Staging a conference is not just a case of picking a subject out of the blue and sending out a few hundred invites. As David Reed explains, events must catch the buzz and use a mix of lectures and workshops to keep delegates interested

For some marketers, the idea of being locked in the same building with their arch rivals and peers for three days would induce horror. Yet despite what one delegate describes as its “knackering intensity”, this is exactly what the Marketing Forum requires its guests to do. The fact that a thousand people attend, many paying a substantial fee to go on board, suggests the organiser has struck the right balance.

Yet in many respects, staging a conference on a boat means tackling head-on one of the possible symptoms of any lengthy event – conference fatigue.

Concentrating on one subject for anything up to eight hours a day is demanding. For people who may not have been required to focus that closely on anything since they left university, it might even seem impossible.

To the organiser, however, it is simply part of the challenge of staging a successful event. The starting point for reducing the risk of delegate burn-out is to present them with a subject they have an interest in. This might not be as obvious an exercise as it seems, since the industry’s agenda is constantly evolving.

“We wouldn’t do it if there were no issues – for example, there is nothing to talk about in radio at the moment,” says Liz McKenzie, conference director at Centaur Conferences, a division of Centuar Comm- unications. “The aim is to catch the buzz. Category management and efficient consumer response (ECR) are generating a lot of interest.”

Commercial organisers expend a lot of energy researching their target markets and identifying possible subjects. The risk is always that by the time an event has been co-ordinated, the issue which triggered it may have passed. A conference on self-regulation of advertising and the role of trade associations might have been packed in mid-September, for example, but by mid-October it would have been a damp squib.

“We don’t want to be too leading edge. It is not a question of avoiding controversy, but more of tackling best practice,” says Rob Hulks, director of conferences at NTC Publications. His approach is to pre-test a conference concept among potential speakers and chairmen.

Once they have approved the outline, more pre-testing is carried out among the target market. “We find out the way they are thinking, if this is sensible to do. You very quickly get a reaction, a yes or no,” he says.

If the subject appears to be attractive to its potential market, a slate of speakers has to be assembled who will fulfil those expectations. Depending on the subject, speakers may suggest themselves easily – every sector has its gurus. But impact can sometimes be increased by involving a high-profile name from another industry.

“Well-known keynote speakers are a good idea in some respects. Marketers want to cross-refer to other markets. For example, if we were doing one on snack foods, the marketing director of Cadbury’s would be relevant so delegates can learn how confectionery is working – it is more advanced,” says McKenzie.

No matter how attractive a proposition a speaker might be, the only test is putting them on the stand. This is the all-or-nothing gamble which organisers take with new presenters, and delegates will rapidly lose interest if their style is boring or the content poor. “You can’t audition speakers – it would be nice if you could,” says Rhona Wyles, managing director of IBC UK Conferences. “How good they are also depends on how much they rehearse.”

The irony of relying on market testing to define the conference concept is that it does not always produce the right result. Few marketers would have bet on wanting to go to sea on the Oriana, if asked beforehand. Conversely, many say they want more involvement with speakers at an event, yet resist the chance to take part when it is offered.

“Workshops work very well, delegates get a lot out of them. But they don’t work in large groups,” says McKenzie. “For example, we have run events where delegates put the theory into practice by writing a brief in the afternoon, but the number of people who join in tends to be quite small. They all say they want to be more interactive, then when you produce something that is, they stay away.”

It was the assumption that direct marketers wanted something different which led to the launch of UK Direct, held in Jersey in September. It aimed to be the first “convention” style event held in the country, with a balance of high-level keynote speakers, break-out sessions, and ample networking opportunities.

“Our ideas kindled around a number of concepts, in particular two things we felt were needed,” says Stuart Heather, chief executive of UK Direct. “People don’t like to sit in a dark room all day, so we felt it would be wrong to hold everything in one hall. That is how the afternoon workshops came about.”

Providing high-level client-side speakers who had not presented before was another key ingredient. They would also act as “bait” for attracting senior clients as delegates. “We wanted something very grown-up, where people could talk about their business problems in a peer group. They were very honest and delegates appreciated that.”

Passive auditing of presentations may create a better-informed delegate, but interacting as well tends to engrave that knowledge more deeply. One of the problems faced by marketing conferences is the level of delegates who actually turn up on the day – while many places are booked by senior figures, there is often a lot of substitution by more junior colleagues due to work commitments. Organising an event which requires more than one day to be booked out may be a way of reducing this problem, since a three-day event seems less cancellable than a one-day seminar.

If boring fee-paying delegates is a risk, it can be a real danger when it comes to press conferences. While it is easy to overplay the “cynical journalist” card, it is a simple fact of life that they go to more conferences that ordinary delegates and that they are much less excited by the new product being promoted than its manufacturer.

By applying more imagination to the brief, this resistance can be overcome. “Our experience is that the challenge to absorb information, for example when set in a fun environment, can be greatly stimulating and enhance the enjoyment of all participants,” says Mike Overton, managing director of Kit Peters Extraordinary Events.

His company had to announce a new camcorder component, called a drum, to relevant journalists on behalf of the manufacturer who saw it as a breakthrough development. Traditionally, this would have been done at a head office press conference or possibly, for a select few, by flying the journalists to Japan. Instead, the technical hacks were taken to a Scottish castle called Drum.

“It was staffed with actors, wired-up and equipped with really remarkable and sophisticated special effects. After dinner, the guests were provided with camcorders and asked to produce a documentary about the haunted castle. The recording of all the scary phenomena created by the special effects was greatly enhanced by the new technical gizmo,” says Overton. Those who took part are still talking about the event three years on, he claims.

While most commercial conferences can not run to such illusions – or take the risk of killing delegates of heart attacks – they are now backed up by audio-visuals which give speeches more impact. “We try to encourage as far as possible all our speakers to use audio-visuals properly,” says Wyles. “That includes making sure they can be seen from all parts of the room.”

Vetting visuals is an important stage in developing the speaker platform. While marketers are fortunate in being able to show glossy commercials to add zest to their speeches, even when they are only tangentially relevant, the impact is lessened if the same clip appears twice in one day. As Hulks notes: “Visuals can be overdone. It is a requirement to filter them. We don’t want an agency’s showreel or a research company’s pre-packaged technique – we want something on our topic.”

Encouraging speakers to edit their presentations carefully also helps to limit delegate fatigue. “Any good speaker will know there are three things you can get across and only three. You may repeat them, but you don’t want to give a load of information which people can not absorb at the time,” says Wyles. She adds that good documentation is important and can also help to improve a presentation. “I prefer a long paper and a shorter speech than the other way round,” she says.

There is certainly little sign that delegates are getting fatigued with the concept of the conference. Wyles says her company will produce 800 events in 1996, rising to 900 next year, and everywhere there is evidence that spending on conferences is increasing.

Two factors may be driving this, both of which help to ensure that delegates pay attention, no matter how dry the subject matter.

Firstly, the reduction in investment in training by many businesses has seen the rise of the conference as a substitute way of gaining expert knowledge. Secondly, business has become so complex that managers need to keep up with developments – just consider the range of techniques now used in marketing.

If an event can put together a package which addresses those needs, it will find a receptive audience. As Natalie Calvert, managing director of Calcom Associates and a frequent speaker on telebusiness, puts it: “Successful conferences are about sharing experiences, sharing best practice and results, while enabling other people to benchmark what they are doing. They give people time out to think.”

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