ATD2019 conference attendees
ATD Blog

Growing Talent Development Firms: Industry EXPO Trends?

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Several weeks ago I attended the ATD 2019 International Conference & EXPO in Washington, D.C.—another well-coordinated event for about 13,000 attendees. I was fortunate to be selected to conduct a pre-conference workshop on the “12 Steps to Building and Growing a Successful Talent Development Firm.” While the assembly of speakers is typically a who’s-who in the industry, given my interest in the supplier industry for talent development and the need to stay in touch with what these suppliers are offering, often the highlight of the conference for me is walking through the EXPO hall. I usually spend a day meandering at a slow pace, not making too much eye contact with the booth vendors for fear of them engaging me in a sales pitch for which I am not interested. What I am interested in is surveying the landscape to see if I can recognize any patterns of what is being exhibited and the insight that offers me, and then you, on what trends might be taking place in the industry. After all, what better way to get the pulse of the landscape than to observe just who is filling it in service of organizations throughout the world.

I have been attending ATD’s conference and EXPO for at least 35 years—sometimes as a presenter, sometimes as a book signer, and, yes, many times in a variety of supplier booths hawking my company’s wares. To assess the change in supplier landscape over that long period may not be that useful since on many levels this landscape has dramatically changed and on others it hasn’t. What is more important is an assessment of the more recent changes in the industry and the impact that may have on what you are offering. A brief recollection of what has transpired over only the last five years, for example, could be instructive since this is enough time to identify real trends. Make no mistake, there is little question that things are changing. We have to assume these suppliers wouldn’t be exhibiting were it not for organizations interested in purchasing their products and services. But just what is changing is the real question that needs to be addressed.

I didn’t do a specific count, so my observations are purely speculative based on what I saw. But, I am sure I saw more gargantuan-sized booths this year than ever before, certainly a vastly greater number than that of five years ago. These days there is a lot of ventured-based money supporting the industry and herein lies the first trend. Talent development and management is big business and is attracting outside financial support. It isn’t cheap to exhibit at ATD’s conference in a 40x40 booth with all the technology-enabled bells and whistles. The good news is that when you go to the EXPO you realize how truly professional the industry has become. Most of these showcases were beautifully crafted, inviting, friendly, and chock-full of information.

ATD said more than 400 exhibitors participated at the conference this year. My personal count from their program identified about 440. (By the way, there were days long ago when this number was close to double, but that was before the industry grew up and the size of those booths was generally much smaller.) Some colleagues of mine also made a rough count of those companies listed that were not listed in last year’s program and came up with something around 100. This means roughly 23 percent of the exhibitors were new. I’m not sure if this was their first time, but that seems like a significant number. The good news is it means that more than 75 percent returned at least from last year. I wonder what the longer-term retention rate is. Here is what I noticed that made an impact on me.

No question the headline trend, which by now is crossing over into a stable consistent force, is the increase in technology-enabled products and services. As can be noted from the list below, technology enablement is the common theme for most of these.

The majority of these are of course in the LMS, LCMS, and library of content provider category, but the interesting transformation is the movement of consumer audiences to business ones. Companies like Udemy, Coursera, and LinkedIn started out focused on reaching the consumer and now are adding organizations’ employees to the mix. So, the movement from B2C to B2B is a clear trend for these platform-based businesses.


Technology hasn’t stopped with platforms. There were significantly more suppliers showing off their wares in the delivery of training. This included many new and enhanced graphic design, authoring, and video delivery tools. Video streaming and interactive tools also have facilitated significant changes in how learners access content.

Another technology offshoot deserving its own category is the use of business simulations. I saw more companies hawking these than I can ever remember. There are still the board game simulation providers, but even they have figured out how to link technology-enabled scoring, assessments, and follow-up to their offers. And, the more sophisticated technology has allowed business simulations to become more complex, real-world, and intricate.

A cousin to simulation is gamification, another definite supplier trend. Many of the above business simulations appear to be set up as games. But, more specifically, suppliers are offering high-technology versions of “Jeopardy”-like games for assessing knowledge benchmarks and acquisition as well as proper identification of video streamed right-way/wrong-way models. Where a game stops and becomes a true simulation might be hard to decipher, but the fact remains technology is enabling their incorporation into learning experiences.


Assessment tools have always been a part of the talent development landscape. They provide excellent support as pre- and post-test opportunities to evaluate and track performance. Now, however, many are taking on a different look given the ease with which they can be used, scored, and evaluated. And, with the rise of artificial intelligence algorithms, these tools have become even more valuable in both evaluating and predicting the likelihood of on-the-job success.

Educational institutions, while always present at the EXPO, seem to be upping their game with the capacity to draw from their built-in intellectual property harvested and continually updated by experts in various fields. Almost all of them exhibiting were offering online access to their curated content either synchronously or asynchronously.

Interestingly, there was one technology enhancement I thought I would see much more of—virtual reality. I think I counted only one or two suppliers showing this as an offer. Granted, I could have missed this, but I was surprised that the trend for virtual reality doesn’t seem to have taken hold quite yet, at least for ATD suppliers.

As you build your business, have you thoroughly thought through how it will compete against these trends? Are you staying up-to-date and relevant? Do you have a good sense of how your customers plan to incorporate these trends into their short- and long-term talent development strategy?

For more insight, check out my book The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.

About the Author

Steve Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His first book, The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm, was published by ATD in 2017. His recent follow-up, 12 Winning Strategies for Building a Talent Development Firm is now available on Amazon.

He can be reached at: 952.942.7291 or [email protected].

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