Opinions Updates

Isn’t it time for better conferences?

Stop recycling content and start conducting more robust research, says Uncommon Conferences managing director, Marcus Magee.

When was the last time you went to a conference and thought “Wow, that was a fantastic use of my time!”?

(We’ll wait)

Hopefully you can think of one or two instances.

Sadly, the reality is that many conferences these days simply have not kept up their end of the bargain.

As attendees we continue to pay thousands, fly hundreds of miles, hole up in below-average hotel rooms only to suffer through hours of PowerPoint sales pitches and awkward networking breaks.

Let’s not start on the hopeful sponsors and the amount of time, effort and dollars they plough into these supposedly lucrative activities.

Our quick survey of sales and marketing departments across a range of B2B companies revealed the following typical responses:

  • “We simply must be there, or the market will think we’re going under”
  • “It’s to see and be seen”
  • “Our competitors are going to be there!”
  • “How else will we get our message across?”
  • “It’s not all about digital. This industry is still very much about relationships and relationship-building”.

It is within these responses we find the solutions for making conferences better. If these are the true objectives of those who need conferences, it’s no wonder we often leave feeling underwhelmed and disappointed.

Most conferences organisers (understandably) slip into complacency quicker than you can say ‘early-bird discount’ and the process of putting together next year’s conference is less about fulfilling customer needs and more about re-signing sponsors as quickly as possible. We get it, everyone’s here to make a buck and that’s fair.

What’s not fair is rolling out the same (literally and metaphorically) tired speakers, agenda, tirade of unvetted PPTs and yesterday’s muffins. Wouldn’t this be more rewarding and enjoyable for everyone involved if we always ‘start over’ and more importantly ‘start with why’?

Let’s re-visit the reasons companies invest in conferences and our take on what they’re actually looking for:

  • PROFILE: “We simply must be there, or the market will think we’re going under”
  • PROFILE: “It’s to see and be seen”
  • PROFILE: “Our competitors are going to be there!”
  • EDUCATION: “How else will we get our message across?”
  • CONNECTIONS: “It’s not all about digital. This industry is still very much about relationships and relationship-building”.

It’s about profile, education and connections. So, how can conferences deliver these outcomes in a more effective way?

1. Robust and on-going research

For every company that’s on the speaker or sponsor list, there’s another ten that haven’t been considered or approached. We need to bring rigorous research back into conferences. No more recycling. This will ensure a fresh and ever-growing list of companies that can profile themselves and benefit from then profiling of others.

Check that your speaker list represents a diverse range of experience, backgrounds and viewpoints.

2. Experimental formats

Learning can and should be an interactive and enjoyable affair. Putting the best minds of the industry in the same room should result in ‘A-ha moments’ and collaborative efforts that continue far beyond the realm of the conference room (which as a default should have access to natural light, by the way).

Most importantly, true learning comes from immediately applying a new idea, even if it’s just conceptually, rather than passively listening.

3. Thoughtful and varied networking opportunities

With the wealth of behavioural science that is available today at the click of a mouse, it should be easy to come up with new and innovative ways for your participants to engage, interact and form meaningful relationships.

Offering a free flow of (house) wine and (watered-down) beer at the end of the day maketh not for an effective networking affair.

Last but not least, we need not rely on the existing choices available to us. We can and should challenge the status quo. It’s time for better conferences.

Based in Singapore, Marcus Magee is co-founder and managing director of Uncommon Conferences, an agency specialising in the design, delivery and support of inspiring conferences.