Here for the schmooze

Events organisers should recognise that guests turn up just to network and play.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The programme flyers said it all: flashes of colour everywhere announced: Longer coffee breaks! More time for networking! The conference organisers knew what they were doing (well, they were from the Association of Exhibition Organisers).

People don't go to conferences for the speakers. They go for a break from the office, a break from the kids, a chance to make some new connections, drink too much and flirt in the hotel bar at 3am.

Most corporate events are terrible. Rooms without windows, presenters without personalities, coffee without flavour. Yet still the conference business booms. Partly for the obvious personal reasons - but also because as social beings we are drawn to gatherings of our peers. Conferences, events and exhibitions are the modern equivalent of festivals in old market towns - an excuse to band together and play.

The fact that events take people away from their nearest and dearest is another part - rarely admitted - of the appeal. No matter how much we love our spouses and children, a night or two away in a nice hotel is, for many, an attractive prospect. And perhaps especially for hard-working mothers, who've cottoned on fast to the truth about the real rigours of the corporate conferences previously covertly enjoyed by men.

Speakers and working sessions are just a distraction from the main social events, which is why so many get skipped in favour of some networking at the bar or by the pool. Taking the AEO's logic to its final conclusion, it can only be a matter of time before we see the launch of the speakerless conference. 9am: leisurely breakfast. 10.30: coffee. 11.30: swim. 12.30: lunch. And so on. Of course, organisers might need to print a fake agenda containing the names of lots of boring business school speakers simply for the delegates to show their HR department.

The truth is that the most interesting people and most insightful comments at any event tend to come from the floor, not the platform. (To state an interest, I was a speaker at the AEO event.) Why not facilitate a quality conversation among attendees rather than squeeze in five minutes of questions to mostly clueless speakers who have been droning on for 45 minutes?

All of which makes for a sizeable area of economic activity. The business tourism market is worth £40 billion.

One of its most quietly successful sectors is the exhibitions industry - apparently the UK's fourth-largest medium - which is worth more than £9 billion to the UK economy, a third of that in London alone. And much of this value comes from the shopping and socialising done by delegates: a business tourist to the capital spends about five times as much as a leisure tourist. The exhibitions industry collects more advertising revenue than national newspapers.

The growing success of events that people have to travel considerable distances and give up considerable time to attend flies in the face of many of the technologically driven predictions about business behaviour.

With everyone on the internet and e-mail, the business benefits of conferences or industry exhibitions are much less obvious. But it seems that the personal meeting has lost none of its power in the internet age: if anything, the opposite. As a character in a famous New Yorker cartoon puts it: 'Trust me, no technology will ever be able to replace the art of the schmooze'...

'Every business is trying to engage with customers,' says Simon Burton of Exposure, one of the UK's leading business-to-business marketing companies.

'To make the deal, you need to see the whites of their eyes, to shake their hand, physically make a connection. No other media can deliver that final personal connection. Brands are desperately trying to come to life for their customers - that is obviously much easier at a live event.'

The lines between conference, exhibition, event, masterclass and party are all blurring. At a recent event in Brussels, delegates were invited to a disused railway station transformed into a party venue, treated to live music, an art demonstration (and free piece of art), a tightrope walker performing overhead, food from around the world, champagne.

Oh, and a few presentations. Indeed, the best events are almost certainly those where it is not immediately obvious where the learning stops and the fun begins. Schmoozing is successful only if it also enjoyable.

One of the problems with the sector, perversely, is that delegates are too accepting of poor-quality speakers and chairmen. (If PowerPoint could kill, we'd all be dead.) This is partly because the benchmark is generally pretty low, and partly because the sessions are simply the price to be paid for the waiting aperitif. For a supposedly creative sector, the conference and exhibitions industry rarely takes risks, preferring to stick with old formulae.

Because they tap into deep-seated human needs for congregation and for play, corporate events have a guaranteed, if competitive, market. The case for radical innovation is therefore hard to make. Why risk a speakerless conference? Why break new ground? Maybe the commercial case is unclear.

But the kindness case is irrefutable. It is time to stop subjecting each other to predictable programmes, soporific speakers and over-packed agendas.

Less hot air, more hot drinks - that's the new order.

Richard Reeves is director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk.

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