valuable learning experience or a jolly out of the office? How you view
conferences affects what you get out of them. But planning before hand can make
all the difference. By Caroline Horn
organisers generally put enormous efforts into creating events that they hope
are informative, well-presented and innovative. But it is less easy for them to
predict what kind of audience they will get on the day.
doubt, some delegates will be rapt with attention and keen to develop their
knowledge of online learning or complexity science – whatever the day promises.
There will also be those who are less than keen, having been ordered to attend.
And there will be some delegates in holiday mode, who view the day as a
well-deserved break from the computer terminal and telephone.
even for those people whose hearts sink at the mention of conferences or
exhibitions, there are ways to ensure that such events provide something of
value. And, as conference organisers start to move away from the traditional
day-long format of hour-long sessions, the chances are that more people will
start to view conferences in a positive light, too.
Starling, managing director of The Eventworks, says the globalisation of
business and the swift development of technology mean conferences are becoming
an increasingly important occasion. “Getting people together in a room is an
incredible opportunity for businesses,” he says. While smaller meetings can,
increasingly, be handled using technology such as videoconferencing or by
e-mail, the ‘big event’ is an invaluable opportunity to bring together
different groups within a company, or to share expertise among a wider
he adds, that opportunity is often wasted. “Most conferences are an appalling
waste of time,” he says. “They are ineffective and an outdated method of
communication. Most delegates don’t expect to get much from them other than
meeting people, or a good session in the bar afterwards.”
people attend conferences wanting to hear experts answer all their questions
about new issues but, as Paul Kearns of Personnel Works points out, it can be
difficult for the conference organiser to meet these expectations. “The raison
d’être of conferences is to pick up on a topic that is sexy – say, online
learning. It is a new area and people coming to listen want to hear the dos and
fine as far as it goes, but it means that those organising the conference have
to get expert speakers, people who know a lot about it. And that’s where a lot
of public conferences fall down, because sexy topics are the new topics and
there is not often a lot of expertise out there. It’s a Catch-22 situation.”
speaker comments, “I have sat through some conferences where 90 per cent has
been complete dross. The speakers have not told anyone anything new and have
not provided any insights.”
a conference for blue-chip companies can cost around £100,000 that is an
incredible waste of resources.
the conference industry has been peddling the same thing for too long and maybe
the whole question of the role of conferences needs to be rethought,” he
while delegates need to work at getting the most from conference events, there
are many who agree that the conference itself needs to change if it is to
provide an effective opportunity for learning.
why should you go? It can be important for delegates to do some homework before
signing up for an event, says Kearns. “People need to be clear about their
expectations – you’re not going to get all the answers quickly at a conference,
but you might hear something useful.
who is going to speak beforehand. It’s better to attend three or four decent
sessions than to go to lots just for the sake of it. If you’ve never heard of
the people on the conference sheet, ask yourself why you’re going.”
it can be difficult to decide whether a conference is relevant to you by just
looking at the standard pre-publicity material and invitation information; a
telephone call to the centre could help to clarify that.
Littlewood, sales and marketing manager for Hayley Conference Centres, adds,
“We generally try to ensure that there are notes for people to read before they
arrive at the event. Delegates are also asked to fill in a pre-conference
questionnaire on what they want out of the conference.”
says Starling, helps delegates to get more from the day. “When you have the
information before the conference, you can start to work at it and then develop
those issues at the conference – rather than using the conference to introduce
delegates have decided, or been told, to go, they need to ask themselves about
their frame of mind en route to the event. “Are you going to learn, as a prisoner,
or as a holidaymaker?” asks Richard Greaves, European manager of Impact
Development Training Group.
people can move away from ‘prisoner’ or ‘holidaymaker’ to ‘learner’, they’re
heading in the right direction. If you come to a conference and you’re not in
learner mode, then you’re wasting your time.”
carefully about which seminars are relevant to you and how much creditability
the speakers have, advises Greg Whitear of business training consultancy Greg
Whitear Associates. “Do the speakers have an academic background, or do they
have grass-roots experience? You want to hear people who have worked in an
environment similar to your own,” he says.
Eventworks’ Starling believes that delegates could do more to ensure the conference
will fulfill their expectations, “Delegates should make sure they are included
in sessions that offer involvement – or they should get conference organisers
to promise formats that offer some form of involvement.
is hard to learn something when you’re sitting in a chair and listening, even
when a speaker is interesting,” he explains.
Churchman, head of diversity at PricewaterhouseCoopers, agrees. “I shy away
from traditional conferences, but I’d be more interested if there were a lot of
workshops involving discussions, feedback and working in small groups.”
speaking at conferences, she has found that the question and answer sessions at
the end of seminars can be very telling. “Often speakers will dress up their
organisations in fairy lights to make them sound more interesting. But the
questions at the end, if they are used properly, can show the company in a more
realistic light,” Churchman says.
with people in the audience is the most important part of the day, says Kearns.
“I try to be provocative in my talks and I judge how well it has gone by how
many people ask for my business card afterwards.”
while delegates can use the coffee breaks and lunchtime for networking, he
feels the conference format doesn’t really build in enough networking time.
everyone, however, finds it easy to start chatting to complete strangers, says
Greaves. “There are people who can go to a conference and within five minutes
have become firm friends with another 10 people. Others find it harder. If
anything is going to happen, it will happen in the social time, coffee and
lunch, or the bar session at the end.”
those who do find networking difficult, Whitear advises, “Try to go up to
someone and just look at their name badge, and they will generally introduce
do not ignore the fact that in-house conferences can be a good opportunity to
focus on your career. As Starling says, “If it is a company conference and the
leaders are there, that is often the only time you will get to talk to them.
Use that time and say what you thought about the event, engage them, find out
what is their vision of the business.”
adds, “A lot of executives worry that they are not approachable and wonder
whether people will come and ask questions. You don’t have to ask in front of
300 people – find a quiet time after the sessions. And always ask, ‘What’s in
it for me?’ Are your ideas valued? Find out where the business is going, what
they want you to contribute, and what they are going to do to help your career.”
can also take place after the conference, says Churchman. “You can phone people
and talk about the information given at the conference. I have done that and I
have always been surprised at how many people have called me to follow up
points I have raised during talks I’ve given.”
people are familiar with the scenario of leaving a conference with a bag full
of A4 diagrams, texts of speeches and autocue notes, says Greaves. “People take
that bag to the office and never open it again.”
is a point that Kearns focuses on after his seminars. “I always ask people,
‘What are you going to do with this tomorrow?’ If you don’t think about that on
the day of the conference, you never will.”
says the best time to make an action plan is while still at the venue. “I
suggest that, while still at the conference venue, delegates take half an hour
to sit down somewhere privately and ask, ‘What am I going to do differently
tomorrow as a result of this conference?’
an action plan with four or five points and say, ‘I’ll make sure I do this and
this, and stop doing this and this’. We call it a reality session.”
can also pass on relevant electronic information to work colleagues, says
Greaves. “If it is the appropriate thing to do, we use a website with a
password that people in the conference or organisation could access, with key
slides and key ideas. If delegates have fallen asleep during the conference,
they can still learn from their office! At any rate, people learn in different
ways and speeds – for some people, it’s crucial to be able to go back.”
will often forward information from the conference to her work colleagues, or
perhaps organise an internal presentation. “These days, companies want to know
what other organisations are doing, and quite often that’s what a conference
can give you,” she says.
are also times when it is imperative that people in the office find out what
was discussed at a conference, particularly if it was an in-house event to
discuss strategy,” says Greaves. “People who weren’t at the conference may well
be concerned about their future, so it is essential that delegates walk away
with a communications plan.”
organisations are asking for feedback from delegates, says Littlewood. “More
conference companies are working on a return on investment, so delegates will
be asked whether a conference met their expectations and about the venue.”
adds, “It’s important to know that, if your company asks for feedback, they are
interested in what you have to say. If you go to a conference knowing they want
your feedback, then give it. Listen and comment.”
says Starling, if companies really want their delegates to get the most out of
conference events, they need to ensure “involvement, involvement, involvement”.
adds, “If you stand on a stage and lecture people, no matter how sexy your
software, they might retain 90 per cent of what you’re saying, but if you want
them to take ownership of the ideas, you have to get them committed and get
them working. You can’t sell it from the stage.”
the whole idea of the traditional conferences needs to be reconsidered, says
Kearns. “It is hard for anyone to take away all the information they are given
during a two-day conference. Conferences work better when there are fewer
speakers, chunky sessions where you get to grips with the practicalities of the
issues, and where the time is more limited,” he says.
Hayley Conference Centres, Littlewood says there is a discernible trend towards
making conferences more inclusive and less formal – from people wearing
informal clothing to “cabaret-style” seating, as well as demand for more
syndicated workshop rooms alongside the main conference area.
as Starling adds, “Once you get people really working on areas like strategy
and business plans, they can make a real contribution to the business, so at
the end of the day, your business is better. Don’t use the platform to tell
people things – use it to drive your business forward.”
must do’s before you attend a conference
sure the conference is worth your while. If you don’t recognise any names among
the speakers, are you sure you want to go?
for the conference. Read any background notes and prepare questions
yourself on events that promise interaction – or persuade the conference
organiser to stage some
the question and answer session to find out what the speakers’ companies are
brave – use coffee breaks to network
about what you have learned while you are still at the venue
a four-point action plan on using your new-found skills
up contacts after the event
Brownie points by sharing what you have learned with colleagues, perhaps with
an in-house presentation
your company whether the conference lived up to expectations – or they might
send you to another one