From booking speakers to ensuring that the loos are clean, a good event depends on a firm grasp of both the big picture and the details. Emma De Vita reports.
Next time you go to a conference, take a look around. Are your fellow delegates perched on the edge of their seats, enthralled by an inspiring speaker (and not one slide in sight)? Do you see them embroiled in lively debate during the frequent discussion sessions? And do you leave the venue (great food!) with a fistful of business cards and a spring in your step, keen to pass on the message to those unfortunates back at the office who weren't lucky enough to attend?
If so, consider such an event to be an overwhelming success: a conference best-case scenario.
Now for the worst-case scenario ... You end the day feeling frustrated at having wasted your time. Your only record of it is a nonsensical, doodle-covered handout. Once back at work, the conference is swiftly forgotten.
Nearly a million and a half conferences are held at British venues every year, but all too often they disappoint. How do you ensure yours is the one that is remembered, and acted on, for months and even years to come?
The first step is to set firm objectives for the event. 'Challenge why you are putting it on and how it fits into your overall plan,' says Mark Maclure, managing director at events organiser Business Pursuits. Wendy Ffitch works on the six-strong events team at Unilever, helping to organise 250 or so employee events for the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate in the UK every year. They range from the twice-yearly chairman's review and leadership forums to smaller events that bring together divisional heads from around the world. 'Some events are scheduled far in advance, others are more spontaneous, spun off from larger meetings,' she says.
The more notice you are given to stage an event (six to nine months is ideal), the more successful it will be, both in terms of organisation on the day and its place in a broader communication or training strategy. Maclure warns against what he describes as the 'heartbeat effect': a delegate leaves on a high, which eventually tails off and flatlines until the next event. 'Think about what the key messages of the day are and reinforce them throughout the year,' he advises.
Once the reasons for holding the event are justified, decide who to invite. These tougher times are forcing many companies to squeeze events budgets, so keeping the numbers down makes sense. Don't forget that key messages can be relayed by a manager back to his or her division. 'The cascading of information is an effective way of companies keeping the costs down at events,' says Brian Michael, managing director of events and communications agency TwentyFirstCentury Communications.
Next, decide on the content: if it's not relevant to the audience, don't include it. If the topic is dull (but necessary), do not despair. You might have more of a struggle on your hands but the day won't be judged just on this. A successful event will be one that engages delegates on an emotional level and this can be as much about the way the content is presented as the content itself. 'You always need a wow factor, a bit of theatre,' says Michael. 'Charge it up - put some high octane behind it. An audience needs to feel valued and that they have had a good day out.'
Using professional or celebrity speakers is one way to achieve this. But finding the Winston Churchill from within your own company or industry is another matter. 'Most managers are not employed to stand up in front of 400 people,' says Maclure. You might not have much natural talent to work with, but a tight structure, a passion for the subject and a touch of humour can work wonders. 'It's not about telling jokes - leave that to the professional,' says Brendan Barns, founder of the London Business Forum. 'Being humorous is being able to relay anecdotes about your business that the audience can relate to.'
The format of the day will depend on the purpose of the event, but be careful not to overload participants. People are used to receiving information as soundbites, so not only do presentations need to be short (around 20 minutes) but they need to be bookended by breaks for questions and networking. 'Networking is the single most important reason executives take time out of their hectic schedules,' says Barns. He suggests using SpotMe - the latest in networking technology, recently used at the London Business Forum. Each delegate is given a handheld device that holds a database of pictures and contact details of everyone attending. If a hot contact walks past, the device vibrates in your pocket.
'Dead' time can also be used to your advantage. Ffitch reveals that Unilever books separate venues for day and evening events so that people have a chance to network en route. 'We recently held a conference at Vinopolis, then organised a boat trip to the London Eye for canapes. It was a great success,' she says.
A conference's format can also be livened up if a little creativity and imagination is put to use. Interviewing speakers in a chat show setting or giving a theme to the day can make dry content interesting. Think of a James Bond-styled day complete with special agents and tasks. Interactivity and active participation will engage an audience and make it more memorable.
By this stage, you should have a firm idea of what you wish for from your venue. Hotels are an obvious choice, and staples include the Novotel, Hilton and Corus chains. For something more upmarket, consider Threadneedles in the City. But specially designed conference venues can offer more value for money if your delegates won't have time to experience the extras that hotels offer. London locations include the CBI conference centre (as pictured) and Avonmouth House, both managed by etc venues. Outside of London, why not try the Leeds United conferencing and banqueting suite or the Hillscourt conference centre in Birmingham?
Adam Abdoollah, venue manager at the CBI conference centre, recommends asking prospective venues for the names of past clients. Call them and ask if the venue lived up to its promises, he suggests. 'A venue has to deliver what it says. The customer service element is critical, no matter how high-tech the facilities are. Unless the people there are well trained, motivated and understand how they can support your event, it will not be successful.'
Ensure also that the venue matches the brand image of your business. Computer companies often go for modern buildings or those associated with technology, such as the Science Museum. Media and advertising firms prefer somewhere creative, such as the Dali Museum in London's County Hall. If you're looking for the unusual, try the Ackergill Tower in Caithness, which boasts a conference treehouse. But leave out the monkey business.
Once you've chosen and visited your venue and sent out invites and pre-conference packs, focus on last-minute checks. Attention to detail is crucial: 'Dirty toilets can spoil a day,' says Michael. Allow time for speaker rehearsals, sample food menus and check the quality of production.
'I've heard about sets falling down and nearly killing those on stage,' says Michael. 'Apparently the whole executive team of a global company was nearly taken out.'
Ffitch says her team goes to a hotel in advance and clears out competitors' products and replaces them with Unilever brands.
Once the heart-stopping late panics have been worked through and the day has gone with a bang, follow up the event. To get a considered response, rather than knee-jerk one, it's worth holding off on sending out delegate questionnaires until a little later. But don't forget the vital acid test: watch how they leave the venue. If they walk with a spring in their step, then so can you.
WHAT CAN YOU GET FOR YOUR MONEY?
You can spend as little as pounds 25 a head on a basic conference to more than pounds 200 a head for something spectacular. If you're working to a tight budget, opt for a conference-centre chain, such as Initial Style, offering out-of-town venues such as Wokefield Park. They'll have everything on site, but the catering choice will be limited. If you want a city-centre venue, try the big-name hotel chains. More cash to spend means more choice.
For pounds 80-pounds 100 a head, you can go for an unusual venue - say, a private house such as Micklefield Hall or a London party venue such as Vinopolis or The Bridge. If you want somewhere historic, try the Tower of London.
If you've money to burn, blow it on extras: special effects, plasma screens and guest speakers. And remember, giveaways are good. After all, everyone loves a freebie.