'Get the right audience for the right conference' seems obvious advice but it's not always adhere to. Daniel Butler.
Are conferences worthwhile and enjoyable? Britain's executives seem agreed, in the words of one that, 'They're like the curate's egg - good in parts.
At worst they can be boring, poorly targeted and overpriced. But even real sceptics such as Robin Bines, managing director of Ecover, the environmental household products firm, agree they have their place. In spite of his general distaste, he waxes almost lyrical in his praise of an event organised last year by Environmental Policy Consultants. 'Even though for time reasons I couldn't stay all day, it was excellent, really comprehensive and the book produced from it was extremely useful,' he enthuses. Reasonably-priced, the conference's success was due, he says, to its specialism. Devoted to political developments across Europe, it covered all environmental legislation over the last couple of years and what was likely to come up. 'For any company in our field that sort of information is dynamite and really worth knowing. It was a bargain.'
Herein lies the major lesson for all would-be conference organisers: get the right audience for the right conference. Otherwise, it becomes a not very pleasant endurance test for the participants, as Bines makes clear. 'I don't like conferences full stop. Sitting in a sterile hotel all day, under artificial light is not my idea of fun.'
Unfortunately for organisers, while the goatee-bearded Bines's appearance and products may be unusual among Britain's conference- attending executives, his reactions are mainstream. Although at best a conference offers a cheap way of educating executives quickly in a specialised field, all too often delegates leave unconvinced that it was worth the money or time.
They complain that events are either too specialised or too general for the audience. Executives may be there to learn from scratch or, alternatively, they are already experts. Even worse, poor marketing may produce an audience of mixed levels of knowledge and the majority inevitably go away dissatisfied: 'A conference fails when it tries to be too many things to too many people,' says Mick Chadwick, a dealer for a large City firm. 'Then you almost invariably end up talking in generalities. One half of the audience is bored rigid and the other is absolutely baffled.'
Gerry Dingley, managing director of Pentax, agrees that generalised events are the worst: 'If it's about my industry, among my peers, and the subject matter is important, I welcome it,' he says. 'But I don't enjoy general matters, say, staff or personnel.'
This attitude is confirmed by Bines: 'Most of the conferences that I might be interested in are designed for people who don't know the issues,' he says. He points out that in common with many businessmen, his field is a comparatively small one. He knows most of the speakers personally: 'Without being bigheaded, I tend to know as much about the subject as they do,' he claims. Even when he doesn't, in most cases he feels what is being conveyed is best in written form rather than as the spoken word.
Most people who regularly attend conferences have memories of bad events. Technical hitches such as projectors breaking down, rooms which are too hot or cold, and uncomfortable chairs tend to be forgiven - and are becoming much rarer anyway according to Chadwick. Much more likely to stick in the mind is the poorly-thought out event. Dingley cites one on post-1992 Europe about three years ago: 'It was too soon, ill-advised and downright boring,' he says. 'If only they'd waited to see how the cookie crumbled and not gone barging in too soon.'
His experience was mirrored by Sarah Norminton, promotions manager for Thorn EMI. She wanted to brush up on her knowledge of PR after taking time off to have a family and when the first seemingly suitable conference details landed on her desk, she signed up for it. 'It was a ghastly event full of jargon but very little else. I wanted to update myself on the latest developments, but instead got a room full of eager young girls, straight from university.' But although Norminton admits that the prospect of a conference is not always welcome, she says this usually doesn't last once there: 'Sometimes, when you see it in your diary, it's a case of "Oh Lord, I don't want to go", especially if it's internal,' she says. 'But when you're there, they tend to be worthwhile and enjoyable.'
Of course, not everyone at conferences is a delegate. In many firms, speaking duties come with seniority. This, according to Chadwick,is usually seen as simply a form of PR for the firm: 'If you're speaking, it's the corporate flag-waving exercise that's most important,' he says.
Marketing director for Teesside Development Corporation Peter Watson agrees that the nature of a conference changes when you're the one giving a presentation. Although many managers dread public speaking, particularly to their peers, he says it can make conferences more interesting: 'If the topic is one I know a lot about then I prefer to speak. Otherwise I'd be bored.'
The topic under discussion is, of course, only one aspect of an event's value. For many, the annual sales conference is a rare chance to meet people who are otherwise just voices on the end of the telephone. As Pentax's Dingley explains: 'The chance to meet people is important,' he says. 'It's not often that you get the chance to mix freely, particularly in my industry.'
The nature of the business can be crucial in affecting the value of a conference agrees Lester Porter, group commercial director at Thomas Cook. He welcomes well-planned events, explaining that with a company whose activities are spread around the globe, international conferences are a cheap and convenient way to meet colleagues: 'I used to go to the annual direct marketing conference in Montreux - it was a marvellous chance to network,' he explains. 'In two days you'd meet 300 people.' Norminton agrees, adding that internal events are good for morale, helping by encouraging 'plain-speaking and networking'. This applies to external conferences, too, says Chadwick - particularly for industries which are largely telephone-based. At these events the 'work' is done out of the conference hall. This can mean more than simply socialising to help the firm, some say. The opportunities to meet others in the field can be a valuable way to catch the boss's eye or change companies, particularly in today's difficult economic climate.
A reputation for a good delegate list is a powerful magnet for many, agrees Teesside's Watson : 'It's almost a cliche that you learn more from conversations with other delegates than from the speakers,' he says. For the unfortunate organiser this must have its drawbacks, as Watson confirms: 'I've been to conferences where the other delegates were so dull I had to leave early.'
But in spite of his interest in the other delegates, he accepts, of course, that speakers are important too: 'The combination of talking generally with poor delivery is lethal,' he says, adding that often organisers allow talks to go on for too long and fail to allow time for participation: 'People find it difficult to really concentrate for more than half-an-hour,' he says. 'Brief presentations should be followed immediately by discussion, but often question and answer sessions are simply left to the end of the day when people just want to go home.'
Conference organisers have a lot to answer for, agrees Mike Jeans, a partner at KPMG Management Consulting. He cites the case of a recent event which he decided to attend because it was advertised as 'relevant to finance directors'. He turned up, expecting to make useful, high-level contacts, but was disappointed to find a total dearth of senior staff: 'I wish organisers would really screen delegates, rather than merely trying to get up the numbers,' he says bitterly. Others agree, adding that not only is this sort of misleading marketing annoying, but it detracts from the event itself by altering the level of the audience's expertise.
A frequent distinction is drawn, by regular attenders, between internal or trade association events and those arranged by professional organisers. Thomas Cook's Porter cites the example of the ABTA convention for the UK travel industry as particularly good 'because it's specifically targeted and the organisers really know the subject and the good speakers,' he says. 'Contrast that with commercially-organised conferences which tend just to pick a "hot topic" and the standard of delivery is generally pretty indifferent.'
Porter's dislike of these events is apparent when he describes a commercially-organised event at the Cafe Royale. Interestingly, like Dingley's nightmare event, it was on Europe and 1992: 'It was terrible,' he moans. 'According to the agenda, speakers from a variety of companies and agencies were to describe how they'd planned their European strategies. After a day and 10 speakers, I'd heard six or seven pieces of pure puffery' - half-hour expositions about how marvellous the speaker's own company was, and virtually nothing on the subject matter.' He places the blame squarely on the shoulders of organisers who were interested only in profit and allowed the speakers PR departments free rein.
Ecover's Bines is also scathing about the money-motive - but in his case it is the price of commercially-organised events: 'They are often outrageously priced,' he complains. 'For very large companies with marketing budgets of tens of thousands of pounds, £500 may be just a drop in the ocean, but for us it's got to be justified,' he says. Ironically, however, he believes some big firms see inflated prices as a useful staff perk: 'They're used as excuses to give staff a day out of the office,' he mutters.
Daniel Butler is a freelance journalist.