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Five keys to making your next conference a success

MOST FIRMS will have either locked in dates or at least be contemplating a conference for 2020. However, as we all know from experience, some of these are great successes, while others are a waste of time – or even worse, they leave you in a weaker position than if you hadn’t held one at all! Answering these five questions will help you get the most of your next conference:

#1. “Exactly what value are we seeking to create?”

Why hold a partners’ conference, or a strategy offsite, or a team retreat? 

The worst possible answer is either “because we do it every year” or “because all of the other teams/firms do so”. Sadly, this accounts for a majority of such events. It leads to boring or contrived events which struggle for engagement or attendance (even if they are mandatory). 

The very first requirement is to understand why holding the event is important. Ask yourself “If this is to be a great success, what should it deliver?” If you can’t provide a compelling answer to that question, you should consider not holding it at all.

The good news is that, if well designed and run, these events usually are worth holding. Moreover, they can be valuable for multiple reasons and multiple benefits can be created from the one event. Some of the more compelling reasons include:

  • To shape goals and priorities that will improve our business performance and enable us to focus on the things that are most important for our business.

  • To create alignment so that we are clear on our direction and more likely to work collaboratively in the future.

  • To generate team spirit that makes everyone feel more excited about working here and more likely to be motivated and productive.

  • To improve our knowledge and skills, so that we know more about what’s happening in our environment and are equipped for the future.

2. “What conference design would best deliver the value we seek to create?”

Having answered question #1, everything about the conference design should be in service of the desired outcomes. And by everything, we mean location, duration, timing, attendees, agenda and almost anything else you can think of. 

While budget cannot be ignored as a consideration, costs should be kept in perspective. Whatever the direct costs, they become insignificant compared to the economic difference between a great event and a poor one. The opportunity cost of the attendees being at the event is many times greater than the overt costs, and there must be a positive ROI on this precious time. 

3. “What would make this event unforgettable?”

In addition to the conference delivering the intended substantive value, it must also be considered a success by most or all of the attendees. If done well, this means that people can clearly distinguish between the 2020 conference, the 2019 conference, and so on. Factors that drive this include:

  • A distinctive brand for the event, based around the rationale for the conference.

  • An experience that is congruent with that brand – taking advantage of opportunities to theme multiple dimensions of the event (anything from special guests, selected team activities and titles of agenda sections, through to the pre-conference invite, arrival packs in the room and the theme of a social event).

  • Truly distinctive elements that people have not experienced before. These need not be costly or time-intensive but should really set the event apart.

4. “Who do we need to engage from outside the firm?”

Even in a large firm, few if any of the team are experts in getting a conference right. There may be some people who are great from an event management perspective, but that’s only one part of the equation. 

This expertise falls into two types, both of which are important:

  • Design expertise. Essentially, this is assistance with answering questions #1 and #2 above. The right expert(s) can help you to design the conference for optimal engagement throughout, through the agenda structure, variation in modes and special features (anything from using new technologies to distinctive activities).

  • Delivery expertise. Superb facilitation skills (which include curation of the event more generally) make a massive difference. This should not be done by someone within the team, for at least two reasons. Firstly, it is unlikely to be their area of virtuoso skill. Secondly, even if it is, it distracts the person from being an active participant and brings inherent bias into the way that decisions are made and participants are engaged.

Once again, budget should not be the primary consideration. If one facilitator has a day rate of $2,000 and another has a rate of $10,000, there is almost always a very material reason for that difference. If this saves you $16,000 in direct costs for a two-day event, you may find that it costs you far more in the difference between a great or mediocre event.  

5. “How do we ensure that this leads to action?”

Even the most enjoyable and engaging conferences can suffer from a lack of implementation. To make sure that people look back and say “Not only did we enjoy it while we were there, but we saw that it led to someone…..”, the following can help greatly:

  • Ensure the design involves everyone throughout. Minimise the amount of time spent passively sitting and listening and increase the amount of time that is used to get everyone involved and building solutions.

  • Set a maximum of five actions arising from the event. If it’s hard for people to remember what those actions were a week after the event, you are already in trouble.

  • Ensure each of those actions has a lead person and that these people are genuinely signed up. Don’t ‘volunteer’ people who aren’t up for the responsibility. 

  • Don’t leave the conference without an agreed discipline for running and monitoring each initiative. Set a rhythm for reporting progress and do not go soft on this.

  • Start your next conference by reporting back on the actions from the last one, and celebrate the accomplishments. This will create hope by showing people that there is follow-up and that results can be achieved. 

If during the conference, you feel that there is a risk you won’t get to committed action, intervene. Don’t let an agenda stop you from making changes, if they might make the difference between a poor conference and a successful one. 

As a closing comment, remember that getting your key people together for these events is perhaps the most expensive thing you do all year (in opportunity cost, not the direct cost). With that kind of investment, it deserves to be done with the highest possible standard of management.

And if you do so, you may find that it turns out to be the most valuable thing you’ve done all year too.

This article has been provided by leading strategic advisory firm Bendelta. Bendelta assists many of Asia-Pacific’s leading professional services firms with their key initiatives around strategy, leadership, culture and change.