Your next big conference could boost more than just your organisation's exposure

Monday, 01 July 2019

Jessica Mudditt photo
Jessica Mudditt

    Recent studies have shown that conferences and events can drive benefits outside traditional business and tourism.

    Conferences and events are a powerful catalyst for change, representing an opportunity to not only influence and reset the conversation in your sector or organisation, but also to access a broad network to stimulate skills, talent and innovation.

    With talent a key driver of economic development and innovation, leading thinkers in the meetings, conference and events sector are reimagining the opportunities and the strategies behind major local, national and global events. Research shared, innovations explored and new connections become catalysts to create the collaborations that lead to global breakthroughs.

    The competing array of talks, conferences and meetings on the calendar in Australia and internationally means drawing in potential delegates takes a special art. For many, that something special means having the opportunity to make valuable new connections. The more a conference facilitates that, the more attractive it will be. “We did research around this,” says Karen Bolinger, until recently CEO of the Melbourne Convention Bureau (MCB). “People said, ‘Just talk to me for 30 minutes and then let me go out and actually meet people’. They wanted a lot more of that through the day.”

    Conferences and events are now a mega business. UTS research commissioned by BESydney in 2015 found the value of business events went beyond spending by attendees. There were benefits in innovation, sector development, and in attracting global talent and trade, according to data from delegates and organisers of various international business events in Sydney in 2014–2015. Twelve international conferences held between 2014 and 2015 were studied as one group; the number of attendees varying from 60 to 6081 delegates. The largest was the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Parks Congress in 2014.

    The power of TED

    It’s almost 20 years since TED (technology, entertainment and design) launched events around the world. The Asia-Pacific is one of the fastest developing regions in the world and the organisation has revolutionised what a good event involves. “TEDx has revolutionised storytelling,” says non-executive director and digital/strategy advisor Louise McElvogue GAICD, a member of the NSW Council of the AICD.

    Janne Ryan joined the TEDx Sydney team as its founding head curator and launched the brand in Australia in 2010. “We built it from the ground up and it was the most exciting thing I have ever done,” says Ryan, who previously worked as a producer on ABC radio. She says TED Talks differ from “endless talk events” because the former is highly curated and offers a different kind of structure and format. Hours are invested into every speaker to ensure their talk meets TED’s exacting standards.

    “Speakers aren’t always initially really good,” she explains. “They may have done amazing work in their field, but when they speak at conferences they kind of do their own thing. A Ted Talk comes from the heart.”

    She says Australian speakers sometimes needed extra coaching because they were “not confident enough in themselves to position themselves as the leader in their field”.

    “They were more influenced by the European way of presenting things — which means being a little more reserved, more focused on the facts and wanting to stand behind a lectern,” she says.

    Ryan coached speakers on their scripts until they sang. “We had to turn their ideas into a performance of their idea,” she says. “There is no host to draw the idea out of them. It’s an enormous amount of work, but it pays off because when they finally get to do their talk, they’re transformed.”

    Another reason for TED’s enduring popularity — which includes more than a billion views of its talks online — is because TED speakers offer a blueprint for success, according to Ryan.

    “TED is interested in exploring how you find new ideas and make them happen,” she says. “Writers’ festivals and things like that don’t show you the path. They’re just talking and you’re sitting there listening. A TED Talk is experienced differently. It might give you the confidence to launch your own startup, write a book or pursue that research. That’s the message: don’t stop.”

    Bolinger says creating a compelling program is the first step in making any event a success. “What people are after are really relevant topics that impact their industry, both the big ideas and the nitty-gritty. Nowadays, a company head will say, ‘If you’re going to a conference and I’m paying for you to attend, what are the actual outcomes you’ll achieve by being there?’”

    She cites the 20th International AIDS Conference, in 2014, as an example of an event with a lasting legacy. It was held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre and hosted by the International AIDS Society. With almost 12,000 delegates, it was the largest health conference ever held in Australia. Sir Bob Geldof and former US president Bill Clinton gave keynote addresses on the bigger picture behind the medicine.

    As a result of the conference, Australian health ministers committed to the virtual elimination of new HIV infections by 2020.

    Important global research partnerships were also formed. “A lot of people in the medical field come to events to hear about the big ideas and what’s going on, but they also come to find collaboration opportunities. That’s where the gold really is,” explains Bolinger, who says the MCB estimated $80m was injected into Victoria’s economy through the conference.

    Benefits beyond tourism

    Research commissioned in 2014 by BESydney shows that 90 per cent of international delegates would not have come to Sydney if it were not for the conference. Another 72 per cent of international delegates intended to visit Sydney again, while 25 per cent visited other states. While these numbers are encouraging, Lyn Lewis-Smith GAICD, the CEO of BESydney, believes Australia needs to better tell its story of being a nation of inventors and innovators to make it more attractive as a conference destination.

    “If you ask anyone in the world what they know about Australia, they’ll mention the Opera House, kangaroos, koalas and beaches,” says Lewis-Smith. “Not that we created the Cochlear implant, wifi, Google Maps and twin-flush toilets. We’re just not known for our innovation. That makes it hard securing these events, which is why you have to mount such a strong business case — you’re telling people things they don’t know about Australia.”

    According to Lewis-Smith, $200m is injected into the NSW economy every year from events. This figure accounts for indirect expenditure — spending on hotels, restaurants, transportation and the like. But the true benefits of hosting global events go beyond the revenue generated by business and tourism. They are both tangible and intangible, says Lewis-Smith, and can include sparking global conversations, bridging cultures, and/or boosting a city’s profile and its industries on the world stage.

    The data backs this up. According to a 2016 study commissioned by BESydney, 68 per cent of respondents said conferences developed the knowledge and capabilities of early career delegates, while 76 per cent found they supported the development of global research and collaboration.

    Lewis-Smith says some of the most powerful outcomes from global events arise over the long term. For example, in 1982, immunologist Ian Frazer attended his first international gastroenterology conference in Canberra. He gave a presentation on genital warts and afterwards Dr Gabrielle Medley approached him to discuss the potential link between the human papillomavirus and cancer. This meeting helped put Frazer on the path that would ultimately lead to the development of the life-saving HPV vaccine, which is on track to eradicate cervical cancer within a generation.

    “If you think about a global conference, you’ve got a melting pot of people from all around the world networking,” says Lewis-Smith. “This could lead to a global collaboration that leads to innovation, new products and services and, in turn, exports and economic prosperity.”

    Events can, of course, also elevate talented individuals into professional stardom. “If someone has done a TED Talk, it’s a real confidence builder and they will then pursue other things in their career,” says Ryan. “You can’t underestimate the power of that because it’s what drives a winning culture. If a culture is going to really succeed, like say America or England, they succeed because they believe in themselves.”

    And as for the hot issues that will likely dominate future events? Lewis-Smith has identified five topics that will likely continue to be a focus of many global events. These include ethics — such as those that relate to the #MeToo movement and the banking Royal Commission; culture and cities; data protection and privacy; diversity; and talent — both the retention and cultivation of it.

    Event tech

    Technology can enhance the way delegates experience the content on offer. “Technology is amazing,” says Roslyn McLeod OAM, the founder and chair of Melbourne events management company Arinex. “It can deal with challenges such as quickly moving a session to allow for last-minute room changes and informing those planning to attend. It encourages deep engagement — not just among delegates, but with stakeholders — by using communication tools to connect, as well as voting devices and surveys.”

    Software such as Slido allows delegates to submit questions during a presentation that could be fielded by a moderator. McLeod says conference apps can also give stakeholders evidence of return on investment, thanks to data capture and measurement.

    However, there can be too much of a good thing, cautions Bolinger. “You don’t want technology to lead your conference. Your content has to lead.“

    Value of immersion

    Immersive experiences are a key trend among cutting-edge events. A standout example took place during last year’s Myriad innovation festival.

    “We invited 100 of Silicon Valley’s best investors to get on the plane with us, and we flew back to Brisbane. We had 14 hours of conference on the plane,” recalls Monica Bradley GAICD, a non-executive director at tech company Umano.

    Also on board were Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe, Jodie Fox from Shoes of Prey, software entrepreneur Jeremy Bloom and Steve Baxter from TV series Shark Tank. Sections of the plane were used for pitching, investor masterclasses and even hosting a mini disco. The unusual event led to long-lasting business relationships.

    “Of those 100 investors, 20 are now direct investors into ventures in Queensland,” says Bradley. “Of the 50 startup ventures on the plane, 80 per cent now have US offices.” She said the mock board meeting at last year’s AICD Conference was an example of successfully utilising applied learning.

    A fictitious company appointed real directors to sit on a board. A facilitator provided new information during a live session and the directors had to respond in a designated character.

    “It was interesting to watch people unscripted, and to see how there were different approaches to problem-solving,” she says. “There were issues around discrimination and the banking Royal Commission. It highlighted how complex these issues are.”

    Tyranny of distance

    It’s one thing to incorporate a conference into the flight itself, but is it otherwise tough to get speakers and delegates to travel to Australia?

    “One of the first questions we’d always get asked when bidding for events in Australia is, ‘Will my delegates come?’” says Bolinger. “We’ve got tonnes of evidence that says having conferences in Australia actually often increases attendance. Australia is on many peoples’ list of dream destinations and they just need a reason to come.”

    The co-creator of the World of Drones Congress, Dr Catherine Ball GAICD, says convincing people to travel interstate can be more challenging than enticing international visitors. “I actually get more interest from overseas than I do from interstate,” she says. “Getting people to Brisbane from the golden triangle of Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne can be really hard work.”

    The congress will convene for the third time in September. With more than 1200 delegates expected to attend, it will be the largest conference in the Asia Pacific. “It’s an immature and divided industry so the purpose is to unite people around business models and create economic opportunity for Australia in something we’re actually very good at,” she says.

    Ball notes an important aspect of the congress is its 50:50 gender diversity. “We are the most gender diverse tech conference in the world. Diversity is needed around the table to have differences of opinion, otherwise you just get the same sort of defence-led conversations, which is not where I saw the drone industry having its strengths, to be honest.”

    Some companies mentioned in this feature have advertised in Company Director, but have had no involvement in or influence on actual editorial content.

    Maximise your attendance

    Work out why you want to go

    With so much on offer and time a limited resource, it pays to be clear about the types of events that will be of benefit to attend. Umano’s Monica Bradley GAICD has devised her own criteria. “I’m either there to learn, or I’m there to earn,” she says. “Sometimes it’s both. The question I ask of everything I do is, ‘Are these people my tribe and will I enjoy hanging outwith them?’”

    Do your homework

    Take a look at who will be attending the conference. Make a list of people you’d like to meet and request a meeting with them on the sidelines. Utilise software to match up with like-minded delegates. Complete your profile on the likes of Braindate before you go to an event — then spend 15 minutes with your “match”.

    Get active

    Don’t take in conferences passively, says Bradley. “Even if I’m there to learn, breaks are a good opportunity to test my learning with other people and hear their opinions. That’s much more valuable than sitting through five or six presentations back-to-back in a day, where there’s no iteration or discussion.”

    This will also make the information sink in so that it can be better applied when you return to work.

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