Why do you hold a conference?

That’s not meant to be a trick question. Really, what do you want to get out of your conference? Surely it’s not just for the sake of having a big event. Or is it?

At the PCMA Convening Leaders conference in January, a speaker asked delegates if their deliverable was the event itself. The overwhelming answer (captured via polling technology), whether delegates were event planners or worked at the association itself, was “yes.” They had delivered what they were supposed to as long as the event happened.

Now, what if the event goes off without a hitch, and is therefore seen as a success, but over the next year…

  • Your membership numbers drift downward
  • Disappointingly few of the non-members at the conference join the association
  • Submissions to present at the next conference slide
  • Your organizing committee has trouble deciding where to invest in the delegate experience (food? entertainment?) or how to organize the program (more time for networking? less? structured or unstructured networking?) because only 5% of last year’s participants filled in the evaluation form

Still think it was a successful conference? On what basis?

Too often, evaluation of conferences functions as an evaluation of the event management (was the ice water delivered on time? was the MC entertaining? did the online registration system work in Internet Explorer?), and not an evaluation of the event’s success. But the truth is, without relevant, robust objectives, this kind of assessment is impossible in any event.

It’s surprising how many organizations operate conference with objectives that are:

  • In the weeds. They’re solely focused on event planning details.
  • Too high level. They’re so vague there are a million ways to interpret them.
  • Gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. They may exist but they aren’t used for anything.
  • Incomplete. They ignore critical elements such as financial objectives.
  • Disconnected. There’s no linkage to the overall strategy of the organization.

So, what does the effective formulation and use of objectives for a conference look like?

1. Objectives are developed in a consultative way, so that the critical stakeholders can really get behind them and support them.

2. …but they aren’t written by a committee. Imagine someone listing them on their fingers, by memory. You want pithy, memorable, and actionable wording.

3. They align with the overall mission and strategy of the association – they connect the conference to the core of what the organization is. (If your strategic plan has changed, you should consider updating your conference objectives.)

4. They’re used throughout the conference process:

  • Recruiting, selecting and orienting staff, volunteers, and vendors, to create a common sense of purpose and a shared understanding of the conference.
  • Providing a touchstone for operational decisions about tradeoffs – there’s a framework for deciding where to juggle the food budget, how to organize the trade show, how to manage relationships with sponsors, and so on.
  • Guiding multiyear strategic decisions about the conference – Should it be a collaboration with another organization? A hybrid meeting or in-person only? Held in small centres around the country or always at the same location?

5. And, perhaps most critically, they are the framework by which you to report results and assess success. It’s the conference owner and the organization as a whole being held accountable for meeting these objectives – not the meeting planner. Your objectives should form the basis for board reporting and conference evaluation. (Note also you will need to gather data that’s relevant to the objectives you’ve set for this to work.)

As conferences get more complex to manage at any size, given technological change and increasingly sophisticated expectations from both the delegates and the sponsors and exhibitors, relying on a shared experience and culture to keep everyone on the same page starts to look a lot more tenuous as a management strategy. Taking an objectives-driven approach to your conference will enable you to manage the event more effectively, and to respond better to the many strategic challenges that conferences face.