Back in the old days the business conference was seen as a bit of a jolly.
Two or three relaxed days listening, or not, to a few speeches accompanied by some serious socialising. Not any more. These days, many managers demand something more tangible in the way of value for money. What, exactly, do these budget-conscious bosses look for in a conference?
The old adage that it is who you meet rather than who is speaking that is important no longer holds sway, it would seem. 'It is not enough that people want to go to meet people. The real principle has to be "will they learn something by attending?"' says Roger Thomas, training partner at Coopers & Lybrand. Ray Atkinson, head of management development at GKN, agrees. 'Networking is still important, but going to a conference just to network isn't good enough. Our managers tend to be very selective.
They are more likely to go to one-day conferences which are very focused.' Such selectivity means that the annual three-day bash gets a universal thumbs-down from those spoken to. Instead, the shorter conference which splits into seminar groups finds favour. 'Management time is so tight that we only consider one-day conferences which break into very focused seminars the next day,' says one senior clearing bank manager.
But not everybody agrees that the shorter the conference, or seminar, the better. More, rather than fewer, hours in pre-conference seminars can make the event itself more worthwhile. 'It helps to build ownership of the conference,' says Earl Pinnock, education & training co-ordinator, Birmingham Partnership for Change, which works with companies to advance African-Caribbean participation in the economy.
The nature of the audience is also a key factor in the success (or otherwise) of a gathering. 'There's always a danger that these sort of big events end up with a lot of people with varying interests and needs,' says Thomas.
'If it's pitched at senior people, then they can't attend, they send somebody more junior.' Seniority is less of a concern to Eduardo Buonous, director of Euromoney Conferences, who believes that what matters is the ability to bring together the audience that you promise to deliver. Buonous believes that a conference pitched at chief financial officers fails if, say, only 10 of the 200 delegates fit the bill. The delegates must be matched to the topic, he says, and this is more important than targeting the top brass. 'If the topic is derivatives, then the head of derivatives needs to be there.
If it's about investing in a new market, it is the chief executive.'
Even the best-organised conferences fail to encourage everybody to swap their thoughts. 'We can talk about the industry and where it is going, but if I have a bright idea, I'm not sure I want to share it with our competitors,' says Kevin Reynolds, regional director of NatWest Ventures.
With such a demanding audience to satisfy, a conference of the right length, in the right form, at the right venue and with the right people is, of course, an impossible dream for the beleaguered conference organiser.
With tough competitive pressures now dominating the once dozy conference environment, Buonous recognises only too well the consequences of getting a conference badly wrong. 'You are only as good as your last event in the conference business,' he admits. He sighs, before adding: 'And you only get one shot at it.'.