Magazine article Management Today

Changing the Conventions

Magazine article Management Today

Changing the Conventions

Article excerpt


The annual assembly for a bit of backslapping and subsidised beer has given way to local conferences where the focus is on efficiency and economy. A note of sobriety and seriousness has replaced the traditional business knees-up.

A conference by itself is not much use,' says Paul Swan. `It's about as exciting as putting your hand in a bucket of cold water.' Then again, `The first piece of advice we often give potential clients about their conference is, "Cancel it".' Odd words indeed for the managing director of one of the top three British conference production companies (Spectrum Communications, with an annual turnover in excess of 10 million [pounds]): but they reflect a new mood in the British convention industry, a mood which has changed the vocabulary of user and supplier alike.

Time was when the corporate get-together was one of the management immutables. Nobody questioned the existence of, say, the annual sales conference, which brought together the entire company sales force for two days of back-patting, bonhomie and subsidised beer. Conferences were there because they were there because they were there. They had always existed, ergo they must be of value to the corporate bottom line.

Then, says Paul Swan, companies started doing their sums. `What they began to look at,' Spectrum's MD recalls, `was the real cost of taking the entire corporate sales force off the road for two days. If you take the real working year as being 200 days long, then a two-day sales conference effectively costs a company 1% of its annual sales. In the case of one of our client companies, this came to about 6 million [pounds] -- never mind the 75,000 [pounds] that the conference cost in terms of transport, administration, accommodation and so on.' Swan's reaction was radical: `We stopped their national sales conference altogether, and reorganised it as a series of local meetings, jetting around the top brass. The actual cheques the company had to sign doubled -- but we calculated that the entire sales force was off the road for the equivalent of about two hours rather than two days, so the savings were enormous. What's more,' Swan points out, `the local branches were all overwhelmed at the idea of board members descending on them, so the impact was actually far greater.'

Various morals may be drawn from this tale, apart from the obvious one of cost efficiency. First, the concept of a mass, company and/or nation-wide conference assumes the existence of a homogenous audience, all needing to hear the same message at the same time. This was all very well in the good old days of short product lists and mass marketing: but with product development cycles quickening, and with an increasing emphasis on the importance of niche marketing, the likelihood of this Platonic audience existing in fact has diminished considerably. Mergermania, too, has reduced the chances of being lent a single, unified corporate ear for many middle sized and larger firms' messages.

At the same time, changes in management wisdom have meant the broadening of the application of conferences beyond their traditional, sales-based role. A recent (June 1989) independent survey commissioned by London's Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre came up with surprising results, says the QEII's business manager, Chris Edwards. Although respondents agreed that about 50% of their overall expenditure on meetings was still concerned with product-launches, dealerships and the like, an unexpected 35% of conferences came under the heading of `other'. These, concludes Paul Swan, will probably have been largely accounted for by general staff training programmes, spawned by the current discovery among British managers that `everyone in the company is a salesman'.

The upshot of all this is that the British conference industry in the 1980s has been under pressure from two, apparently opposing, trends. On the one hand, companies expect the various messages imparted by conferences to reach an ever wider internal corporate audience. …

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