Conferences & Conventions: A meeting of minds

When the going gets tough, the tough get going – to conference. In tight economic times, focus fixes firmly on developing people. Conferences and conventions play an important role in transferring knowledge, connecting and motivating people. Within wider framework of continuing economic constraint, organisers report conference activity has held up “reasonably well”. Now, they say, there are signs of growth.
As corporates adjust their conference spend, they are fine-tuning their priorities. In most sectors, conference social events are being trimmed as emphasis shifts further towards investment in content and speakers. Today’s focus is on smarter thinking and new technology to ensure time-pressured delegates get maximum value from their conference experience – before, during and after the event.
Gillian Officer, Sky City Entertainment Group’s director of sales – conventions and outcatering, says although the market has held up quite well, the number of delegates has declined.
“Where companies would once send four or five attendees, they have been sending one or two. We’re seeing some recovery although it’s slow. People are lot more conscious about where they spend their money, especially around non-essential items such as theming, and are spending where they see the value – on speakers rather than flowers.”
Tracey Thomas, director of Conference Innovations in Christchurch, says conferences are slightly shorter, with some forgoing the welcoming cocktail function and opting to launch straight into the conference. However, he cautions, it’s important to balance this quick-start approach with, for example, ensuring value for exhibitors.

Dine & dash?
Annual conferences may still feature gala dinner but in many cases dinners have become stand-up affair, which is seen as more effective in providing networking opportunities.
Amidst signs of recovery, James Chatterley, managing director of Event Dynamics in Auckland, says he is starting to see conference organisers looking to move to better venues, menus and hotels.
Paula Cleghorn, director – conferences at Conferenz, says people still expect high level of conference experience, regardless of the economic climate.
“If they invest in conference they want to be comfortable and hosted well in professional environment. They expect speakers to contribute to high level in terms of content and delivery. ”
Sponsorships and trade exhibitions have become vital components in balancing any conference’s books. Robyn Gosden of the Insurance Brokers Association of New Zealand (IBANZ) says one of the biggest effects on IBANZ conferences, apart from the Christchurch earthquakes, has been sponsorship.
“There’s such pull-back on sponsorship these days. Sponsors want much more for their dollar and they’re seeing different options to get it.”
Real estate company Harcourts has busy events calendar, with five regional awards events every quarter, each attracting 300 to 400 people. It also holds an annual business development conference for around 300 franchise owners plus major annual national conference, which currently is limited to 1000 delegates.
“We use our events for connection, recognition and camaraderie,” says CEO Hayden Duncan. “With 175 offices in our New Zealand operation that connection is so important.
“The tougher the conditions, the more you need to look after people. We cut our cloth to suit but at the same time our events, awards, recognition and people connections are the last things we ever look at with regard to reducing budgets.
“We’ve been through some of the toughest market environments in real estate on record over the last three years and our events haven’t changed. If anything, we stepped them up bit more to really lift people. Our people’s attitude is major part of their performance so it’s an opportunity to make sure they’ve got their mindset in the right place.”

Mindset matters
Conference content is fine balance between information and inspiration.
“Content has to be really sharp,” agrees Thomas. “It has to be targeted and focused on specific topics. We’re seeing real increase in streaming. At the same time we’re seeing no interest in team-building activities at all.”
Duncan says content is always challenge.
“You have people at conference for three days. There’s lot of information and very fine balance between making it training and development programme, and having people go away with the right mindset. Breakout sessions where we deliver specific content are big part of what we do. But people remember and take action on the motivational and inspirational speakers.”
Driven by demand for shorter, sharper sessions, business conference organisers are tightening up timeframes but using streaming to provide focussed topics and delegate choice.
“In some segments of the market there’s demand for one day conferences,” says Cleghorn. “Many of the one day events that Conferenz creates include streamed sessions. This allows people to choose their preferred presentation and provides diverse perspectives, experiences and the opportunity for smaller groups.”
The association market is seen as somewhat resistant to fluctuations in the economy because organisations and members must meet to hold AGMs and fulfil professional development requirements.

More for less
Donna Peffers of the Real Estate Institute of NZ (REINZ) says her organisation focuses on providing the best events it can while keeping costs low.
“We’re running on tight budget because we’re here to offer value for our members. Our conferences tend to focus on specific sectors such as business brokers or residential property managers. They’re very much focused on what’s happening within the New Zealand market, and legal and technical things that are specifically related to their sector.
“We don’t engage many motivational speakers any more because members say they want information that helps them do our job properly. So we’ve reduced our expenditure on the bells and whistles. We’re really putting our money into the speakers.”
Gosden says IBANZ has gone through similar process. Like REINZ, members are affected by the new Financial Advisers’ Act.
“Our members have had to get up to speed with that and with CPD requirements. They have to be better qualified to register and to know what they’re doing before they can give advice, so our conference must deliver quality. We’ve stopped having motivational speakers. We still try and provide really good gala dinner but we try and do it on budget, without making that obvious.”
Jan Tonkin of The Conference Company specialises in associations from the healthcare, sciences, education and professional services sector. She says for these markets conferences are vital communications tool, with different drivers and different audience expectations from the typical business conference.
“Attendees are very focused on high-quality educational outcomes and takeaways that can be actioned immediately. They’re looking to immerse themselves and be exposed to the very best of ‘the now, the new and the future’. Delegates want solid, sound content with more interactive workshops, streaming and formats that allow them to catch on to information quickly and then discuss it.
“Time is as important factor as cost. The length of conferences – two and half to three days – hasn’t changed but the time of week (or year) can be important for particular market.”

Now, please
Conference organisers have also noted recent trend to much shorter lead times. James Chatterley says he fielded an enquiry in August for 700-person conference in May 2013. The normal lead time would once have been more like three years.
Use of professional conference organisers (PCOs) appears to be on the rise, and even organisations with their own event management team (such as IBANZ, REINZ and Harcourts) will usually call on PCO or specialists in, say theming or AV, for large, complex events.

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