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
More conferences means tougher competition to attract delegates
particularly for commercial organisations or associations staging large
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
TECHNOLOGY: LOOKING AT A VISION OF THE FUTURE
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.
TRAINING: QE2 DISHES UP THE SILVER SERVICE
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.
CASE STUDY: PROMOTING THE DYNAMISM OF THE LGA
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 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.