The Essentials: Conferences - Let's get together

Staff conferences can be expensive and should not be held just for the sake of it. But if they are well planned and executed, they can prove an effective way of engaging your workforce. Catherine Everett offers a step-by-step guide.

Holding an annual staff conference might seem like an extravagance, but it can be a surprisingly effective way of bringing together staff from different locations and boosting motivation.

"It's much easier to motivate people as a collective," says Jane Da Costa, a senior partner at Gomez-Da Costa Marketing Consultants. "The social setting of a conference is often as important in achieving this as the core event itself."

Gillen Knight, communications and events co-ordinator at the NCVO, says staff conferences are important for engaging staff. "You can use conferences as consultation exercises to get buy-in for a new strategic-level objective, for example," he says. "Managers can sit down and say: 'What are the issues and problems, and how can we implement this?' That way they get feedback from people at a grass-roots level and staff will feel that their input is valued, which creates buy-in."

But as Brenda Daisy, head of learning and development at Cancer Research UK, points out, organising these events can be "a mammoth challenge".

We've put together a step-by-step guide to help ensure that yours is a success.

1. Agree the objectives - Start by deciding what the conference will achieve.

"If you're not sure what you want from the day, you won't be able to work out what to include or what to do, so it's important to be clear," says Rebecca Packwood, society secretary and head of the chief executive's department at the NSPCC.

It's vital that the conference is really needed and that you are open about its aims. "There's no point having a conference for the sake of it," says Knight. "But if you do hold one and you can afford it, be honest and say this is for team-building or as a thank you - but be careful not to be seen to be splashing the cash around."

2. Decide on the organisers - Most charities do not have an in-house professional event organiser to look after the arrangements, so in many cases the job is delegated to a willing, or sometimes not-so-willing, individual.

Daisy says it is important that a sole organiser is not left to struggle on alone. "Best practice is to just step back and brainstorm what you need to do with colleagues," she says. "Establish a vision for the conference, understand its fundamental purpose and build a committee to help you put it into action. Then come up with a detailed plan of how to get you there."

One way of building such a mini-project team is simply to ask for volunteers from different departments to help the project leader. Names of no more than five volunteers can be picked out of a hat, says Knight, but the aim should be to try to get a good mix of people and a balance of skills.

"It's useful to have someone who is known to be creative and has lots of good ideas," he says. "But you also need a good organiser and someone who pays good attention to detail."

3. Set a budget If the organisation has held a staff conference before, it is useful to establish how much was spent last time - both as a total sum and as a figure per head.

The next step is to identify the number of potential attendees and then work out what are likely to be definite fixed costs as opposed to 'nice-to-haves'.

The essentials might include accommodation, venue hire and name badges, whereas non-essential items might include, for example, mugs carrying the charity's logo. But it is also crucial to establish any hidden extras, such as the cost of using the venue's fax machine or email facilities.

"You need to review the budget constantly because it builds," says Daisy.

"Sometimes you won't even realise that it's growing. If the chief executive has said 'spend no more than £10,000', and you then spend £15,000, you won't necessarily get buy-in for next year - even if it has been a really successful event."

4. Fix a date - There are several issues to be considered when setting a date, not least whether the conference is likely to clash with another major internal or external event in the charity's calendar. This includes business cycles and times of the year that might be particularly busy.

It is also best to try to avoid major religious holidays, significant sporting events and school holidays. Choosing an off-peak day or time of the year can save you money on the venue hire. "Setting a date sounds easy, but it's always a complete nightmare," says Knight.

5. Find the venue - "Look for a central point for all parts of the organisation that is accessible for most staff," says Daisy. "If you only have 20 employees outside London and 200 in London, it'll be easier and cheaper to have the conference in the capital and book hotels for those commuting in."

It is also important to choose a venue that reflects the tone of the conference and fits in with budget constraints. "You're probably not going to go for glitz and glamour, but nor will you choose the YMCA," says Daisy. "There has to be a balance."

Check out the venue in person and establish whether there will be a dedicated account manager to help you out if things go wrong on the day. "Visiting the venue should be a must rather than a would-like-to, because you'll get a feel for the place," says Da Costa. "And go to inspect the food at lunchtime to see what it looks like."

The latter is particularly important because, as Packwood says: "If the food, the drink and the room temperature are all right, the delegates will focus on the content."

Checking on hidden costs, such as separate charging for coffee and tea or audio-visual equipment, is also important.

6. Planning logistics - The key here is to have a plan of what needs to be done and a checklist to ensure that no practical details are forgotten.

These might include booking speakers far enough in advance and having a back-up in case they are unable to attend at short notice.

Other details might include sending out forms in advance to check dietary requirements and other special needs, such as hearing loops. "Don't assume anything," says Da Costa. "But do bear in mind that the environment has a big impact and people's memories of the event will often not relate to content but to their experience of the venue."

7. Plan for content delivery - Start by creating a proper structure and programme for the day. This includes working out how many sessions should be held before and after lunch, and adding enough time for food and coffee breaks.

If some of the personnel have not met before, it can be useful to start the day with short ice-breaker exercises, such as quizzes, before moving on to the business of the day, which can be delivered through presentations from management or outside speakers.

After lunch, on the other hand, when people might be feeling sleepy, it might be sensible to hold a brain-storming exercise to encourage active participation.

"It's important to mix content and include team-building exercises," says Da Costa. "If you're presenting a lot of information to a group, it might be worth breaking up the day. People can only ever take in so much."

Knight believes that staff conferences should also have an interactive element. However, he advises caution with regard to trying to make events too 'fun'.

"If you're doing this for the first time, you need to be careful," he says. "Only do things that you are very confident will work, because people generally don't like to be forced into being jolly."

The key is to provide attendees with practical information that can be used afterwards, says Packwood. "Events don't work when people feel they're no better off from having been there," she says. "Everyone's busy and, if they've been out of the office, there will be a day's work to catch up on. People need to feel that the time spent has been worthwhile."

8. Measure your success It is important to establish whether a conference has met its objectives.

The first step is to establish initial reactions. Evaluation sheets can help gauge how attendees found the day overall, how they rated individual speakers and what they would have liked more of.

It can also be useful to send staff a questionnaire or to interview a small sample by telephone a few weeks or months after the conference, to see what key messages they have retained from the event or to find out which action points have been implemented, or not, and why.

"Success is not always measurable in hard benefit terms," says Daisy.

"Sometimes it's about softer benefits, such as whether the use of language has changed or how staff feel they now fit into the overall vision. It's important to establish a feedback loop, however, so people know what was achieved."

It is also crucial that personnel are given evidence that their input was followed up and acted upon. Knight says: "If staff get a sense that everything was great on the day but that, subsequently, no one took a blind bit of notice, they'll resent it and won't bother again."

CASE STUDY: NSPCC

The NSPCC wanted to help different departments work together better to improve output, so it held an event for 110 staff. "The aim was to get people to know each other better because that helps when working together," says Rebecca Packwood, society secretary and head of the chief executive's department at the NSPCC.

The event began with a ten-minute ice-breaker before staff were split up into smaller teams to work on an activity dubbed 'office requests'.

"If the library service was Team A and the training department was Team B, Team A would say 'I can offer you this to help improve the way you work, but in return I'd like more of x, y and z from you,'" explains Packwood.

"People then worked round the different tables and, by the end, they all had a list of offers."

Each inter-departmental group chose between six and eight offers they felt were particularly beneficial, and agreed to contact a colleague within two weeks to start implementing the suggestions.

"We ended up with great plans for how to work together more effectively in practice, not theoretically," says Packwood. "People had a concrete list of action points to work to."

USEFUL CONTACTS

- The British Association of Conference Destinations website provides a free online venue location service and promises to find you a destination in 48 hours. www.bacd.org.uk

- Conference bureaux will look free of charge for a venue to fit your requirements and accommodation needs. Each UK region has a bureau

- For larger charities with more money to spend, the Corporate Event Association website provides a list of event planners, handling everything from activity days to staff conferences. www.cha-online.co.uk

- If you book a hotel as your venue, many provide dedicated account managers who may be prepared to assist you in organising the logistics for the event

- Trustees or peers at other charities might be happy to give help based on their own experiences

- Many venue organisers will not charge for helping you find somewhere to hold your conference because they get a standard 10 per cent commission from the venue. Check whether they are likely to charge you first.Sundial is one example - www.sundialgroup.com.

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