Conferences, I am somewhat of the mind that they are little jolly half holidays given to those who spend their life in the pursuit of knowledge, filled with free food and free wine.
This is the new world in to which I enter, meeting many from different places even different countries all drawn by a uniting overarching research area. Yet the thing that struck me immediately on talking to others, of which I am not immune, is a queer sense that they are only interested in their own work and if your does not agree or compliment theirs then you may as well be talking about a cute kitten you saw the previous week for the amount they take in. Still there is a great air of respect around for all those presenting and again I see the transcendence from undergraduate, where you are either right or wrong as decided by your lecturer, to a level playing field where your views are seen with equal weight to someone 40 years your senior.
From a personal point of view yes it was an all expensive paid trip with glorious food laid on and plenty of free drink, for how else could you entice all the best minds for a particular field to one place at the same time. The up shot is what this then achieves, you have all gone for the free stuff but you leave with new friends and new ideas which in turn fuels more research to be presented at the next conference and the cycle continues. It is rather a way to keep everyone on the same page, sharing findings in order to save others from dead-ends and inspire new avenues of research.
So to be some what more concise: yes, I and others attend conferences with a mind for good free food and to show off our latest research yet harbouring the knowledge that you will walk away with new ideas and contacts to help you make the next step in your work.