Getting more value from conferences

I’ve been mulling over why a number of conferences this year are reporting lower than usual numbers of delegates attending.

I believe it’s at least partly down to the lack of real value for those who pay for delegates to attend.

Let me break this down. Many delegates to conference are paid to be there, usually by their employer. Invariably, they get both value and enjoyment from the event; the networking, the socialising and the presentations of good, relevant speakers.

But what happens after they leave the conference? Often, it’s very little. There may be a report provided in order to justify the expenditure, a presentation at a staff event or maybe a circulated memo with some headlines from the conference.

Obviously, that is a generalisation and I’m sure there are many conferences where real value is derived. However, many of the conferences at which I have facilitated tend to leave their delegates go home without ensuring that the people who paid for their registration receive good value for money.

I’ve been on the conference circuit fulltime for about 15 years and on average I will MC or facilitate at about 35 a year.

I now ask clients who book me early enough to ask a few searching questions before they set the program.  Questions such as these:

“Why are you organising a conference?”

The old answer of “but we hold one every year” is no longer good enough. There now needs to be a stronger reason, a real reason. You have to ask yourself “why indeed”

“What do you want to achieve? What’s the desired outcome?”

To my way of thinking there needs to be a purpose behind every conference. Organisers and convenors need to ask themselves what outcome they want to achieve and then ask the question “is a conference the best way of achieving this”? Because there may be better ways.

“What do we want our delegates to do after the leave the conference?”

This is where the real value is to be derived. Organising your conference program so that it culminates rather than peters out will ensure good, residual value.

My industry colleague, Max Turpin, of Conference Focus has been advocating for innovation in our industry for some time and some of his thoughts appear in one of his blogs to be found here. It’s worth a read if you are a convenor or PCO

Some time ago I was invited to facilitate at the Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia (IPWEA) “Sustainability in Public Works Conference” which was held just last month in picturesque Tweed Heads.

The Convenor, Dr. Stephen Lees, had also invited me to submit some ideas for the program and to generally poke my nose in with whatever ideas I thought useful.

As a result of our planning – and with some input from me – it was decided to use the final session of the conference to task the audience to commit to firm action on their return to work. But to make that work really well we also had to decide what it was we wanted to achieve from the conference before we set the conference program in stone, as it were.

We settled on two questions that our audience could practically address at their workplace and which would effect, or contribute to effecting real change and positive outcomes. These we flagged early in the conference and noted that all of our presentations and streams would help inform that final session and the answers to those two questions.

The final session was a free-flowing discussion with an enthusiastic and engaged audience and resulted in what we termed “My post-conference Action Items” which we put on the big screen as we developed them. In addition, we presented each delegate with a printed copy of the action items as they left the plenary hall.

Earthco Projects staff attended that session and summed it up in a subsequent post on their website.

I’m convinced that such an approach helped make that a really worthwhile conference and that it will continue to have a positive effect in the area of public works sustainability. I’m also convinced that the approach adopted in the planning of that conference should be adopted by other convenors when planning their conference program. In adopting that approach they will be providing much better value to the person paying for the registration and ensuring lasting value from the delegate’s attendance.

August , 2014



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