Association Congress

Monday, 25 July 2011

Why you should never listen to conference delegates

This isn’t one of those ironic or sarcastic titles; this is how I feel. And no doubt this will surprise many of you. But I also know that a few of you will agree adn echo my calls! "NEVER LISTEN TO DELEGATES"

So, how can an events professional who has run over 700 odd events say this I hear you ask? Well, the truth be told, it is because I am an events professional who has run over 700 odd events. Let me explain.

I’ve given several presentations over the last year trying to install in event organisers some fortitude. To have the confidence to say ‘no’ to clients, managers or stakeholders, when you think they are making daft suggestions. Stay strong, adopt a solid event managment process like this and have confidence in your experience I say. And it’s fair that this message gets through. But when I suggest that event organisers ignore the ‘customer’ the resistance barriers shoot up immediately.

Delegates haven’t seen such riches so they can live with being poor

I sat in on a session recently which was almost exclusively attended by CEOs. It was a wonderfully planned session and had huge potential. Unfortunately a few things went awry. The IT broke down; the facilitator didn’t facilitate or engage people: he spoke at them. The excellent brief wasn’t followed and none of the questions were answered; well apart from the Facilitators pet questions of course. There weren’t any take homes for delegates and I felt like I had sat in on a bitching session about their organisations. A truly awful session. Later that day I asked a few delegates what they thought of the session, and (I would love to say to my surprise) some of them thought it was ‘quite good / good’.

Their response wasn’t necessary a reflection of the session: it was a demonstration of how low people’s expectations are of conferences in general. If the speaker is reasonable, and you aren’t poked in the eye with a sharp stick people don’t tend to complain. If they cover something that is relevant and perhaps allow you to think about things that you don’t normally worry about in your day to day working life, you are happy. But delegates do not know what riches these sessions can deliver, if they are structured beautifully and executed with precision. Delegates are happy with being poor. You shouldn't be.

Lead don’t follow

I knew the session above was rubbish simply because I have attended hundreds of better sessions. But I know this because it’s my job to know it. I keep up to date with the new innovations in meetings and I go to as many events run by other organisers (and I unashamedly act as a magpie) and borrow best practice. And this is what all organisers should do. This is our job.

We can not only listen to what delegates think of our conferences and I believe we’ve been doing this too long. We are too scared to stand up for our profession and say “I am the events expert here, I understand the best way to facilitate networking and to help you learn”. We know what value conferences can deliver and we must challenge ourselves and our delegates. Take them out of poverty, don’t let them set the bar so low, and show them what riches a conference can deliver.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Networking: conference’s greatest myth

It’s something you see on almost every advert for a conference. “This event offers excellent networking opportunities”. But do they? At our events we bang on about the number of people attending like this is a virtue: how can you speak to all of these people? If we take a step back can we actually say that the events we organize are ideal for networking? When we are selling to potential exhibitors to take stands alongside the conference we always talk about the amount of ‘breaks’ which the argument goes, allows them to guarantee time with the delegates. But does it?
Most of the ‘networking’ takes place on the traditional programme during registration; coffee x 2 and lunch. And isn’t that just the best time to talk and listen to other people as they queue and busy themselves in either filling their bellies or emptying their bladders? Now of course this is obvious to all who attend, but a lot of conferences still bounce you in to believing that the networking experiences they offer are ‘unique’. Like cream, the best networkers make it to the top and here’s 8 great top networking tips but what about everyone else who has bought into your great conference and its’ unique networking opportunities?
I think we therefore have two options: we are honest and admit networking is a myth or we deliver more quality networking and build it into our events. So here’s 10 things you can do to improve the networking at your conference:
1.       Allocate table places at the start of the day. Split groups up, put suppliers on the tables with their target customers, or big companies with small to allow compare and contrast in discussions
2.       Use cabaret format as it gently forces people to say hello to everyone on their tables (theatre style probably means you will speak to two people at the most during the sessions)
3.       Aim to get people in the main room at least 10mins before the first session, allow them time to chat and introduce themselves
4.       View ‘breaks’ as just that and ensure everyone has some time to soak up the learning and have a coffee in peace
5.       Mix tables up for the afternoon
6.       Build networking into every session. Allow delegates the time to talk about something from every session, or make sure you add ‘table discussion’ time at the end of each part of the day
7.       Embrace technology. Allow and facilitate 1-2-1 meetings arranged on line at your event
8.       Help your delegates take their networking off line by using Blogs and other social media
9.       Add something exciting or different to your programme that gives your delegates something to talk about
10.   Dedicate time to networking outside of the breaks, perhaps adding add a quiet informal drinks reception, with no entertainment, after the conference or an informal dinner before
I’ve deliberately stayed away from listing ways of ‘forcing networking’ like colour cards or badges, or finding a particular person by birth date, or code words or the like, as I believe the organiser knows if,  when and where these will work. So I’ve humbly suggested ways in which we can less obviously help those less likely to get the networking value from your conference. Good luck!   

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Conference innovators beware!

I’ve read a lot recently (especially from our American colleagues) that innovation in the world of conferences is the key, the secret, the future. From new session formats; to the fluid structure of a days programme; to the use of new event software and new media, we are in a world where everything on the registration desk and the cabaret table is up for grabs: but innovators beware. And here’s why.
You can ignore the basics
In too many event departments where I have done consultancy I see organisations not focusing on the basics; like good speakers; great content; keeping their database up to date or thinking about the price of competitor events. No, they are off chasing the ‘next big thing’. This could be their own TV station at their exhibition, or voting panels at the ‘great debate’, or wondering how to engage an audience with social media. I have seen ‘innovative’ events crumble and ‘cutting edge’ event businesses shrivel. We have to realize that innovation comes at a certain point of the life cycle of your event and your event organiser. Sometimes keeping up with the neighbours leads to two bankrupt, garish houses.     
Innovation that went wrong
Keeping with the housing metaphor, basically so I can draw on my experience within financial services, I saw ‘innovative’ products such as the 120% LTV mortgage (a product that allowed you to borrow 120% of the value of your house, secured against, believe it or not, the rising price of your home!) And the mortgage where £100,000s was lent to people who had been targeted as ‘likely to default’: people who were struggling to cope with the repayments for the kid’s hundred pound bike. This is what can happen with ‘innovation’ if you forget what it is the product or service is supposed to do. Mortgages were supposed to help people securely buy a home and a future in that home: they weren’t designed just to be sold to anyone wanting a home. And we all know that this unchecked innovation created a whole pile of poo for the rest of the economy.
So what can conference professionals learn from the ‘crash’?
It would be churlish to say that we should not embrace new ideas and of course it is totally incongruous to everything I’ve written in my blog but we have to understand that with innovation comes some risk, and a chance that we are taking our conferences off course. What conferences do and what we should focus on is helping people learn very useful stuff that will help them when they get back to their desks. And all this takes place is an environment where they can network and soak up learning. So here’s a few thoughts which counter some current ‘innovation’:
-          Letting delegates decide on what should be covered on the day. Structuring programmes to allow people to learn is hard. It’s a skill. So should we let delegates do this? Just imagine allowing the diners into to the kitchen, throwing the chefs to the wolfs, and expecting some fantastic food to come out the other end. If this happened it’s probably not a restaurant that you and I would eat in.
-          Asking delegates to speak on the day rather than have skilled, well briefed and prepared speakers, facilitators and chairs. In our metaphorical restaurant again, we can hear the call: “Who fancies making the beef Wellington for everyone tonight, it’s OK, you don’t need any experience we trust you”. Erm, check please! I am out of here!
-          Use of voting panels. Is this more worthwhile than asking delegates to raise their hands? Sometimes not. I hate seeing these tools used just for the sake of it.
-          Doing new things without taking the delegates along with you. Change can scare the begeebies out of people. Innovation scares some people to death!
Innovation? I’ll just see if your name is one the list
Innovation in our industry is no different from any other sector: it is the future and it is the key to adding value to our conferences. But before you let it in, ask innovation its’ name; check its’ ID and ask for references before you let it lose at your conference.
I hope this sets an interesting back drop to my chairing the session entitled ‘congress innovation’ on the events stream at the on the 18th July and I would love to hear your thoughts.  

Here's another great blog you should read: