Attendance at the RSA Conference in San Francisco, cybersecurity’s premier event, declined this year for the first time, despite tremendous demand for security technology and talent. It’s a sign the event may be in need of change.

RSA Conference in San Francisco is the world’s largest annual conference dedicated to corporate cybersecurity held in April.

In recent years the cybersecurity industry has experienced rapid growth, and the RSA Conference has grown right along with it: in a three-year span, attendance grew 50% from 28,500 people in 2014 to more than 43,000 in 2017.

This year, something changed. For the first time, RSA Conference attendance declined, albeit just slightly, to 42,000 as well as increased concerns over cost associated with the event.

Why did attendance drop?

There is likely no single reason. RSA Conference organisers, when queried about the decline, noted that many factors can affect conference attendance from year to year, including time of year, budgets, venue construction, and the availability of hotel rooms.

Indeed, a three-year construction project at Moscone Center, the RSA Conference venue, has become increasingly disruptive, forcing the closure of key parts of the facility and inconveniently pushing some conference events to nearby hotels.

Additionally, data shows hotel room prices in San Francisco have steadily risen; 2016 data from the San Francisco Travel Association shows a daily average room rate of $252.92, with 85.5% average daily occupancy, which spikes during large events like RSA Conference.

Raising costs 

And costs aren’t rising for attendees alone. Few realise vendors exhibiting at RSA Conference must be prepared to spend handsomely merely to get onto the show floor, never mind create a compelling booth.

Few outside the industry knew just how expensive it is until, following this year’s event, one vendor wrote a lengthy article with a detailed breakdown of its RSA Conference exhibit costs. When including floor space, equipment, electronics, travel and accommodations for four people, the costs totalled just under $50,000. For all intents and purposes, this is the bare minimum; top-tier vendors spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars.

One prominent vendor, Abington-based Sophos, has chosen not to exhibit at the show in 2019, saying, “we simply have an abundance of higher-ROI activities that more effectively advance our mission.”

The attendance decline this year may be an indicator that attendees, like Sophos, realise the event doesn’t provide the value it once did.

With so many people, vendors and events converging, meaningful interactions are increasingly hard to come by. In fact, numerous RSA Conference attendees noted on social media that merely navigating the increasingly crowded Moscone Center halls has become, in a word, unpleasant.

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Growing pains are inevitable when an event grows as fast as RSA Conference has. As the saying goes, this is a good problem to have.

Nonetheless, it is a problem, and RSA Conference organisers would be wise to consider how to make the event not only more affordable – especially for small vendors – but also more meaningful, intimate and pleasant for all attendees.

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