Now that travel has reopened, there are distinct benefits and opportunities to attending international conferences, but the emphasis is on sustainability, say these experts.
Attending international conferences can be an effective opportunity to invest in the professional growth of an organisation’s staff, allowing opportunities for networking, professional learning and innovation. But they can also be costly, so understanding the benefits should be key to getting attendance approved by human resources managers and company boards.
In-person conferences provide researchers and practitioners with a platform to discuss and disseminate new ideas across all sectors — academia, industry and government. International conferences allow people to come together from different backgrounds to learn from each other, resolve problems and share knowledge and innovation.
If chosen wisely, it can be one of the best ways to accelerate professional learning and networking, by providing an opportunity to connect with a large number of people in just a few days. Author Tim Ferriss describes attending a South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in 2007 as being the “tipping point” for his best-selling book, The 4-Hour Workweek, because he was able to meet so many bloggers who later promoted the book.
By allocating a portion of the learning and development budget towards international conferences, human resources (HR) managers and company boards can make a wise investment that can lead to significant returns in terms of an employee’s and an organisation’s development, notes Kris Grant, CEO of HR consultancy ASPL Group. “Investing in international conferences can encourage innovation by developing an employee’s growth mindset and encourage them to gain skills and apply new knowledge learned from a global perspective to their own organisation,” she says. “Another of the key values of investing in conferences is the networking opportunity for both the employee and the company, where the relationships can continue to grow and expand post-conference.”
Geoff Donaghy MAICD, CEO of Sydney’s International Convention Centre (ICC) and group director of convention centres for ASM Global (APAC), says real-life international conferences power connections.
“They provide delegates with the opportunity to learn from experts in their field, to collaborate and exchange knowledge with their counterparts, broaden their networks and deepen relationships with partners and colleagues,” he says. “They can help expand an organisation’s knowledge and allow employees to take advantage of learning opportunities. Conference attendees can bring back new knowledge to their business and teammates. Networking is also important — engaging with other professionals and researchers and meeting new people provides brand-new business opportunities.”
Online or hybrid conferences can’t replace this opportunity for networking and social connection. A 2022 study by Swiss-based academic publisher Frontiers found that although virtual conferences — which mushroomed during the COVID-19 pandemic — offer some advantages, “notably in terms of increased inclusivity, lower carbon footprint and flexibility of attendance, there is strong evidence that the in-person networking component and spontaneous discussions are missing”.
Out of your comfort zone
Companies need to understand how they can help employees grow as people, not just as professionals. How employees spend their time at work has become a flash point for businesses, as staff increasingly consider why they stay in a job. Financial compensation is one indicator of how valued an employee is, but pay is not the only motivator. People want acknowledgement and growth opportunities to feel valued, trusted and empowered.
Professional development is an essential part of a company’s growth plan. Conferences can be a forum to develop new skills or hear about the latest trends, both in the sessions and outside the formal presentations. By providing staff with opportunities beyond the office to experience that can help them develop positively as people.
Conferences can be intimidating, with a lot of strangers milling around during the breaks and evenings. By pushing beyond their usual comfort zone of interaction, workers can build their confidence levels and social skills. Attending in a group can help to ease the way. Being part of an event with a diverse range of age groups can also bring new perspectives, enable staff to work in a more relaxed setting outside the office and provide unique mentoring opportunities among teams.
While the cost to the company might seem a steep proposition, sending staff to conferences can be a wise investment. By attending, a company can build brand awareness and put a human face to the business. Meeting the people who do the work can make a lasting impression that will help retain clients or build new business opportunities.
Not least, being on the ground in a different country could enable your employees to source potential cost savings from new suppliers, or find contractors to help solve business problems.
When it comes to getting approval for attending international conferences, hopeful attendees and HR managers should do their research and explain the specific benefits for an employee’s career development and the organisation, even once the high cost of conference attendance is considered.
“It is important for HR managers who are seeking approval for staff to attend conferences to point out to management and the board the competitive advantage that can be obtained from employees gaining knowledge and skills at a conference,” says Grant. “HR managers and decision-makers should determine if the conference syllabus and speakers would help to develop skills and capabilities relevant to their organisation. Employees or HR managers should make a list of the top five sessions worth attending and demonstrate how they will help you be a better employee. You can also request a list of the companies that are attending to determine whether there would be significant value from a networking perspective for the employee.”
Dr Ben Farr-Wharton, associate professor of management and associate dean at the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia, says attendance at international conferences can enhance employees’ skills acquisition, promote innovation, expand networks and benefit the organisation as a whole. However, he suggests conference attendance should be limited to high-performing employees who are likely to get the most out of the experience.
“Employers seeking to shape an innovative culture can safely turn to international conference attendance for their high-performing talent,” says Farr-Wharton. “They will get the most out of it. Employees can come back inspired with new ideas and connections. International conferences provide chances for key talent to ascertain the emerging trends affecting their sector and connect with counterparts in other organisations and with those in their supply chain. Sometimes, events outside the formal program — such as meetings on the side, early morning coffee meetings or late-night discussions at the hosting hotel’s bar — can generate the most lucrative outcomes from the event.”
Conferences can be a great way to find inspiration, reignite an employee’s passion for their job and help make them a more productive member of their organisation. Silke Calder, event manager with the Asia Pacific Incentives and Meetings Event (AIME), taking place from 19–21 February 2024 at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre, backs that point. Attending between 10 and 15 conferences and trade shows each year, she says they are well worth the time, effort and cost to employers.
“These events offer great opportunities for networking with like-minded individuals from around the world,” says Calder. “Attending conferences enables you to expand your networks and establish personal connections both in and out of conference sessions. The networking aspect is one of the most important, since you get to meet people you would not otherwise get to meet face-to-face. We have missed this in recent years during the COVID-19 pandemic. That can benefit the employee’s learning as well as the company’s. It also exposes you to new markets and new ways of doing things.”
Immersion learning can also entrench the conference experience, says Calder. “People come to conferences to be inspired. An immersive experience, where people see and hear new experiences, can help to enhance their learning.”
However, Farr-Wharton warns that protocols need to be established for employees attending conferences, to ensure they get the most out of their experience. “There’s little regulation or monitoring as to whether, or how much, staff attend the conferences — and it can be problematic and costly to find out that a staff member has registered and flown offshore, but then was hardly present for the presentations,” he says. “This is known as conference ‘skiving’. Employers and HR should ensure workplace policies regarding travel and expected employee behaviour at international events are up to date and proactively communicated to those travelling to conferences, to ensure expectations are known by all parties. Some of the ways to evaluate outcomes are employee satisfaction, retention, innovative ideas and collaborations, partnerships and networks achieved. The latter two can be highly lucrative, but they are also higher risk.”
Along with the high cost of attending international conferences, the hosting of such events has been criticised as being bad for the environment due to the waste involved and carbon emissions. While conferences help to disseminate research and knowledge, and grow professional networks, they can also contribute to climate change through high carbon emissions, especially once travel to international conferences is considered.
Donaghy says all ICC Sydney conferences are hosted with sustainability in mind and that the organisation takes a very proactive approach to sustainability through its Net Zero Carbon Events pledge, Exhibition and Event Association of Australasia (EEAA) Sustainable Events 2030 pledge, silver EarthCheck accreditation, ISO 14001 Environmental Management accreditation and other voluntary actions to reduce its carbon emissions to net zero.
For example, ICC Sydney recently hosted the Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s second sustainability conference, “Momentum: Accelerating Australia’s Transition”. Solutions were developed to reduce the environmental footprint of the event, which welcomed speakers including CBA CEO Matt Comyn, outgoing Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, Telstra CEO Vicki Brady GAICD, as well as keynotes from world-renowned physicist Professor Brian Cox and 700 attendees.
Sustainability measures included ICC Sydney replacing its standard compostable BioCup containers with edible coffee cups and distributing printed signage made from recycled cardboard throughout the event space to educate attendees on the sustainability features of ICC Sydney and the event. Digital signage, recycled fabrics and cardboard were used to minimise the use of virgin materials and divert waste going to landfill. To reduce the event’s energy consumption, 90 per cent of the event space used LED lighting. The ICC Sydney culinary team also created a menu focused on carbon-friendly produce.
ICC Sydney also hosted the 34th Congress of the International Academy of Pathology (IAP 2022 World Congress), which brought together more than 1600 in-person and virtual delegates to discuss recent developments in pathology.
“The power of face-to-face meetings to enable our younger convenors to meet and liaise with more experienced conveners — and potentially to kickstart their own career growth — is invaluable,” says Professor Jane Dahlstrom OAM, co-president of the IAP Congress. “ICC Sydney has provided the perfect environment for our delegates to learn from the brightest minds that our region has to offer.”
Looking ahead, ICC Sydney will welcome the inaugural South by Southwest (SXSW) Sydney conference in October 2023. There will be more than 200 presentations through panels, workshops and mentor sessions, with thinkers and leaders across multiple content pillars.
“Events that prioritise sustainability, such as SXSW Sydney, demonstrate the commercial viability and demand for environmentally friendly activations that enhance the broader community,” says ICC Sydney CEO Geoff Donaghy MAICD.
The convention centre’s Edible Centrepieces initiative allows conference organisers to support the Matthew Talbot Hostel, a service run by the St Vincent De Paul Society NSW, by recycling food. Traditional floral arrangements are replaced with table centrepieces created from seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs. After the event, the produce is donated to the Matthew Talbot Hostel.
Donaghy says ICC Sydney will continue to refine its commitment to delivering sustainability conferences and reducing excessive energy, water and food consumption while minimising its carbon footprint. “Sustainability is increasingly a priority on agendas for events held at ICC Sydney and selecting a sustainable destination and venue partner goes a long way in helping to offset environmental impact,” he says. “Planners and attendees should consider and prioritise the sustainability of their host city, particularly for international events that require travel.
This article first appeared under the headline ‘Conference Call’ in the June 2023 issue of Company Director magazine.
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