While conferences and conventions are still the way people choose to network and share knowledge in any industry, it is undeniable that technology and the digital world have caused a shift in trends. Websites like Ted.com, with its short inspirational talks, and an explosion in online presentation content from videos to slideshows, have helped changed the shape of the conferencing business. But at its heart, it’s still people connecting with people.
Whether we are talking about small gatherings or large industry conventions, New Zealand remains a big market for event organisers, both local and from overseas. According to Sue Sullivan, CEO of Conventions and Incentives New Zealand, “the domestic market has returned to conferencing and if the conference is small in numbers, many have remained strong supporters of the smaller regions in New Zealand”. Sullivan adds that the convention bureaus within the regions are strongly promoting their area of expertise (for example, geothermal in Rotorua or agriculture in the Waikato).
The news is good for the country as a whole as New Zealand continues to appeal to international audiences. “New Zealand is raising its profile on the international stage securing an increasing number of large international conferences as the industry works together to secure these bids,” says Sullivan. “When new venues come on stream, New Zealand will continue to build on these successes and secure the larger events that cannot currently be hosted due to venue constraints.”
Yvonne Gill, events manager at IDC New Zealand, agrees. IDC organises conferences and events focusing on topics within the ICT market and, according to Gill, “the current pace of change in technology is unprecedented so there is a demand for ICT professionals to keep abreast of new trends and interact with their peers to share learnings”. Conferences still play a key role in making this happen.
“Delegates want more choice through streams and breakouts, a mixture of international thought leadership and local case studies. From a conference organisation point of view, there is a move towards new technologies such as onsite registration systems, event apps and a desire from delegates to move to paperless events,” says Gill.
Short and sweet
We’re busier than ever (or so we think) and always trying to do more with less time. Companies can no longer justify sending their entire teams to a week-long retreat and need to carefully justify each day away from the office. Conferences are shifting from long three or more day affairs with long sessions and few chances to hit the food buffets to shorter and sharper events.
For IDC’s Gill, the ideal conference is a mix of both: “it is good to switch from plenary sessions to break out sessions, as it gets delegates to move to a different room and a change in style helps to keep the audience engaged.”
Leigh Higgins, associate director of sales at Sudima Hotels, says “many customers are either time poor or don’t have the budget to add additional conference days, therefore shorter and sharper conference programmes are becoming more the norm”.
The number of short lead enquiries is another trend for Sudima Hotels, with some coming in less than 30 days out from conference date, some even within a few days for small to medium sized requirements.
With everyone more pressed for time, Higgins says the most common priorities for corporates have become location and time – “the more they can push into one conference day the better so location is a very important factor to consider,” she says.
Sessions are not only becoming shorter, they’re also becoming more interactive than ever. “At our CIO Summit event this year, we introduced a series of Lightning Talks. End-user companies were invited to submit an application to present a seven minute talk and three companies were chosen to participate in the programme during the afternoon of day one. This proved to be a popular addition to the agenda,” recalls Gill.
Mike Brown, organiser of Webstock (an annual international web conference in Wellington), says a mix of brainstorming interactive workshops and long keynotes is ideal, as they both accomplish different things. “For the first time at Webstock this year, we just had a single stream conference. Feedback was very positive on this – people liked not being made to choose between sessions. And we liked that everyone had the same shared experience,” he says. “Workshops are great for delving into detail into a subject. Our experience has been that they work best with smaller numbers (30-40 people) and where they’re very hands-on and practical,” he adds. Webstock sessions have dropped from one hour to 40 minutes to 30 minutes. “With 30 minutes, there is time to get your message across but no room for fluff,” says Brown. “And for the audience, if they’re not connecting with a presentation for some reason, it’s not too long until the next one!”
Content is still king
One thing remains the same: conferences are, and always will be, about sharing knowledge. “Content and speakers are paramount to a successful conference, meeting the requirements of learning,” says Sullivan. “There is a real expectation that the audience will be educated. They are coming to a conference to learn, they want to see a return on their investment, both financial and time. They also want to be entertained and, of course, network.”
For IDC’s Gill, good content will almost invariably lead to a good conference. “If you develop content and speakers that are interesting to the target market then everything else should follow on from that. Delegates will attend, sponsors will support the event. Creating the right environment with social events and theming is also important, but if the content isn’t right then the event won’t be a success.”
With audiences have an increasing number of choice when it comes to sourcing information or training, conference organisers have to work harder to source content that is compelling and engaging. “Attending an event is only one of many ways people can source content on a particular topic,” explains Gill. “Therefore, conferences are not just competing against other conferences but against a plethora of information readily available online.”
Gill points out the explosion of video content that means you no longer need to attend a conference to see a high level speaker, as videos of presentations are readily available online.
The content should be both inspiring and informative. While conference attendees expect to get the most value for money and learn as much as possible, inspirational speakers are still valuable and popular. “We’ve found a mix of types of presentations has worked really well,” says Webstock’s Brown. “We’re always very aware that for most people, their employer is paying for them to attend, so there do need to be sessions with practical takeaways, with information that can be applied to their work immediately. And these are the sessions they can sell to their employer as to why it is in their organisation’s benefit that they should attend.”
Now in its ninth year, Webstock has figured out a kind of formula for what should happen when. The opening and closing talks of each day are important and, as per their experience, the time for a more philosophical talk is later in the morning, while practical sessions work better in the early afternoon. “It’s wonderful if you can leave people at the end of a day either laughing or moved by something,” adds Brown.
All about the experience
While the focus remains on sharing knowledge and networking, competition is driving up the need to incorporate what organisers refer to as an “experience” into conference agendas.
“Conference organisers are now seeking more than just a venue for their delegates. They want their delegates to enjoy and remember their conferencing experience and are on the hunt for elements that add a unique touch,” says Kylie Hall, sales and marketing manager at Castaways Resort. “For entertainment options, we have found lots of popularity with our Murder Mystery themed comedy dinners which are ‘Castaways unique’ and for activities, ‘onsite’ (for minimising agenda timing impacts) and ‘different’ are common requests.” Hall adds that there is also high demand for the “foodie activity theme”, driven by the overload of cooking reality TV shows.
Additionally, Hall says conference organisers request variety across the complete experience. “Varied meeting spaces and varied dining options are the most popular requests we have. With our resort style property, we are fortunate to be able to offer both varied indoor and outdoor spaces and our dining options span right through from gourmet four course private gala dinners to house made fish and chips on the beach as the sun sets. Often a client who is staying with us multiple nights will incorporate both options to provide variety of experience for their delegates,” she adds.
Competition also sees venues incorporating a number of different “add-ons” into their package offerings. Sudima Hotels, for example, will this summer extend its free internet to all conference delegates, as another way to stand out and attract events.
For Webstock’s Mike Brown, the priority is also what he refers to as the experience: “the experience of our attendees, our speakers and our sponsors. Everything we do is with this – and them – in mind,” he says. “From their first interaction with us – our emails, our website, the registration form, through to how they are greeted at the registration desk, right through to how the conference ends: we want it to be great, better than great. We want them to feel valued and welcome and comfortable and excited and enthralled and, well, just happy to be there.”
Whatever the conference topic, providing a unique experience is top of mind these days. At one of IDC’s recent events, they hired a sand artist called Marcus Winter. He created a customised sand story piece around the “Evolution of IT”. According to Gill, “the act was less than 10 minutes and was really unique” and IDC received great feedback from delegates on it.
What makes a great conference
According to Ed Bernacki, of The Idea Factory and InnovativeConferences.com, a great conference incorporates the best of two key elements: logistics and learning and collaboration.
“The trend is a greater focus on the value that is created when people and ideas come together. There is a lot of talk about return on investment but this tends to reflect on the costs of a conference,” he says. Bernacki refers a 1990s study by Meeting Professionals International in the USA that made two recommendations to make conferences more effective: identifiable desired outcomes and the outlook that meetings such as conferences should be viewed as learning experiences designed to change the behaviour of attendees.
“Historically, conferences were seen as opportunities for learning, networking and motivation. In general, people want to learn something and experience something. I have a strong belief that the future events will use the participants to collaborate in some way,” he adds. “I have seen conferences when an hour or two hour session changed from having a speaker to have teams of people brainstorming ideas for a real problem. These sessions extended the value of the speakers. In essence, the speakers prompt the thinking of participants in new ways. This can be very productive.”
Another trend on the rise is that of conference apps – apps designed to facilitate attendance to a conference. Real time conference analytics, social sharing apps for conference attendees, live slidesharing and collaborative event planning apps are all part of the growing event apps ecosystem and just one of the ways technology is changing the way conferences take place.
While most of them offer additional value to both delegates and organisers, Bernacki warns against the type of conference app that mainly seems to replace the good old conference programme. “They are often used to save production costs of conference programmes. While this sounds good, you must consider the unintended consequences of getting rid of programmes,” he says.
This new technology wave also brings up other considerations: what if not all attendees have a smartphone or tablet? Do they miss out on part of the experience? And what about privacy issues for social apps that link people together within the conference? These are all questions that, according to Bernacki, conference organisers are now faced with.
These days, Bernacki says, a lot of conference attendees will focus on live-tweeting the sessions rather than thinking about the content in an analytical way. “Social media offers tremendous opportunities to connect, share, learn and engage with like-minded thinkers. But it does not replace real action, real human connection and commitment,” he says.