In a development that threatens the continued existence of independent Hewlett-Packard user groups, HP has signalled its intention to "coalesce" three user conferences into one "technical solutions conference" in the beginning of next year.
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Some user group officials said the plan, which may mark the end of HP World, threatens the groups' major sources of revenue and their reasons to exist. They are worried the plan would replace user-focused conferences with a supplier-sponsored, marketing-driven event.
The 10,000-member Encompass user group has endorsed the plan, but ITUG (formerly the Tandem user group), OpenView Forum International and the 100,000-member Interex are voicing their concerns.
"If you surrender your premier event, what is your purpose beyond that?" said Denys Beauchemin, president of the US-based Interex, which co-produces HP World annually with Encompass.
Interex leaders and members are assessing the impact of HP's proposal on Interex's "very existence . . . if we did not have HP World," Beauchemin said.
"There is something of value lost when a conference is run by a supplier," said Chris Koppe, an Interex board member. "It is the supplier's interest that is put foremost and there is a negative impact."
The company will announce plans for the unnamed technical solutions conference at next month's HP World in Chicago, said David Parsons, vice-president of HP Americas.
Parsons said the four user groups would probably co-produce the new conference and work with HP officials on a steering committee that will choose conference content and suppliers that rent booth space at the show.
The ability of the user groups to control the content and how much money they will make from the conference is not yet clear. Parsons said each user group would be able to register members and earn membership fees as well as earn proceeds from booth sponsorships from other suppliers.
The idea of a single conference is a response to requests by HP customers for comprehensive information about hardware and software, Parsons said.
One purpose of the conference would be to train HP employees in new technologies alongside partners and customers, he said. The company would also be able to "bring the full brunt of HP resources" to the new event, including appearances by top executives to describe HP strategy, direction and focus.
Parsons said HP has sent letters to or held discussions with leaders of all four user groups. He said he expects to get feedback from the groups by the end of this month.
HP recognises the need to support the user community's independence and ability to offer quality input, Parsons said. "The last thing we want is user groups that have lost that ability to communicate," he added.
Parsons said some of the user groups might opt to keep their own conferences alive and he did not rule out some level of support for those efforts.
On the matter of whether a single conference might result in fewer user groups, Parsons indicated it could eventually. "In the context of the bigger picture, at some point one (user group) is always better than four or two," he said.
Chicago-based ITUG, which is also known as the International HP NonStop Users Group, plans to continue its annual conference despite the HP plan.
Users "would much rather go to the boutique, focused show than be lost in the crowd at a general Comdex-like show," said ITUG chairman Richard Buckle.
If HP pulled its support for the annual ITUG Summit, which this year is being held in October in San Jose, "it would be a financial hit but would not spell the end," Buckle said.
OpenView Forum International is still deciding how to respond to HP's proposal and wants more information on funding and how the voices of its members would be heard, said Henry Wojcik, president of the 8,000-member group.
The idea of having a technical solutions conference was welcomed by members of Encompass, said Kristi Browder, president of the organisation that has its roots in the Digital Equipment user group.
"We do not feel like we are going to be shortchanged at all," she said. "It is our responsibility to help them as much as it is for them to help us." HP will develop a revenue-sharing plan that meets Encompass' needs, Browder predicted.
However users view it, HP's proposal is probably not intended to marginalise user groups, said one analyst.
"It would be a tough transition to one conference, but I see lots of reasons to do it," said Mary Johnston Turner, an analyst at Summit Strategies.
With a bigger conference that covers a range of topics, she said HP might be able to lure higher-level executives, including chief information officers, and help cut down on the need for users to travel.