What is the real benefit of going to a conference? Is it to get the latest and greatest industry knowledge? Perhaps it's an opportunity to get a break from day-to-day life? If you're in the government, maybe it's a chance to live large!
The real value though is in building stronger relationships. Conferences take us out of the normal interaction patterns we have and present opportunities to have more meaningful interactions.
Tyler Cowen, creator of the popular Marginal Revolution blog and fellow professor at George Mason University, took up this question recently and I wholeheartedly agree that conferences "...could be rethought to give smaller in-groups more chances to interact with each other."
I'd go even further and say that conference attendees who go to a few sessions and sit in their hotel room are probably wasting their company's money.