CONFERENCES & SEMINARS : Corporate events come of age – stand and deliver

Conferences, conventions and events are big business – and growing. As the quality and performance gap between different products and brands narrows with increasingly sophisticated design and manufacturing tools, companies jostle to differentiate themselves. Staging events, entertaining clients and creating opportunities for face-to-face meetings with customers are primary methods for stealing march on the competition, and all are contributing to burgeoning industry.
Companies staged conferences and events for myriad of reasons in the past – staff and/or client schmoozing; product launches; “because we always have an annual conference/seminar/AGM function/whatever”; and there haven’t been the measurement tools to gauge the success or otherwise of the event. For some time in more developed events markets like the United States the emphasis has been on delivering information and creating learning opportunities at any conference/seminar-type forum.
But according to Lisa Garrity, managing director of Wellington events managers Clockwork, attitudes are changing. The tight recruitment market is one driver for change: organisations need to be consistent in their messages and branding to all stakeholders including potential new recruits. Every aspect of the organisation needs to generate the same message, but only handful of corporates are achieving that, says Garrity. Many are still doing the ad hoc one-off event.
Consistency of branding and maintaining strong and confident voice about what an organisation stands for can be vital in recruiting, and retaining, good people. Everyone now is pretty much aware of the relative cost of holding on to an existing employee against having to recruit someone new.
If Clockwork is approached to handle an event for company its first move is to try to pull all the company’s internal key stakeholders into meeting: HR manager; marketing and communications; sales and marketing; CEO – all those operating at the key interfaces between company and staff, and company and clients.
Garrity says CEOs are often initially reluctant to get involved with something that has in the past been relegated to junior management or support person, but there is growing understanding of the importance of maintaining consistent language and message.
Companies that are reluctant to make the commitment to building comprehensive strategy whereby all activities and messages are consistent may be converted by the success of competitors retaining top employees and key clients.
“Medium-sized companies are probably the easiest to work with; they have smaller staff and are open and fluid enough to take on new initiative,” she says.
Activities must be targeted, reported on and measured. Garrity says it’s surprising how often the delegated conference/event key contact within company has no idea what the company spend on the project is; money has traditionally come from various budgets and, if that is the case, it is difficult for there to be proper accountability.
“There need to be clear objectives and baseline from which to measure success.” Clockwork has measurement tool called “I speak” through which delegates or attendees can give feedback over the phone (to an answer machine) via an 0800 number. It’s set of five questions which takes approximately two minutes to answer.”
Giving feedback to machine generally means the respondents are more candid. Anything like this needs to be simple and ensure accurate feedback.
Measurement might be by sales/revenue figures or more long term such as staff retention and enhancement of client relationships.
Other benefits may be the data gathered by the sophisticated registration model Clockwork provides, which allows for in-depth analysis of the event’s audience.
Garrity says the key to staging events that engage people is not rocket science. “It all comes down to the same thing. You are dealing with human beings and the experience needs to be meaningful and measurable. It’s all about understanding human behaviour.”
She agrees that as the presentation technology and ‘whizz-bangery’ of events gets ever more sophisticated, there is corresponding and balancing trend towards more simple face-to-face human interaction. She says this need for face-to-face communication will never change and no amount of technological magic can replace that human interaction.
“The trend is also towards smaller more intimate – almost personal – gatherings. The events will take place within shorter timeframes involving the right people within an organisation mixing with clients.
“The businesses that will grow and succeed will achieve this by managing the human factor – and those businesses will include the most sophisticated technology companies.”
Annette Pendergast, general manager for the Christchurch & Canterbury Convention Bureau (CCCB), agrees: “We have seen over the past five years that the more technology we have in our working lives – whereby daily face-to-face communication between human beings is getting less and less – the greater the need to take time away from the work environment to really connect with others.
“Corporates are wanting to take people away and out of their everyday environment. And another part of this trend is the growing number and popularity of resorts in remote areas – where technology is minimal,” and the guests can get back to the basics of enjoying the simple things; nature, scenery and good, but not extravagantly sophisticated, local foods.
In his recently published book Seven Rules for Designing More Innovative Conferences, Ed Bernacki also highlights the “tremendous need for overly stressed people to sit back, reflect on their jobs, their organisation and their future. They need time to create new visions for the opportunities and challenges that they need to tackle to be successful.” He continues: “Conferences are the ideal place to find new ideas, nurture teamwork, and gain commitment to move forward on personal and organisation goals.”
Bernacki points out, after seven years of observation and case studies, that under the old model of conference design, many events don’t have learning strategy or learning objectives. “Those working in the industry and profiting from it are the guardians of millions of dollars of association, not-for-profit and corporate funds that are invested to make people and their organisations more successful. There would be few executives, if any, who would say that the most important aspect of the conference is that their staff like the speakers, venue or food, yet this is what we often measure.”
He says many people attend conferences, take notes and never look at them again. To take advantage of such lost opportunities Bernacki has designed his conference Navigator Guides. He quoted participant as saying she felt “liberated from taking notes”. She now focuses on ideas and insights rather than recording everything she hears. Her new focus is to listen for ideas that will be useful after the conference.
The key message from Garrity is that any event should not be considered in isolation; it needs to be part of larger corporate plan around the branding of the organisation and how it wants to be perceived by all its stakeholders.
She said that up until around year ago, Clockwork was simply about managing clients’ events – providing the service requested. However as the company grew in experience and confidence Garrity realised she no longer wanted to play the game of taking the money and doing what the client asked. She wanted to be more proactive in number of areas. This led to more holistic approach to client requests and attempts – largely successful – to get companies to review their entire branding in the marketplace.
It’s easy to view conferences and events as nice but not essential adjuncts to your core business. But Garrity argues that anything an organisation is going to spend the kind of money on that an event can chew up – usual sums can be anything

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