Attendance at the Society for Human Resource Management’s annual conference in Chicago did not set a record, but SHRM officials and vendors were pleased that it was strong despite a weak economy and sharply rising transportation costs.
As of midafternoon on Tuesday, June 24, there were 13,435 paid attendees. The conference, which concludes WednesdayJune 25, was smaller than last year’s gathering in Las Vegas, which drew 14,922. At that time, SHRM officials said that attendance of 15,000 would set a record. In addition to paid members, the Chicago conference also included 6,000 exhibitors, volunteers and other guests.
"We’re very happy with this number," said China Miner Gorman, SHRM chief operating officer. Although gas prices climbed above $4 per gallon in the last several months and could have discouraged people who were planning to drive to Chicago, Gorman says that almost all of those who registered early showed up.
It’s an indication that concerns about employee engagement and retaining top talent have encouraged corporations to develop their HR staffs.
"Maybe training budgets haven’t been cut as much as we thought," Gorman said. "I’m struck by the seriousness with which [attendees] are going about acquiring new skills."
Vendors on the show’s vast exhibition floor were relieved by the turnout.
"There are more people in the exhibit hall than I’ve ever seen," said Jason Morris, president and COO of Employeescreen IQ, an employment background check firm in Cleveland.
His colleague, Nick Fishman, said the reason for the increased traffic is that the conference was held at McCormick Place, a huge facility on the shore of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago that is far removed from the city’s hotels. Once people arrived for the conference, they weren’t lured out of the building by nearby attractions.
The captive audience also was interested in spending money, not just checking prices.
"We’re getting real good buying questions out of people," said Fishman, chief marketing officer for Employeescreen IQ.
Another vendor concurred that the crowd was not stingy, despite the tight economic times. But they were focused on saving money by streamlining their HR operations to make them more efficient. That meant they were demanding one-stop shopping for payroll, benefits, background checks, talent management and other functions.
"A lot of people are looking to consolidate vendors," said Brian Meharry, president and COO of Mangrove Employer Services in Tampa, Florida.
Shopping for new products was only one conference magnet.
Perhaps as important was the changing political environment on Capitol Hill. A wide spectrum of employment legislation—including measures on disability, unionization, pay discrimination, immigration and paid leave—is coursing through Congress, where Democratic majorities have presided for the last year and a half.
A session focusing on public policy and the 2008 election drew about 609 people on Tuesday, including nearly two dozen who sat on the floor of the meeting room. One of them was Lori Ready-Jaimes, market human resource manager for Wal-Mart in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
"With the [employment law] changes that could occur in the future, it’s important to stay on top of them and prepare our workforce," Ready-Jaimes said.
She said proposed legislation could usher in "probably the biggest changes in the last 20 to 30 years, especially in HR."
Wal-Mart sent more than 100 HR staff to the conference, more than any other company. "We’re very engaged," Ready-Jaimes said.
Getting up to speed on the legislative environment is one of the primary reasons for companies to send their HR people to the Chicago event, said Mike Losey, former SHRM chief executive.
"There’s going to be a lot of issues coming up," he said. "Paid family and medical leave—that will be a helluva battle."
Losey said that HR is becoming a "hot topic" because corporate leaders understand that it is central to business success. "You just can’t afford to overlook it," he said.