Specialist conferences have taken off in recent years, as smaller focus groups become increasingly popular in many industries.
The average gathering used to involve between 400 and 4,000 participants with, in general, networking being the prime objective; learning from the speakers and support material tended to come second on the list of priorities.
However, with specialist conferences, the emphasis is on acquisition of knowledge. There are several reasons for this. Many are organised on the back of research or a recent report, which implies the imparting of new information or a new spin on old beliefs and data. A specialist subject will also attract a higher percentage of delegates who are steeped in the subject, and therefore more motivated to attend. Both these factors give the event a more serious flavour. These days, even big conventions combine the necessary networking with smaller break-out sessions, ensuring acquisition of knowledge and networking go hand in hand.
This puts more of an onus on the conference organiser to get it right. Staging a show with a load of razzmatazz might be appropriate for the entertainment industry, but hardly germane to a small biotech or cybernetics gathering.
Basics include the venue, which must be comfortable, and an appropriate date April (year end) is no good for financial directors and August should be avoided for multinational meetings when half the Continent goes on holiday. But the real work starts when developing the meeting’s content.
Sam Huby, head of conferences for Miller Freeman, says: “We do a lot of research before we put on events to make sure we get the information content right. The most time-consuming part of the exercise is talking to the market and finding out what information is needed, and how best to put it across.
“We monitor various markets through the trade press so that we are up to date with hot issues. Then we contact potential delegates and find out what their problems are and what approach we should take. Content is critical.”
Finding well-informed speakers is also a challenge. There is rarely a shortage of experts in any field, but academics however well-versed in their subject sometimes make dry presenters. However, Huby believes that for specialist conferences this does not always matter, as the speaker’s knowledge is more important than stylish presentation.
“I would rather have a speaker who puts across a good story in monotones, than someone flamboyant who has nothing important to say,” he says.
In most specialist organisers’ experience, recommendations for speakers come up in conversation while they are researching the subject. Someone with the right degree of authority can usually be found, and if they believe they are not the appropriate person for the job, they will probably suggest someone who is.
Another factor which contributes to the tone of a small conference is the interaction between speakers and delegates at a level that is not possible at large gatherings. The more focused subject matter gives delegates greater motivation to join in and get exactly what they want out of the event. And, of course, it is considerably less daunting to stand up in front of 50 people to ask a question, than it is in front of 500.
The Barbican Centre is undertaking a major redesign of its meeting space in response to the proliferation of smaller conferences. Its conference space, Level 4, will be closed for full refurbishment from June to October this year. It will involve taking down brick walls and replacing them with partitions.
“The work is in response to changes in demand and this will allow greater flexibility,” says commercial director Mark Taylor.
The two rooms seating 170 will become five rooms, holding up to 80 people each. There are also two presentation cinemas, one of which will have seats with added writing tablets.
“We already attract the business of financial and insurance institutions because of our location to the City, and the concert hall and theatre are ideally suited for those,” says Taylor. “For a while, The Barbican Centre did not have the high profile it deserved because it was seen primarily as an arts centre. The refurbishment of Level 4 will give us an exciting opportunity to broaden our appeal.”
Taylor says that even the big conferences are being broken down into smaller gatherings. “Gone are the days when a major medical convention spends an entire day in one plenary,” he says. “They are increasingly supplemented by break-out sessions. There has been a big change. Delegates attend not just to listen, but to participate. These events have a much more educational focus.”
Niche-knowledge conferences have become such big business at Edinburgh International Conference Centre that it has changed its advertising strategy this year to cater for this demand. “Instead of supporting trade publications, we are taking advertising in IT and medical sector periodicals,” says marketing team leader Deborah Lidgett. “We started marketing EICC in 1991, four years before it opened, using the conference and incentive magazines to raise awareness. This was very successful, and now we are targeting our strategy to niche marketing. We are not advertising in isolation, and also attend exhibitions such as Confex and EIBTM.”
EICC hopes to develop the international corporate market and is applying the same methodology to this. “We are breaking Europe up into countries and sectors in which we are interested,” says Lidgett. “The plan this year is to look at Benelux and Germany, targeting IT, pharmaceuticals, the motor industry and finance. We will follow up leads with direct marketing or meetings.”
Edinburgh is a particular draw for medical and scientific conferences with its three universities and big training hospital. Scotland is also at the forefront of medical and scientific research.
But to work to full effect, niche marketing should be part of an organiser’s or venue owner’s overall strategy a policy being advocated by Global Events Solutions. “Companies in the events management sector have traditionally been second tier in terms of marketing,” says strategy and operations director Malcolm Williamson. “We want to challenge the norm and position our- selves on the first tier, alongside PR. This type of marketing should be seen as a strategic method of operation instead of an agency service.”
Williamson says one reason for the growth in niche marketing is that it is expensive to pick up a large group of people, take them out of their offices to a central location and accommodate them for the required number of nights. “The objective of a conference has to be fulfilled by the end,” he says.
“But this has not always been the case. Corporate buyers had to become more astute, reacting sharply to economic indicators, which has been another factor in influencing the move toward smaller and more targeted conferences,” adds Williamson.
Marketing an old subject from a new angle must be one of the greatest challenges to conference organisers. Miller Freeman has noticed and cornered the convergence between technical, computer and telephonic sectors, as networks become increasingly flexible in carrying both voice and data signals. “We are taking a different approach, looking at the subject from the business, rather than the technical angle,” says Huby.
“There have been plenty of conferences on these subjects before, but pitched at technical sales people. We are targeting business development directors. People are quite surprised by the business angle we are taking, but are responding positively to the opportunity to talk about the practicalities,” he adds. “They find the hands-on approach refreshing, rather than the standard ‘this is going to transform our lives in the next ten years’. They have heard enough of that.”
The Event Organisation Company runs a luxury jewellery exhibition, to which delegates are invited on an invitation-only basis. “We identify the key European players and send them personal invitations with letters. This is followed up with phone calls, always in the language of the delegate,” says managing director Vanessa Cotton. “We have to make the exclusivity work, forming a virtue of necessity because there is no great volume at the top end.”
To encourage delegates to make the most of networking opportunities at the exhibition, the company puts on restaurant-quality catering. There is also a dinner in the evening in first class restaurants, with delegates divided into groups according to region and type of activity, with a mix of buyers and sellers. “We wanted to ensure they could continue to network in a social setting,” says Cotton. “Networking used to be simply a matter of putting everyone in a room with enough food and drink to keep them happy. Now it is more targeted.”
There are even niches within niches. “The days of keeping everyone at a conference in one place have gone,” says Cotton. “Delegates want to look at specific topics. Alongside the main jewellery exhibition, we ran sessions on design, the increasing synergy between fashion and jewellery, plus macro-economic factors affecting the environment across Europe.”
Specialist conferences are not a new idea, but they are becoming increasingly targeted. As the experience of some organisers shows, if you aim carefully it is possible to hit the bull’s-eye.