I attend (and present at) a lot of conferences. They are a great way to stay on top of what’s going on in the field, a great way to find out what’s new in tools and technologies, a great way to meet people who are doing interesting things, and a great source for new ideas to bring back to your workplace.

Technical communication conferences tend to be clustered in the early and later parts of the year (I’m avoiding the terms “Spring” and “Fall” in deference to readers in the southern hemisphere). Sometimes too clustered. In a five-week stretch in October and early November 2007, there are six potential conferences on my calendar. At least none overlap directly.

Each conference has its own strengths, its own flavor, its own personality. The following are several of the ones at which I’ve presented and participated in the past year or two, along with a few observations.

WritersUA

This may be my favorite of all technical communication conferences. It draws a substantial crowd (more than 400); enough to feel like a major-league event. Although the conference draws all experience levels, senior writers and managers tend to be well-represented. The sessions are hand-picked by the conference organizer, Joe Welinske, and the material is top-notch. Another interesting twist: Joe does not allow presentations by tools vendors. If you are hearing a presentation about a tool, be assured that it’s being delivered by a practitioner, not the tool’s product marketing manager.

WritersUA does all things well, and some things exceptionally well. Attendees receive bound volumes of hand-outs for all presentations at the beginning of the conference. You can use the hand-outs to decide which sessions to attend, take notes on the hand-outs, and read the materials from the sessions that you miss. WritersUA is also particularly effective at evaluating speakers, sharing those evaluations with the speakers, and using the results of the evaluations to shape future conferences.

WritersUA is usually held in March or April. The 2008 WritersUA conference has not yet been finalized. (Update, 19 June 2007: WritersUA 2008 has been scheduled for Portland, Oregon, March 16-19 2008).

Cons: Fewer vendors than I would like to see at an event of this size. However, all of the major tools vendors (Adobe, MadCap, ComponentOne) are represented in the exhibit hall.

DocTrain

If you want to know what’s next in our field, this is the place to go. Web 2.0, content management, folksonomies, wikis and blogs feature strongly in the program. A mid-size conference (150 – 200 people). An impressive exhibit hall for a conference of this size. The next DocTrain is scheduled for my former home of Lowell, Massachusetts, October 16-20 2007.

Cons: The conference organizers practice what they preach — even the speaker evaluation process is through a Web 2.0 site. Unfortunately, the evaluation process exhibits the classic downsides of Web 2.0. You must register at the site to leave an evaluation. Evaluations are heavily represented by conference insiders. Poor evaluations are available for the world to see. And the number of evaluations submitted was relatively small. If it weren’t for a glowing mention of my Information Modeling workshop in one of Tom Johnson’s podcasts, I would have no feedback about how my workshop was received.

Society for Technical Communication

The largest technical communication conference in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps in the world. It’s a big show with a big exhibit hall in a big venue, either a large conference hotel or a convention center. The 2007 Summit in Minneapolis drew nearly 1500 people. If you want maximum choices and maximum sensory input, this is probably the place for you. The 2008 STC Conference is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, June 1-4.

(Update, 19 June 2007: Germany’s Tekom tcworld event claims the title of largest technical communication conference in the world, with 2400 attendees. See below for my Tekom observations).

Cons: In past years, the STC conference tended to serve the needs of beginning to intermediate-level technical communicators. That changed substantially this year, with more high-profile speakers and more advanced topics. It’s a big conference, with many choices (often 12 concurrent sessions). Some people will like this, others might prefer a smaller event. The conference is also run by a committee, and this sometimes shows. However, I think the committee did a very good job this year (full disclosure: I served on the 2007 STC conference committee, and will do so again for the 2008 conference in Philadelphia).

Lavacon

A relatively small conference, targeted to the professional needs of very senior technical communicators and documentation managers. If you spend much of your day doing cost/benefit analysis, need to increase the efficiency of your technical communication department, or need to trim your translation budget without sacrificing quality, this is the conference for you. Not a large crowd, but a good crowd to be part of. The next Lavacon is scheduled for New Orleans, Louisiana, October 27–30, 2007.

Cons: You won’t be listening to the keynote speaker in a packed auditorium with hundreds of other people. A relatively small event, but a very high percentage of managers and senior technical communicators.

Tekom

Tekom is a Germany-based professional organization of technical communicators. I’ve been privileged to participate in this conference the previous two years, and will be traveling to Germany again for Tekom’s tcworld 2007 event. Decision-makers in the STC would do well to look at what Tekom has done to promote the profession to German industry, to provide services of value to industry (like certification) and to make money hosting conferences (hint: the exhibit hall is really impressive).

Cons: It’s in Germany, which is actually a tremendous “pro” if you live in North America and can swing the trip. Although there is a substantial English-language track, more than half of the presentations are in German.

FrameMaker Chautauqua

My first conference speaking experiences were at the old FrameUsers conference series in the late 1990s and early this decade. The FrameUser conference series has folded, but FrameMaker Chautauqua has taken its place. A relatively small event, but still the place to go if you want to learn and use FrameMaker more effectively.

The next FrameMaker Chatauqua is scheduled for October 22-24, 2007, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Cons: The 2007 conference is scheduled to be held in a college conference center, and area hotels are somewhat scattered. This somewhat limits the ad hoc networking that happens in restaurants and bars at the conference hotel. If you want to connect with colleagues in the evening, after the day’s events, you need to do a bit of coordinating.

Honorable mention

CIDM

This is an excellent conference series, hosted by JoAnn Hackos’ company. The CIDM conferences feature sessions on content management, best practices, and DITA. I last attended several years ago. Unfortunately, the 2007 CIDM/DITA conference conflicted directly with WritersUA.

DITA 2007 – East

A small conference that appears to attract many top names in the DITA field. Although I participate in the DITA Technical Committee, I have not yet personally attended a conference in this series.

XML 2007

My favorite “general” XML conference. Although the conference has drifted away from its publishing roots in past years, the 2006 event re-introduced a dedicated publishing track. This conference is usually held in the Northeast U.S., nearly always in November or December. XML 2007 is scheduled for Boston, MA, December 3 – 5. Boston is very pretty, and a lot of fun, near the holiday season.