AAN Convention 2009: The Good News and the Bad News

First the good news: If you’re interested in absorbing new ideas and learning more about how to improve your business or your professional skills — the programming is going to be terrific.

Now the bad news: A disappointingly small number of AAN members will be there to benefit from it.

Based on our present count, we expect approximately 200 members, non-members and exhibitors to attend the convention that begins next week in Tucson. (Note: That doesn’t include attendees from the host paper, Tucson Weekly.) That’s a drop of about 34 percent from last year’s total of 305, which is roughly equivalent to the size of the decline in advertising that many AAN-member papers have experienced since we visited Philadelphia in June 2008.

But it’s about 60 percent lower than the number of people who attended the Portland convention in 2007. And it’s 70 percent below our all-time high in 2000 in Phoenix. (Another caveat: The attendance figures for Portland and Philadelphia don’t include host-paper attendees, but the figures for Phoenix do. Don’t ask.)

There are many factors at work here, including location, the state of the economy, and industry consolidation. But there’s no denying that the long-term trend isn’t a good one.

Of course, we’ve been expecting to take a hit this year ever since the economy went into a dangerous tailspin last fall. Unlike many other groups, we decided not to cancel our convention, but we have controlled costs (and exceeded expectations in terms of sponsorship revenue — thanks especially to DesertNet, and to Google and Smub as well) and expect to leave Tucson with a surplus that’s only slightly less than the modest convention profit we planned for in the FY09 budget.

Programming expenses didn’t escape the scalpel, but as I noted in the introduction to this post, I expect the programming to be excellent. There will be less of it — no more six or seven concurrent panels and speakers — but what remains will be focused more tightly than usual on the nuts-and-bolts of generating revenue and reducing expenses, and on strategic issues, especially strategic issues related to web publishing.

I just wish there were more people to share it with.