Forum: Conferences - Designed with delegates in mind/With so many conferences filling the calender, organisers are having to think carefully before commiting budget and working hard to make their event stand out. Katrina Dunbar reports

The conference marketplace is becoming more crowded. The latest British Conference Market Trends Survey, carried out by the British Tourist Authority and published in August, found a 4.2 per cent rise during 1996.

The conference marketplace is becoming more crowded. The latest

British Conference Market Trends Survey, carried out by the British

Tourist Authority and published in August, found a 4.2 per cent rise

during 1996.

More conferences means tougher competition to attract delegates

particularly for commercial organisations or associations staging large

paying conferences.

So what can companies do to make their conference stand out?

’I think the main issue is that with the deluge of conferences hitting

the market, providing a carefully measured solution is vital,’ says

Sarah Pilch, marketing manager of live event specialists WCT Live.

The starting point when considering holding a conference is what the

event is trying to achieve. Two key questions to ask are: what is the

main message we want delegates to take away with them, and is a

conference the best method of delivering that message?

Conferences should be considered alongside the other aspects of the

marketing mix, with careful thought given to whether the intense

planning and usually significant budget required can be justified.

’With all our clients, we work closely alongside their other agencies

from advertising, to PR and marketing to ensure a unified approach is

achieved,’ says Pilch.

Once a company has established that a conference is the most effective

means of communicating its message, it then has to explore ways of

making it stimulating, useful and ultimately worthwhile for the company

itself and for the conference delegates.

Conference organisers agree that an important way to help a conference

stand out is to maximise audience involvement. The difference between

conferences lies increasingly in the tools they choose to achieve


Paul Easty, production director of Clearwater Communications, says:

’Treat every audience member as a individual, and the more retention you

get of the message.’

Another way to add extra value to a conference - if budget allows - is

to use the latest technology. Developments include the IML Group

Response System, which enables conference delegates to participate

through individual handsets, and Futuvision, a hi-tech, wide-screen,

theatre-in-the-round set-up (see panel). However, Pilch admits that it

is inevitably the corporate clients with larger budgets which are the

leading innovators in setting their conferences apart through using this

type of technology.

But even where budgets are limited, Easty says that technology can still

be the most cost-effective strategy because the same basic programme can

be put to a multitude of uses, such as a conference presentation, a

salesman’s pitch, a touch button exhibition and video material.

’This type of approach pushes you towards maintaining consistency in all

communications,’ he says.

It also means that material can be easily adapted to CD-ROM or video or

incorporated on to the company web site to extend the life of the

conference and enable it to reach people who did not attend the original


Strong presenters are often the most memorable aspect of a conference,

but it is a sad fact of business life that many senior managers are

simply not good presenters and even with training may not be able to

hold an audience’s attention.

WCT Live came up with the ground-breaking idea for British Airways of

inviting cabin services staff to audition to be trained as touring

presenters when the airline staged its international roadshow to

re-launch its premier brands last year. People were motivated by being

sold the new product messages by their peers.

Such motivation is often much harder won from more obvious figures such

as chairs of companies. This, together with the desire to attract

delegates, has led to companies dedicating large sums of their

conference budgets on high-profile speakers.

Opinions are mixed on how effective this strategy is and Easty feels

that the fashion for needing a high-profile name to lend credibility to

a conference is dying.

’There is absolute value in having external views at a conference, but

these days they may well come from a more imaginative choice of speaker

such as an explorer, rather than an industry guru,’ he says.

What is important is that conference organisers think back to what they

are trying to achieve in order to assess the value a high-profile

speaker may add.

Much can be done to improve the feelgood factor of a conference for

delegates with no budgetary implications at all. The format alone can

make all the difference to audience reaction. The team at Haymarket

Conferences was struck by how much better the delegates responded on the

second day of its event ’The Hard Commercial Edge of PR’ in July, where

there were only four speakers and an hour and a half to facilitate

in-depth debate. There had been ten speakers the day before.

Many organisations, such as the Labour Party, do not have large budgets

to spend on conferences. With the party conference season about to kick

off, Labour’s head of presentation Jackie Stacey makes no secret of the

party’s ongoing strategy of reducing the communications barriers between

platform and audience.

Since 1989 the party has had a single speaking spot for delegates and

platform speakers, and is looking at more question-time sessions.

’Technology allows us greater scope to make the conference more relevant

to the wider audience at home. We are essentially getting four and a

half days of free television coverage,’ she says.

It will be interesting to see how the Conservatives compete with the

Mandelson PR machine when they stage their ’fresh start’ campaign.

The issue of how best to finance a conference is still a complex


Several agencies exist solely to help source sponsorship, and a

sponsorship manager plays a key role in most conference teams,

especially in the voluntary and public sectors.

The Local Government Association produced a brochure to sell exhibition

space and sponsorship opportunities at its recent first annual


Phil Reader, LGA’s head of conferences and events, says that sponsors as

well as conference organisers need to be clear about their aims before

sponsoring an event: ’We will tell companies if we think our audience is

wrong for them.’

IPC began running conferences for PR professionals just over a year ago.

The seminars cover topics from targeting audiences via magazines to how

to get press releases noticed. There is no fee and the aim is

essentially to increase the IPC brand profile.

’It is going phenomenally well, we’re booked up months in advance,’ says

Jules Bellamy, senior advertorials and sponsorship manager for IPC


There is no significant evidence that the market cannot support the

increased activity in both paying and free conferences. And whatever the

sector, there seems to be no shortage of specialist companies making

continued successful businesses out of helping clients to keep one of

the oldest communications methods in the PR book very much alive and



Adding value to conferences means more than investing in razzmatazz such

as dry ice and dancers, according to Nick Lamb, managing director of

Crown Business Communications.

His company has developed Futuvision - what it terms ’the next

generation’ of business presentations - which uses technology to give

delegates a new kind of conference experience.

Lamb says that ’managers are no longer satisfied with sitting ’in a

black box’ and being talked at from behind a lecturn, and that today’s

manager is bored with traditional conferences. Management now wants to

be involved, empowered and participative.’

With the Futuvision system, there are no physical barriers between

audience and presenters. This is achieved by amphitheatre-style tiered

seating which can be adapted to fit surroundings and style of meeting to

achieve a ’theatre-in-the-round’ style of presentation. This means that

those members of the audience who would normally be stuck at the back

are therefore brought closer to the speaker.

But the element of Futuvision which makes the most impact is the

wide-screen - up to 80 feet wide and 50 feet high - which curves round

the audience and occupies their entire field of vision.

Improved projector technology serves up crisper, higher quality images,

while advanced computer technology permits a complete multi-media

presentation - which may feature a combination of stills, live action

and 3D images that can be changed as the presenter walks across the


As Lamb explains: ’If the speaker is making a point about ’the road

ahead’ he can be standing in front of the image of a road. Similarly, a

sales director discussing the latest incentive destination, can be

standing in front of a Kenyan safari park compete with wild life.’

Delivery of the presentation is also more theatrical. Speakers’ autocues

are hidden in the seating at speakers’ eye level allowing them to

maintain eye contact with the audience. And instead of having lecturns,

speakers stand in the middle of the audience so their presentation

delivery is smoother and is more interactive with the audience.

Several of Crown’s clients have used Futuvision to stage their


Siemens, for example, used Futuvision to announce its merger with GEC,

organising the event over two days to announce it first to staff and

then to key customers.

Bayer has also used Futuvision for sales conferences and it was used for

the launch of BT Intranet Complete.


While many venues and conference organisation specialists will do

limited training in how to use the technology they are recommending

their client to adopt for their event, the QE2 Conference Centre is one

of the venues which holds training seminars for its regular clients and

for the potential customers that it is targeting.

While the QE2 also does one-to-one training sessions, the advantage of

the group sessions is that clients can learn from each other and may end

up talking about a variety of issues over coffee and learning still more

about the small details that make a huge difference to how a conference

is perceived by delegates.

Commercial director Jill Price says that it serves client, venue and

delegates to educate the client in the latest technology available. ’We

will talk through data projection, showing them the difference between

the various options, that they can do it this way with bells on or the

other way with bells and whistles. This gives them the confidence to use

it in the future,’ she says.

The centre also provides training in other aspects of conference

organisation, and in particular in menu planning through its caterers,

Leith’s. In addition to menu and wine tastings, a lot of thinking goes

into structuring meal provision to fit in with the conference format.

For example, Leith’s may suggest that a cold starter ready plated and at

the table will help speed up the time taken to eat a buffet lunch where

time is limited. They will give advice on styles of service appropriate

to styles of event - that is whether to go the silver service or the

canape route. Advice on specialist dietary requirements is also


Price knows that customer service is what her industry is all about and

that the QE2 Centre has a strong reputation worth maintaining, having

been voted best conference centre in the UK by readers of Meetings and

Incentives Travel magazine for the last nine years out of ten. ’We run

500 events a year. We don’t do anything other than conferencing and

banquets and are very aware of the highly specialised advice we can

give. It’s all about helping the client to stage the best event possible

with the budget they have,’ she says.


The Local Government Association held its first annual conference and

exhibition in Manchester at the end of July and was sponsored by

information technology company ICL.

The LGA was formed from a merger of the three former local government

associations in April of this year and the conference was the

culmination of its launch activities. With 1200 chief executives and

leading councillors, this was the largest ever local government

conference. Its aims were to complete the launch task of establishing

the LGA as the single voice for local government, to promote its visual

corporate identity and image as a dynamic new organisation, and to

promote early achievements with the new central government.

For a budget of just over pounds 60,000, a three-day conference was

staged by the LGA’s in-house conference team, with technical support

from Creative Solutions. The venue was Manchester’s newest concert

venue, The Bridgewater Hall, and a large exhibition was held across the

road in the G-Mex Centre.

’A split site goes against all the rules of conference planning because

it adds to cost and inconvenience, but it was worth it for the splendid

Bridgewater Hall,’ says Phil Reader, head of conferences and events at

the IGA.

The conference theme ’A Brighter Future’ was promoted around the city on

street-lamp pennants, billboards and banners before delegates even

reached the venue. The political highlight of the conference was the

coup of getting Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Chancellor

Gordon Brown to share a platform on the opening day. Other highlights

included Lib Dems leader Paddy Ashdown and satirical comedians the Two


The conference achieved daily national and regional press coverage and

ran smoothly even in the face of the sudden death of broadcaster Vincent

Hanna, a final-day speaker. Post-conference, every local authority was

sent a video of conference highlights, which had been edited overnight

and shown as the opener on the final day.

Reader says that main sponsors ICL got good value for their pounds

30,000-plus financial support. ICL’s logo was highly visible throughout

the conference, on conference literature, stage set, banners and smart

briefcase-style bags given to delegates at registration.

Alan King, ICL’s marketing communications manager for local government,

was keen to support the LGA in its first year.

’It was a valuable event for a serious player in local government - it

provided visibility, contact opportunities, the chance to plough

something back into the sector. We are already talking to the LGA about

opportunities for next year,’ he says.

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