Organising a sales conference does not seem a particularly challenging activity. In theory, booking a presentation room in a local hotel for sales staff to train or review their performance is not a tough task. If all that is required is a whiteboard or overhead projector, with some sandwiches laid on for lunch, the organisation should be simple. The trouble is, it will probably take a little more imagination if the event is to impress the directors, not to mention the sales team.
If the conference is taking up at least a day of their time, shouldn’t it offer a little more? A workshop perhaps, a motivational speaker or some role-playing? The experience and intelligence of the workforce could be tapped, using interactive technology to canvass opinion, generate ideas and make staff feel as if they have a real say in the company. It might also be worth considering an evening’s entertainment to round the day off. If you really want the event to be a success, you have to be prepared to invest plenty of time organising it, and have the budget to carry your ideas through.
The same applies to product launches. If the launch is not done properly, the product’s full potential may never be realised in the market.
Laurence Croneen, managing director of integrated brand communication agency Jack Morton Worldwide, says: “Meetings that do not achieve their goals waste time and resources. A stimulating and well-structured meeting, on the other hand, can catapult a business forward. Take a global marketing meeting, for instance. It’s a typical in-house serviced event: there may be about 30 attendees, and flight and hotel costs alone may be £50,000 or £60,000.”
He adds: “The value of delegates’ time is likely to be three times that again. These are all hidden costs, but the question for businesses is one of how much more they are prepared to invest to really make the meeting worthwhile and productive. Spending £300,000 on a meeting that produces results is a worthwhile investment. However, £10,000 spent on a meeting which doesn’t is potentially a waste of not only that money, but all the hidden costs too – let alone the unmeasurable cost of having managers leave the meeting unfocused, without direction and uninspired.”
Who does what?
So how do companies decide which – if any – of their conferences or events to organise themselves, and which to hand over to outside help?
Acclaim Event & Media Communications managing director Simon Hambley says: “It comes down to three factors: skills, resources and budget. You need to look at the skills available among your staff; what resources you have – how many people you could spare to help – and, of course, how much money you are able to commit.”
Hambley puts the skills required to organise an event into three categories: logistics and delegate management; production; and a creative element. The first covers venue finding, registration, people movement, accommodation and catering. Production skills are needed for set building, lighting and audio-visual presentation. The creative element includes everything from abstract skills such as identifying the theme of the event, to graphic design activity.
Hambley says: “In my experience, about 90 per cent of companies need help with production as this is the most specialised element. Logistics, however, is an area where companies can save on outsourcing. They will know the delegates and can probably organise registration and a venue. About 60 per cent of our clients need help in this area. The creative element can often be dealt with in house, particularly if the company has a design team and the conference or event is part of a larger campaign for which visuals and branding have already been prepared. We provide about half our clients with creative assistance.”
When deciding whether to use outside help with a conference or event, it is essential to decide exactly what you want to achieve. This, of course, should be discussed from the outset – the type of event required will be a major factor in any decision.
Skybridge’s Peter Neil, general manager of the Big Brother House, which is hired out for events in breaks from filming Channel 4’s reality TV show, says: “Events that require some distance from internal politics are best organised by professional organisers. A neutral third party can often deflect the unfair pressures that may sometimes be piled on junior corporate organisers from above. It is common for emotional blackmail to be used on internal organisers, who may feel pressurised into giving flight or hotel upgrades, or making last-minute changes to carefully worked out table plans. A neutral professional organiser can only be influenced by the budget-holder in these situations.”
Rob Roffey, business development manager at international event company Vantage Point, is more specific. He says: “If the event requires the development of a concept – such as a product launch – or is logistically complex, or of it will be using untried venues or destinations, it could be worth minimising the risk by engaging a company that negotiates these pitfalls every day.”
Hambley warns against organising overseas events without expert help: “With conferences abroad, you need someone who knows about the logistics of shipping equipment, not to mention being familiar with cross-border regulations.” With most events spanning no more than a few days and having a set programme of events, any hold-ups which cause people or equipment to arrive late can be disastrous.
Hambley also cites the annual general meeting as another time when expert help can be priceless. He says: “Although they are often seen as mundane, AGMs can prove problematic. The event must reflect the company’s corporate image. It should also be well organised and presented, because you never know how many investors may attend and, particularly at larger AGMs, you can guarantee the press will. Flexibility has to be built in when specifying a venue.”
When Acclaim organised an AGM for tobacco giant British American Tobacco, not only did it have to take into account the potential number of investors attending, but also the possibility of dealing with protesters, as some anti-smoking lobbyists become shareholders simply to get their message across.
Pick your party-planner
So, once the objectives are set out, and the elements to outsource decided upon, the next step is to find the correct company or companies to outsource to.
StorageTek Europe, Africa and Middle East marketing communications manager Sarah Fitz-Ragan says that recommendations are a good way of securing outside help. She is involved in organising a number of training and sales motivation conferences for her company and found her regular agency, Acclaim, in this way. She adds: “A big company, which holds regular conferences and other such events will probably be sent information from organisers anyway. I tend to look out for the best-designed brochures – conferences and events are marketing exercises, and if an organiser cannot present itself well, there is no point enlisting its services.” She prefers to try out new agencies by engaging them on minor conferences.
Smaller companies, which do not organise many events or have the contacts to gain recommendations, should look to trade publications or directories for lists of relevant companies. It pays to check that companies are members of the main conference and events bodies, such as the Incentive Travel and Meetings Association (ITMA), the Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABCO) or the Meetings International Association. These bodies are themselves good sources of contacts.
When choosing an agency, it is wise to make sure they are experienced in the type of event you need organising. This means looking at their past work to establish their track record, as well as talking to previous clients and, if possible, looking beyond the list of clients they mention.
The organising process will be simplified if all outsourcing is undertaken through a single company. Getting several contractors to liaise with each other can prove difficult.
So is there a minimum amount a company should be prepared to spend to make holding a conference or event worthwhile?
Unsurprisingly, few organisers are willing to be drawn on this. However, Roffey says: “There is no minimum as such, but companies should beware of spending too much – there is a danger of ‘overkill’. We have heard stories of a simple meeting room set-up having huge gantries of lights, film crews and all sorts of unnecessary add-ons which only distract from the message that is being presented.”
Hambley is the one organiser happy to discuss figures: “For a one-day conference, clients should be prepared to shell out a minimum of £150 a delegate, half of which will go on the venue and catering costs and the other half on production.”
Whether or not a company chooses to enlist outside help for its conference or event, one thing is essential – a thorough assessment afterwards of its performance in hitting the objectives laid down at the outset. Tardismedia digital media director Mike Daines says: “Always evaluate every activity or event that you do – whether in house or outsourced. In this way, you can gauge the effectiveness of the resource you have used, evaluate the overall success of the event and examine areas for improvement in the future.”