The first time someone described a “CIO cruise” to me, I was sure they were joking. This is how it works. A London-based company named Richmond Events charters a giant cruise ship. The whole ship! They fill half of it up with representatives from IT vendor companies and charge them about $20,000 per head for little cabins on the less desirable decks. Then they invite several hundred senior IT folks aboard (without their significant others), and the ship heads out to sea. In return for this “free” cruise, attendees agree to a series of private 30-minute meetings with selected vendors and carefully crafted seating assignments for each meal.
In spite of everything I’ve learned since, including actually experiencing the cruise, I still can’t even write this without shaking my head in disbelief. What kind of CIO could commit three full days, plus travel time, away from work? Why would any guy go stag on a cruise ship full of stressed out, middle-aged men? Why would any woman? And who, in their right mind, would allow themselves to be sealed into a metal container full of vendors with no chance of escape? Meaningless questions that demanded investigation.
Try as they might, my family has never been able to get me on a cruise ship. Like any compensating introvert, I burn up a lot of energy in social situations. I’m horrified by the notion of being trapped with a thousand or so strangers, forced to endure endless small talk at meals, sightseeing in slow-moving herds (get along lil’ granny). Worse, I might be forced to relax, an indulgence that brings on the guilt of sloth, bequeathed in childhood to those of us born of overachieving parents. I have since passed this annoying trait on to my own children.
But, ever mindful of your need to know, I signed on for Richmond Events’ CIO Forum Financial Services cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2 out of New York City this past May. I’ll skip right to the end and tell you that the conference was terrible; and it was, by far, the best conference I’ve ever been to.
Let me briefly explain why it was terrible so that I can get to the more interesting stuff. First, like every conference I’ve ever been to, most of the speeches, presentations and panel discussions, including the one I moderated, were pretty thin gruel?a shadow of what you might expect to get from research papers or the more serious articles in this magazine. Predictably, they included all of the serial posturings of your average conference sessions?the sycophantic introductions, the flattering references, the show-time antics of the professional radicals and the ever-present pronunciamentos of the token credentialed experts. The few good presentations were too truncated for time to be valuable, except as a recommendation for further research.
Second, the cruise was less of a cruise and more of a drift (not that it mattered, since we had nowhere to go). We left New York City at about 8 in the evening and were heading south when everyone retired for the night. The next morning, and for the remainder of the conference, we were stopped just off the East Coast, well within sight of the Atlantic City casinos. (I’m glad this wasn’t the first thing my immigrant ancestors saw of America because they probably would have gone straight back to France.) As a result, at almost any time of the day or night, there were several dozen people standing out on the sundeck talking on their cell phones. This was quite surprising really. I would have thought that parking the ship far enough offshore to make sure that cell phones didn’t work would have helped keep the attendees’ attention. Wasn’t that the point? Instead, we were just another hotel in New Jersey, which happened to be surrounded by a big moat.
Finally, for a CIO cruise?an event billed as a great networking opportunity?there weren’t a hell of a lot of CIOs among the delegates. As near as I could tell, most of the crowd were second-in-commands or senior-level technology folks. This was most apparent the second night during an awards ceremony to honor those chosen as Top Financial IT Executives. The fact that there were 23 winners seemed a little odd, that the number closely matched the number of bonafide CIOs on the attendee list, surely, a coincidence, but the giveaway was that many awards had to be accepted by someone other than the award winner.
But enough of that, now for the good stuff.
Let’s begin with the venue. The QE2 was terrific, and it was a thrill to have a chance to see it in action. The ship has transported heads of state, famous scientists and movie stars. It is extremely well maintained, the food was good (although dinner was served too fashionably late for me), the service was impeccable and very British, and they sold Cuban cigars in the bar.
Richmond Events did a great job putting on the event. Sessions, meals and other gatherings began and ended on time, logistics were seamless, conference materials were complete and helpful, and every one of the Richmond folks I came into contact with seemed genuinely glad to be there.
Then, about the end of the second day, it dawned on me that just about everybody at the conference was glad to be there, even, for the first time in my life, me. Now why should that be? The conference content wasn’t any better than normal, the QE2 ranks only about as well as any good conference hotel (a little worse if you consider there’s no opportunity for golf), and there are salespeople everywhere. The answer, it seemed to me, was that we were on a ship, and you knew that everyone on board was part of the conference, there for the same reasons you were and easily approachable.
While all conferences are most valuable for their networking opportunities, networking can be tough sometimes. Delegates come late and leave early, conference hotels often host more than one event at a time, and you’re not always sure who you are striking up a conversation with. Event seating is often left to chance, and running into the people you really want to meet is a matter of luck. To make networking easier on a ship of several hundred delegates, the Richmond folks operated a very efficient “paper-based” (gasp) note-passing system that allowed everyone on board to quickly contact and arrange informal meetings with anyone else on board. Ingenious. Networking, accessibility and (if you’ll excuse the pun) a kind of “we’re all in the same boat” camaraderie had made the whole of this conference greater than the sum of the parts.
I know lots of people who are so extroverted they can talk to an empty elevator. They’ll read this and have no idea what I’m talking about. But many of the most successful, influential people in this industry suffer the same affliction I do. One of these days, I’ll attend a conference whose content is so well done, so compelling, that it will make these other, softer, aspects seem silly by comparison. But since that’s never happened, conference coordinators, including ones responsible for intracompany events, would do well to look at the Richmond model.
The morning of the last day, I stood on the sundeck with several dozen of my fellow attendees as we cruised back into New York harbor. It was a cool, overcast morning that made the water as slate gray as the buildings. The Statue of Liberty slid by, then Ellis Island, then Ground Zero. Emotional overload at the closing of an IT conference. Who would have thought that possible.