How to get the best bang for your conference bucks

It’s a fact : companies are reducing trade show and conference attendance and travel. According to a survey by Orbitz For, which provides full-service managed business travel programs online, 44 per cent of respondents say they’re either sending fewer people or simply not attending shows this year.

If like so many others, your company is cutting back on conference travel to keep their budgets under control, how do you pick the best of the best to attend? And, how do you sell the fact to senior management that some conference attendance is crucial both to your own and to many other company employees’ professional development?

“Just as with any other business decision, you have to be able to show that there is a return on the  investment,” says Nella Cotrupi, team leader, conference development, Incisive Media, an international
business-to-business information provider whose Insight Information conferences are popular with human resources professionals.

If there is ‘meat’ in the program content, conference attendees should be able to bring back from the event at least two-to-three good ideas. Conferences, says Cotrupi, are the places to learn about what’s new and upcoming, as well as for providing excellent opportunities for brainstorming and networking.

“Times of economic slowdown are exactly the right times for investigating what the next steps in business development are,” she notes. “Organizations need to learn where the new business opportunities are from those who know, and who are sharing that knowledge with select groups.”

Trevor Strome, CEO of Canadian software developer VS Communications, agrees, noting that the conference organizers his company works with are aware that they have to make sure attendees get the information and ideas they’ve come for. His software program, VS Review Abstract Management System, helps conference organizers gather and manage presenters’ abstracts for peer review.

According to Strome, there had been a growing trend that many conferences were being developed simply as a way to push attendees in the way of sponsors or towards the trade show aisles. While he agrees that sponsors play a valuable role in supporting conferences and sessions, he is now seeing increasing emphasis on content and networking.

Organizers are “supremely concerned about the quality” of their conference content, Strome says, and so should be potential attendees. Conferences must deliver quality, not quantity, in speakers and sessions, and there must be a fit in the theme of the conference to what attendees need in their jobs. And, of course, a close fit of the sessions and speakers to that theme.

While this may seem obvious, if you or anyone in your organization wants to sell conference attendance to management, you need to do your homework. Cotrupi and Strome offer the following advice when examining conference content:

1. Do the descriptions of both the speakers and the sessions offer enough detail to make informed decisions about their relevance to the potential attendee’s job and/or knowledge needs? If the descriptions are fuzzy, warns Strome, the sessions are likely to be so as well.

2. Has the material been peer reviewed? Don’t hesitate to contact the organizers and ask. This is particularly relevant with professional conferences, such as those in health care, engineering, etc.

3. Are there smaller workshops or breakout sessions where attendees can discuss particular issues from their own workplace or experience and/or work through issues or problems with facilitators?

4. Are there frequent opportunities for networking and making connections?

5. Do conference organizers provide handouts from the sessions? Cotrupi notes that when and how much to hand out has been a bone of contention among organizers. With the emphasis on “green,” many don’t want to leave the impression of wasting papers; as well, conference proceedings can be an additional revenue stream. However, many organizers are now recognizing that many attendees don’t have the time to print out proceedings and are frustrated when handouts are not available.

6. If the conference is one that happens annually, is there evidence that organizers respond to the feedback from previous years and/or update sessions and speakers according to the changes in business, economy,
member needs, etc.?

7. What else is included or excluded from the package that will affect the bottomline cost?

Finally, consider the less tangible, but just as important bottom-line question – what effect will missing or attending this conference have on your, or other attendees’, jobs? If you can’t prove that it’s crucial, maybe
the money is better spent elsewhere.

Insight Information,
VS Communications: