What makes a good conference?
I attended the excellent LAPF Strategic Investment Forum last week and it led me to muse on what makes for a good conference. Some of the ingredients are obvious: interesting topics, adequate venue and food etc, and moderators who are able to keep the programme to schedule while allowing a bit more time for the subjects which interest the room. The constraints are also obvious: giving good value for money, both for delegates who are giving up time and sponsors who are paying for the event.
I would highlight three further aspects.
The first is a programme which has a theme to it and some variety of pace. All too often, in order to give the paying sponsors their opportunity, there is a series of slightly salesy presentations – or, even worse, presentations which try not to be but clearly are - without much coherence or consideration of what the audience already knows, or what it might like to learn from the session. At the end of the conference, most of the information is consigned to those distant recesses of the brain from which there is no recovery. In contrast, good conferences have a mix of formats around a clear thread, clear messaging and some thought given to how delegates might wish to follow up.
The second is time to network. We all go to conferences to meet people, whether our peer group, potential clients or useful service providers. I appreciate there is some tension between giving platform space to sponsors and finding time for networking, but it is an essential part of a successful conference and has to be there. I also think sponsors benefit from having quality conversations as opposed to giving a one-way presentation. My bugbear is being herded back into the main arena when in the middle of a meaningful conversation and, for that reason, I prefer a smaller number of longer breaks.
The third is the size and make-up of the conference. I believe that conferences with around 100 to 150 delegates work better than larger ones, because you can guarantee to meet with those you want to and speak properly to them. The need to give sponsors proper value for money remains a constraint but I would argue they benefit from fewer but higher quality conversations. And we all know that it is often the question and answer or discussion sessions involving knowledgeable and thoughtful delegates which really light up a programme.
So my perfect conference would be not too large, involve a varied programme with a theme and lots of discussion time, attracting the right spread of delegates and setting aside plenty of time to network. The LAPFSIF conference (I must declare an interest here, in that I was on the Advisory Board) was not perfect, but did tick a lot of those boxes. If only they could have added a stop button so that 9.30pm after dinner didn’t suddenly turn into 12.30am at the bar!