Conferences & Conventions: A Meeting of Minds; the Best Conferences and Conventions Now Pack an Even More Powerful Punch as They Align Themselves to the New Demands of Business

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Byline: Vivienne McLean

When the going gets tough, the tough get going -- to a conference. In tight economic times, focus fixes firmly on developing people. Conferences and conventions play an important role in transferring knowledge, connecting and motivating people. Within a wider framework of continuing economic constraint, organisers report conference activity has held up "reasonably well". Now, they say, there are signs of growth.

As corporates adjust their conference spend, they are fine-tuning their priorities. In most sectors, conference social events are being trimmed as emphasis shifts further towards investment in content and speakers. Today's focus is on smarter thinking and new technology to ensure time-pressured delegates get maximum value from their conference experience -- before, during and after the event.

Gillian Officer, Sky City Entertainment Group's director of sales -- conventions and outcatering, says although the market has held up quite well, the number of delegates has declined.

"Where companies would once send four or five attendees, they have been sending one or two. We're seeing some recovery although it's slow. People are a lot more conscious about where they spend their money, especially around non-essential items such as theming, and are spending where they see the value -- on speakers rather than flowers."

Tracey Thomas, director of Conference Innovations in Christchurch, says conferences are slightly shorter, with some forgoing the welcoming cocktail function and opting to launch straight into the conference. However, he cautions, it's important to balance this quick-start approach with, for example, ensuring value for exhibitors.

Dine & dash?

Annual conferences may still feature a gala dinner but in many cases dinners have become a stand-up affair, which is seen as more effective in providing networking opportunities.

Amidst signs of recovery, James Chatterley, managing director of Event Dynamics in Auckland, says he is starting to see conference organisers looking to move to better venues, menus and hotels.

Paula Cleghorn, director -- conferences at Conferenz, says people still expect a high level of conference experience, regardless of the economic climate.

"If they invest in a conference they want to be comfortable and hosted well in a professional environment. They expect speakers to contribute to a high level in terms of content and delivery. "

Sponsorships and trade exhibitions have become vital components in balancing any conference's books. Robyn Gosden of the Insurance Brokers Association of New Zealand (IBANZ) says one of the biggest effects on IBANZ conferences, apart from the Christchurch earthquakes, has been sponsorship.

"There's such a pull-back on sponsorship these days. Sponsors want much more for their dollar and they're seeing different options to get it."

Real estate company Harcourts has a busy events calendar, with five regional awards events every quarter, each attracting 300 to 400 people. It also holds an annual business development conference for around 300 franchise owners plus a major annual national conference, which currently is limited to 1000 delegates.

"We use our events for connection, recognition and camaraderie," says CEO Hayden Duncan. "With 175 offices in our New Zealand operation that connection is so important.

"The tougher the conditions, the more you need to look after people. We cut our cloth to suit but at the same time our events, awards, recognition and people connections are the last things we ever look at with regard to reducing budgets.

"We've been through some of the toughest market environments in real estate on record over the last three years and our events haven't changed. If anything, we stepped them up a bit more to really lift people. Our people's attitude is a major part of their performance so it's an opportunity to make sure they've got their mindset in the right place. …