forest and treesIt’s already holiday party season! And we all need an answer to the still-common question “what do you do?”

Often, when I talk about my work, the part that grabs people’s attention is conference strategy. They’re curious, I think, because it’s not often discussed, and they don’t know that it’s a service anyone provides.

When I ask association executives what their organization does, the conference tends to be a bit of an afterthought, even if it contributes an enormous amount to their revenues, constitutes a huge part of their member engagement activities for the year, or is a key element of their advocacy campaigns. During strategic planning the conference isn’t usually central.

But if your conference contributes value to your organization – value which may well be impossible to replace if the conference were to decline – simply running it at an operational level shouldn’t be good enough.

So, why does it happen that conferences are set apart and not addressed on at strategic level? Some reasons I’ve observed:

  1. They’re taken for granted. Especially if they are competently run, and there aren’t a lot of fires to put out, they may not attract management attention. They are left alone to do their thing. It’s great, as a manager, to have some elements of your organization that you can leave alone – but if you do that for too long, you risk the wheel falling off.
  2. They are a juggernaut. Once you say the conference is going to be held on May 27th, 2014, well, that date is coming whether you’re ready or not. This reality can be extremely galvanizing – there’s nothing to make a team pull together like a hard deadline! The inexorableness of conference timelines can also, though, make you feel like you never have time to pull back and think about the event, because here it comes again, and oh no, will it all get done in time?
  3. We look at the trees in such detail we forget there’s even a forest. Because so much of event management lives in the details, it can be very difficult for even senior people to pull back from them and look at the big picture. This detail orientation can be observed everywhere – look at RFPs, job descriptions, evaluations, reporting… Start a conversation about the conference and see how fast it get to the specifics (and often specific complaints!).
  4. Events are intense, immersive, lived experiences. Who makes decisions about a conference? People who attend them, almost always. And if you attend your own conference, you’re having your own personal experience of it, unique to you. You are going to need lots of input, lots of data, to be able to see how others experience the event. You are probably emotionally invested in the event, so it’s difficult to be objective about it. Since a lot of conference planning is oriented to create a certain type of emotional response, this shouldn’t be surprising, but it needs to be taken into consideration in terms of decision-making.
  5. They develop barnacles, to the point where they may be unrecognizeable. It’s very common to use the conference as an opportunity for the Annual General Meeting, committee meetings, Board meetings, and so on. Others may use the conference to set up meetings that aren’t directly related to the conference owner (at one conference I know the heads of the educational programs for the profession use it to meet, for example, since they’re all there). This may not be a bad thing, but it does create a great deal of inertia for the conference, and takes up the time of the organizers which may otherwise be used to take a more strategic approach.

I’ll write in future about the risks of not taking a strategic approach to conferences – why this is a problem and what can be done to address it. In the meantime, if we can help you take a strategic view of your conference, please get in touch.