Event Management What it Means to Make your Conference or Seminar Delegate Driven

Nothing motivates quite like well-organised get-together involving key leaders. In his book Jack, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch highlights the importance that his Crotonville management seminars played in sharing ideas and catalysing the success of the multi-billion dollar company.

Smart new technology will come and go, but there is nothing more powerful than face-to-face meetings, dynamic conventions and conferences, or well-planned seminars for getting the message across.

You don’t have to spend mega-dollars on conference, but you do need to invest sufficiently in the right areas. For example, if the emphasis of the event is on creating networking opportunities, ensure the food and beverages are up to scratch. If it’s an incentive event for high achievers, then make sure the attendees are appropriately spoiled.

Debbie Tawse, of Celebrity Speakers, knows what makes functions work. “Have good programme, one that effectively blends the business and non-business aspects. Get the right mix of content, delivery style, and captivating speaker.”

The opening speaker is vital, according to Tawse. He or she will set the tone for the entire event. “The closing speaker is important too, because the finale is the lasting impression people take away with them.”

An experienced MC injects continuity into the event by linking key messages. “He or she must be relied upon to front the entire programme, freeing the organiser up to take care of other glitches or details behind the scenes,” says Tawse.

Tawse also knows where organisers go wrong. “I’ve seen people spend too much money in one area, and not enough in others. Too often organisers view speakers as cost, rather than an investment that delivers tangible return,” she says. And watch out for poorly balanced programme; poor introduction of keynote speakers; heavy food that has attendees nodding-off after lunch; insufficient breaks, and lack of foresight when scheduling the conference dinner. Is it, for instance, better to hold it on the first night or the last night?

Selecting the right venue is also crucial. Is the room big enough? Will attendees feel comfortable and cared for (they are, after all, taking precious time off work)? Will they consider it value for money?

Connie Clarkson, sales manager conferencing for the Hyatt Regency Auckland, believes success comes down to having clear event strategy. “There must be one clear overall message in the event programme, and everything must work towards it.”

For Mike Horne, Sky City’s conference and outcatering manager, successful conferences or seminars are all about adequate planning and “huge amounts” of communication with the chosen venue.

Problems invariably arise when the function organiser is not involved in running the show on the day. He or she may not have passed on all the essential information he says. “This is where professional conference organiser [PCO] saves headaches – they know how to allocate time and prioritise things.”

Sally Bary, PCO for Hamilton-based Forum Meeting Planners, believes that whilst organisers need certain outcomes from their conferences, they must also be ‘delegate driven’. “Ask yourself why the delegate is there? How can they get value for the time and money spent? People come to conferences for different reasons, but what they really want is to feel that they got value from it,” adds Bary. “Otherwise they will question why they need to be there next time.”

Being delegate driven starts months before the conference, according to Jan Tonkin, PCO for The Conference Company. “Delegates need to be inspired and excited in order to convince them to register. They need to believe that it will be valuable and worthwhile experience. Then lot of energy must go into the design and delivery of the programme to maximise interaction and connection, so they don’t leave disappointed.” Then, wrap it all up with post-conference survey to gauge the level of success.

Trends & technology
The nature and style of business conferences has undergone transition in recent years.

“Gone are the days when everybody got to attend,” says Kathy Guy, former conference manager at the Wairakei Resort and now general manager of the Grand Chateau. “They now cater for more select group, usually team leaders, achievers, or key personnel who can pass information on to others.” Team-building conferences have evolved from the experiential training of the past to the new motivational training of today.

Hyatt Regency’s Clarkson says the style of events has changed too. “Seminars and conferences now reflect more consultative, collaborative environment. An example is having furniture arranged in ‘open clusters’ – where groups of people sit around oval or round tables, and nobody has their back to the presenter.” The Hyatt Regency’s new conference centre, part of its $65-million expansion project, will offer this arrangement, along with the option of wider tables for attendees who want unrestricted access to laptop PCs.

And while on the subject of technology, Sky City’s Horne now sees the data projector as the new benchmark in presentation tools. “For long time presenters weren’t comfortable with data projectors, and continued to stick with overhead projectors. Now they think nothing of it. What we’re seeing is more proficient and professional approach to audience presentations.”

This increased emphasis on presentation technology has prompted many conference venues to rethink their technology spend – whether it be computer-controlled ceiling lights, or upgrading projectors to higher resolution.

Peter Pearson, general manager of AV specialist company Staging Connections, says it is essential to choose the most appropriate technology for getting the message across. “Our involvement can range from simply ensuring that the technology is correctly set-up and works smoothly, through to total event and conference management where we take responsibility for the entire look and feel of the event,” he says. “It’s our job to help clients and presenters avoid such classic mistakes as having too much information crammed onto single PowerPoint slide.”

The technology with the potential to impact most on the conference industry is videoconferencing, which is steadily becoming ubiquitous in the business process. But, while some predicted slowdown in the conference marketplace, given the potential cost savings of conducting meetings via video, the opposite has occurred. Annual conferences, for example, show no signs of going away. If the CEO can’t make it let’s beam her in on the video screen.

Pearson views videoconferencing as supplementary to the conferencing industry. “There is no substitute for human contact. Meeting people face-to-face delivers better perspective of where they’re coming from – something that video image would never allow you to do,” he adds.

“It’s not until you physically go away with colleagues to conference or seminar, that you really get to know them,” suggests Alan Trotter, CEO of Conventions & Incentives New Zealand, the body that looks after the interests of the convention industry. “While video has become part of the programme, people still want that tactile relationship.”

Kathy Guy compares the impact of videoconferencing to that of email. “Just as email has made communication easier, allowing issues to be dealt with as they arise, so videoconferencing allows more frequent meetings that in turn speed up the decision-making process.”

Places to meet
In the 1970s the Palmerston North City Council was the country’s first to invest in purpose-built Convention Centre. Now local bodies and accommodation providers alike see such facilities as money-spinners, particularly in the tourist off-season.

There is unprecedented growth in the conference market and parallel rise in investment in purpose-built venues to meet the demand. Auckland’s venues include the stunning new Hyatt Rege

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