Live events: My kind of conference

As the sector enjoys a conference boom, research shows that delegates are becoming ever more discerning when it comes to choosing which ones to attend. Five leading figures tell Georgina Lock what would attract, or repel, them.

From animal protection to mountain rescue, and from dog walkers to fundraisers, the voluntary sector is well known for its variety. In a sector where communication is so important - whether it be with donors, funders, beneficiaries, staff or the public - it is not surprising that for almost every facet of the charity world there is a corresponding conference or live event.

It's a growing industry - according to the UK Conference Market Survey 2005, the number of not-for-profit sector events planned for this year is up 9 per cent on 2004. The research, which was released this month by the Meetings Industry Association and conference facility consultants The Right Solution, found that 22 per cent of the sector is expecting to organise even more conferences this year.

Many of these extra events are specialist meetings for groups with a particular interest. "There are more and more small events being held and targeted at more specific and smaller audiences," says The Right Solution director Sally Greenhill.

But the figures suggest that that there is a limit to the number of events that delegates are prepared to attend. Last year, charities' annual conferences pulled in an average of 396 delegates, but this year that figure has dropped to 342. Events held in addition to the annual conference have been hit even harder - the average number of delegates per event has dropped by almost 80 per cent, from 320 last year to just 68 this year. "People only have so much time to attend things," says Greenhill.

Many delegates say that they have to be able to justify not only the cost but also the time out of the office to visit a conference, so any event they visit really has to hit the spot.

So with limited time and resources and so many events to choose from, what makes a really worthwhile conference, and how do delegates decide which is the best option for them?

An event held on the sandy white shores of east Africa is certainly a pulling factor, says nfpSynergy co-founder and Institute of Fundraising chairman Joe Saxton, who attended a communications conference in Mombasa, Kenya, earlier this year. But far-flung destinations, although a welcome escape from the office, are just too expensive for many. For those looking to save time and money, something within easy travelling distance of the office is a priority.

But what really makes people come to a conference, says Greenhill, is good content and information which is of real value to them.

Although the content is key, small details, from the food to the layout of the conference programme, can make or break an event. We asked some serial conference-goers about their favourite events.

SINEAD HUGHES, Head of interactive TV, the Community Channel

How many conferences do you go to each year?

I attend about eight conferences a year, and speak at another one or two.

Why do you go? To keep up to date on what's happening in the sector and, to a lesser extent, to network.

What's the best conference you've ever been to?

The best was actually not one from the non-profit sector, but the Interactive Television Forum 2004 at Victoria Park Plaza, organised by Osney Media. It cost £995.

Why was it so good? There was a round-table session where we moved from table to table, spending 15 minutes at each one and discussing a different subject. It was a great way to meet and talk to other people.

What makes your heart sink on a conference timetable? Any topic that has been overworked and that is a bit of a buzz word of the moment.

Are there too many conferences in the voluntary sector? I'm not sure, it's hard to say.

Are conferences a networking heaven or a necessary evil? A networking heaven. It's a way of coming together with people I probably wouldn't have met otherwise.

What's the one thing all conferences should have? The round-table format that I mentioned above - it was like speed-networking.

JOE SAXTON, Co-founder of nfpSynergy and chairman of the Institute of Fundraising

How many conferences do you go to each year? About 20 to 25, including workshops.

Why do you go? To speak.

What's the best conference you've ever been to? One in March, with about 35 Unicef communication officers from across Africa. It was held at a beach resort near Mombasa, Kenya.

Why was it so good? It was really interesting to hear about all their experiences of working as communication officers across the continent, from Angola to Eritrea. The conference also stuck out because I don't often go to Mombasa - pretty good compared with the usual hotel in the UK.

What makes your heart sink on a conference timetable? When I get to the day before and realise I haven't been told about the venue and agenda.

I am amazed at how frequently it happens.

Are there too many conferences in the voluntary sector? I think I would say that, overall, there are too many. But there is a gap in the market for conferences for communications officers.

Are conferences a networking heaven or a necessary evil? It depends - at a conference you can snatch 10 minutes talking to someone, something that would usually take weeks to set up in a diary.

What is the one thing all conferences should have?

Toilets.

ROSEMARY COTTRELL, Head of fundraising, Church Army

How many conferences do you go to each year? Two or three.

Why do you go? To learn, benchmark our charity, make new contacts, find new ideas or anticipate trends and, if it's that sort of conference, maybe meet new suppliers.

What's the best conference you have ever been to? By the Book, a conference for Christian fundraisers in Malmo, Sweden, in October 2004. I really wanted to go, so I paid for myself.

Why was it so good? Several speakers were very powerful, and there were a number of ideas I could take back and use straight away. I was shown a new way of presenting things to the evangelists who raise money for us, which they could use for fundraising. I also picked up useful tools such as the fundraising pyramid idea, which helps work out how to communicate with which donors - for example, some respond better to a phone call and others to mail.

What makes your heart sink on a conference timetable? Topics that look dreary and speakers I've heard before who didn't teach me anything. Alternatively, when there is too much choice and I can't see how to arrange my time sensibly.

Are there too many conferences in the voluntary sector? No, it's about right - you can usually find something to fit your needs and timescale.

Are conferences a networking heaven or a necessary evil? I'm sitting on the fence here - they are somewhere in-between.

What is the one thing all conferences should have? Workshops - where everyone works in small groups.

CATHY PHAROAH, Research director at the Charities Aid Foundation

How many conferences do you go to each year?

I probably go to about eight conferences a year, and speak at about four.

Why do you go? A speaker who has some new material - something innovative - would attract me, and conferences are good for networking.

What's the best conference you have ever been to?

It was a free, one-day conference in a London hotel on whether society is getting more or less altruistic, run by the Economic and Social Research Council. It was about two or three years ago, which shows how picky I am.

Why was it so good? There was such an interesting range of high-quality, well-informed speakers from different disciplines who brought a lot of different perspectives. It was a very good topic and, although it was conventionally set out with speakers at the front, it was chaired by BBC presenter James Naughtie, with an open discussion at the end. Speakers included the then head of Channel 4 Mark Thompson and Baroness Sally Greengross, chief executive of the International Longevity Centre UK. One delegate claimed that we live in a less caring society, but Greengross explained that we have never had so many people looking after the elderly in the community, and that women are doing more caring than men.

What makes your heart sink on a conference timetable? A panel with the same old faces and opinions.

Are there too many conferences in the voluntary sector? Yes. It's difficult to attend them all - I think attendances at large conferences are falling.

Are conferences a networking heaven or a necessary evil? They are a great networking opportunity, but the larger ones can be a bit overwhelming.

What is the one thing all conferences should have? One or two expert speakers with something new to say.

DAVID SENIOR, Marketing director, Action Planning

How many conferences do you go to each year?

More than 15 events.

Why do you go? Either because I'm running them or looking for new ideas.

I attend other conferences to help keep up to speed and 'talent spot' effective speakers.

What's the best conference you have ever been to? An Acevo winter conference.

It was about six years ago and was held in London.

Why was it so good? I attended as a new chief executive - I had just joined the Millennium Arts Festival for Schools - and as someone recently moved from the commercial world. The conference helped me understand how much you can achieve if you can align the energies of chief executive and trustees upon a common vision.

What makes your heart sink on a conference timetable? Academic titles such as "key developments in..." - they usually indicate a failure to engage with the real needs of the audience, or a sponsor's slot.

Are there too many conferences in the voluntary sector? No, there are not enough. Charity leaders need more opportunities to gather ideas from colleagues across the sector.

Are conferences a networking heaven or a necessary evil? Networking at conferences helps charity leaders raise awareness of their organisations, exchange information and ideas and meet key influencers.

What is the one thing all conferences should have?

An early finish, followed by a glass of Chardonnay.

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