editor in chief of creativepro.com (which has a content-sharing deal with Macworld.com); Walter Schild, CEO and founder of Genex; and Patrick White, CEO of Sprockets. The three industry veterans discussed the current state of the Web-publishing market; where they saw the market heading in terms of tools, publishing standards, and platform; and how to survive until tomorrow.
None of the speakers had any cures for the current atmosphere. What they did offer was a lot of cautionary advice.
White advised attendees looking to purchase new publishing tools to make sure they were choosing the right tools for tomorrow as well as today. He cautioned against implementing propriety or nonstandard tools that would be difficult to support or find workers trained to use them. Prospective buyers should also choose software models that work, said White, pointing out that companies have to worry not only about their own survival but also about the endurance of their products. For that reason, White discouraged attendees from adopting services like free storage sites that are likely to run into funding problems in the future.
"Ask yourself 'Is it common sense how they're going to make money?' And then expect to pay for it," White said.
Pfiffner acknowledged that there was general fear about the dot-com downturn-even among sites that continued to meet expected growth rates and metrics. But she encouraged audience members to hang on for a white-knuckled ride.
"We know Web delivery works," Pfiffner said. "It doesn't make sense to abandon the Web because it's in a tight spot. We can't travel backward."
Misery Loves Company?
Seybold attendees wishing to wallow in the current state of affairs had plenty of opportunity. The Web conference was peppered with ominous session titles such as Has Consolidation Killed Innovation: Analyzing the Shakedown of the Design Community Acquisitions; Recipes for Defeat: Why Dot-Coms Fail When the Gravy Train Stops; and the very encouraging Dot-Bombs.
Out on the convention show floor, the mood was noticeably subdued. Although no official attendance numbers were available, Gable said he wouldn't be surprised if attendance was down a little from last year's unusually high numbers.
"We are a mirror of the industry," Gable said. "When a specific industry has problems, we reflect that. And when the entire economy has a problem, everyone reflects it."
Take Web-based printing services, a segment of the industry hit notably hard this year. Last year's Seybold event in Boston was flush with new dot-coms offering to connect print buyers to professional printers and to track printing jobs from start to finish. One such company, PrintBid.com-who was on the original list of attending vendors for this year's conference-went out of business just months before the show opened.
"There has been high fallout in the dot-com market," Gable conceded. "Last year we had lots of new space by those companies, this year, several of them are gone. But the companies that are here are much stronger in the market."Although not shocked by the current down cycle, Gable says he was surprised at the rapid effect the economy had on everyone's attitude. "When we talked to people in January and February they were very upbeat. Then by mid-March, there was a noticeable drag in confidence," he noted.
As a result, Gable says, many companies were looking for ways to scale back costs. "Most of the same companies are here, but instead of sending 10 people, they only sent five," he added. "The same thing goes for attendees. This is happening everywhere; not just with us."
But there's an upside, Gable points out: the people who did attend Seybold are very serious about the industry.
While Seybold organizers say that they're happy with the results at this year's conference, they will work to make sure that the session meets the changing needs of customers, Gable says. That could mean refocusing future Seybold Seminars on vertical markets to help people with limited budgets and time to get the most out of the sessions.