Putting on a show - What makes a good conference?

– By Mark Byrne, Director at Martyn Fiddler

Putting on a show – What makes a good conference?

09 Jul 2024

As an attendee of more conferences and trade shows than I can count, let alone remember, and having been part of the organising team of twelve Isle of Man Aviation Conferences, I do have some insight into what makes a successful conference.

For me there are a combination of elements that make a conference worth the effort and cost of attending. While value for money is always important, a good conference is one where there is just the right balance between being interesting with good speakers and delegates, and enjoyment.

It all starts with you

To get the most out of a conference you as a delegate need to commit to the conference otherwise there is little point in attending. It may sound obvious, but you do actually need to be interested in the subject of the conference. That does not necessarily mean it needs to be directly relevant to you, but it does mean that you need to care about it.

Give yourself the time and space to engage with it. Don’t bother going if you’ll be spending all your time dealing with things best done before you left the office, or that could wait until you get back. Try and arrange reliable cover for your desk while you are away so you don’t need to fret about finalising that report or firefighting something that should never have been allowed to ignite in the first place.

Consider who you are likely to meet at the Conference. Its great to see old friends at the show, but it is even more satisfying to come back with a fist full of new business cards (or QR codes as I am learning to do) that you can follow up on back at the office. As wise marketing gurus have repeatedly hammered home to me, the people on your database are where your next meal ticket is going to come from.

Work the room. I confess to having to psych myself up to do this, it is actually quite fun to take a deep breath on entering a room full of people you don’t know and come away exhilarated that you have had some genuinely interesting conversations with people who do jobs or have had experiences that are completely novel, or that give you a different perspective. It takes energy to work a room, but once you get into the groove it seems to sustain itself. It is also a sure-fire way to lose the sensation of the passage of time – a sign you’re having fun.

So even a bad conference can turn out to be a good one if you really engage with your fellow delegates and speakers.

But what are the other elements that make a good conference good?

There are the big, and then the little things that make all the difference.

The staging of the conference must be comfortable. Good lighting and acoustics, and just the right number of people to create an atmosphere without making it so busy you can’t hear what people are saying, or can’t get anywhere without having to apologise to everyone you are trying to squeeze past. If the conference is seated, then the seating needs to be comfortable, and you have to be able to see the speakers and be able to read and understand their PowerPoint slides. Speakers – remember that is what you are, so don’t invite your audience to read your boring essay you have substituted for an interesting graphic.

Conferences should not seek to emulate those many lectures you fell asleep to at university. The speaker and panel sessions need to be dynamic, punchy, informative, and carry some humour, or gravitas as necessary. If you have a room full of people looking at their phones or taping at their laptops, you have failed. A good session will have all eyes on the stage.

A good conference will keep to time. Nobody wants to lose the other element of a great conference – the networking. The daytime networking parts of the conference is often when the real work of the delegate gets done. Don’t waste conference time and deprive the delegates of the opportunity to work the room or at least voice their disagreement with whatever it is they have just been listening to.

Ensure that the tea and coffee (other beverages should be available) are served at the right temperature and at a quality that delights the drinker. At mealtimes, unless it is waiting staff delivered finger food, ensure everyone has a place to sit and eat – there is nothing worse than a stand-up buffet! Ensure  the quality of the catering comes as a relief to the diners – if you can actually make it a meal, that puts a smile on delegates faces and will always be a big win.

If there is an evening reception or other event, make it memorable by holding it in a place that people will reach for their camera phones and above all make it fun. Everyone knows that the secret to a good social event is excellent drinks at the right temperature and enough good food or snacks to keep hunger away. Music must be played (if at all) at a level that can be heard, but not at the expense of drowning out good conversation – this will usually require a good sound system and a thoughtful playlist.

As my colleagues will attest, I have always believed that a conference in an interesting new city will often swing the decision to go.

Of the smaller details – welcoming and calming reception staff that get you checked in is a great start. Good directions and instructions before you leave for the conference venue is really helpful.

Name badges should be big enough to be readable from a distance that does not violate your fellow delegates personal space, and it should be worn on a lanyard that does not have the badge swinging around your crotch. If it can swivel, ensure the name is printed on both sides.

We all love a freebie! Other articles have been written elsewhere on the subject of freebies and merchandise. This, frankly, is really difficult to get right. Do you really need another wallet no matter how fancily branded? Stick to stuff that is genuinely useful and try and stay ahead of the curve for this year’s freebie (currently we are on socks – will it be other forms of under ware in ’25?). Personally I appreciate good quality hats (to put a lid on the sunroof) tote bags that show off how well travelled I am (this year’s good quality tote will become a collectable in years to come) and I quite like plane shaped desk clutter made from scrapped bits of aircraft or  proper aircraft models. I concede that cute fluffy toys seem to go down well with a certain demographic.

So, what makes a good conference? You (in the right frame of mind), quality presentations delivered to an on-time schedule that balances sessions and networking, excellent catering, and comfortable and memorable environment. Now where to next?

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