Face Space Beats Cyberspace

The impact of e-commerce and email on business today has done just the opposite – accentuated the need for face-to-face forums. And the conference industry is alive, well and rising to new challenge.
With growing tendency to hide behind the impersonality of electronic communication, the human element in business is taking on an important new role. And the whole reason for conferencing and meeting – to offer people with common purpose the chance to come together and interact in tactile, convivial environment – has never been more crucial.
Alan Trotter, chief executive of Conventions and Incentives New Zealand, says the change in the way business is conducted makes meetings and conferences more important than ever. “Even in the last 12 months we have undergone huge change in the way we do business. We spend far more time at computer, increasingly rely on email and the internet for communication and spend less time physically in the company office. What is being lost is the human element and I believe that as we move towards more web-based global village, the need for more human touch will become even greater. Already companies are recognising the human cost of new technology and realise the increasing importance of bringing people together face to face. So the conference industry can only go from strength to strength as we continue to focus on those human issues,” says Trotter.
Getting back to the basics of the principal reason for conference or meeting, has become even more crucial and Trotter says companies stand to suffer greatly if they ignore the importance of the get together. “We are human beings and we have lived through many revolutions. At the moment we are in the middle of digital one and as with all revolutions there is down side. If companies don’t stand back and look at the effect this is having on business they will have problem. Already morale is not as it should be in many organisations. New technology can often make staff feel inadequate, they may feel isolated and resentful, can lose focus and become out of touch with their own and the company’s objectives. conference or meeting in the right environment and structured properly can do an enormous amount for morale, allow people to refocus on the values of an organisation, and will rejuvenate and motivate staff,” says Trotter.
Debbie Tawse, managing director of Celebrity Speakers, agrees that the human element of business has given the conference industry renewed state of purpose. For the past 11 years the company has provided speakers, consultants, MCs and facilitators for conferences, internal training and personal development programmes.
In that capacity Celebrity Speakers has seen many trends in terms of what companies want their conference to achieve, says Tawse. “We’ve observed changes in priorities from subjects like total quality control to last year’s chief topic – the impact of technology on business. But now people have realised that even with the rapid development in technology, people are the most important thing and there is definite trend towards social responsibility and the importance of people,” she says.
In the space of just one month earlier this year, Celebrity Speakers received four conference briefs which were all virtually identical. “Each conferfence brief talked about putting the passion back into business and wanted to focus on looking after the community and the environment, as well as deal with the balance of business and lifestyle. Those are all really big, key issues now. Today the talk is about instilling social responsibility and getting the team right before getting the company right. ?Passion’ is the buzz word and is the key to sustainable competitive advantage these days,” says Tawse.
And the people focus is having bearing on more than just the content of the forum – it’s impacting on when and where the conference is held. Traditionally the chief decider was to stay in New Zealand or go abroad – decision usually based on finance and time available. Even the so-called “prime New Zealand-based conferencing months” of September to November have been stretched as other factors impact on the decision. Today’s questions deal with new considerations like ” how will this conference suit personnel?”, “is there enough down time for pure social interaction?” and “can we hold it at weekend to include partners?” An awareness of home and family life and how staff’s work commitments impact on partners are factors that conference organisers say can often determine the success of the meeting.
Trotter: “While work colleagues often see very little of each other today, it’s the same for people and their partners and families – and they are the ones who suffer. So many companies now hold conferences at the weekend when they can get good hotel rates and partners can be included for very little extra cost. People see their partner’s company in different light and there’s good spin off for everyone.”
Raising the company profile is one in list of considerations which will determine where you choose to conference this year. And analysing what you intend to achieve – ie is it team-building exercise, an incentive for staff, reward, thank you for clients, training session, serious business meeting or general jolly? – should obviate the appropriate venue.
Staying in New Zealand or heading offshore is normally decided by available time and money but there are many incentives to woo companies in either direction. Since the conventions and incentives business contributes around $240 million to the New Zealand economy there’s lot of vested interest in promoting the local angle.
John Willson, general manager for Biztrav, consortium of 28 corporate travel bureaux throughout New Zealand, says the value of the dollar coupled with the good facilities and activities on offer here have increased the number of companies coming to New Zealand to conference – particularly from Australia. Good transportation, availability and frequency plus time involved in travel were incentives to stay in New Zealand although the consortium tends to focus on outbound travel to locations like Australia, Fiji and other Pacific Islands.
“People conference at all times of the year now but the secret is in early planning. There are some very attractive deals and often it is just as cheap to go offshore if you can get good package. The climate in the islands and Queensland spreads the conferencing season out so it doesn’t really matter what time of year you decide to go,” says Willson.
The coup in Fiji had major impact on the popular destination last year but business is picking up with host of favourable packages designed to woo people back. The realisation that the political troubles were isolated to very small part of the country meant people’s safety was not an issue and some special accommodation and airfare deals now make Fiji very cost-effective venue for conferences, according to Fiji expert Gordon Chesterman of Hamilton.
“What is interesting is that the latest available statistics show that last November more New Zealanders were in Fiji than in the previous November – prior to the troubles.
The New Zealand market responded very well to the deals on offer and astute companies realise the magic of Fiji for meetings and conferences. The facilities beat the pants off many other locations and far from being third world, you can run any of the sophisticated technical equipment you want,” says Chesterman.
One company to take up the Fiji challenge this year is More FM which took 186 of its full-time staff to the Sheraton Denerau and Sonasali Resort in February.
“It’s the best conference we have ever had,” says Larry Summerville, More FM group manager. The company has held conferences every two years, choosing venues in Penang, Tahiti, Surfers Paradise and Maloolobar.
“The success of this one had lot to do with the Fijian people a

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