Blog: Why the annual conference is a thing of the past

Ellie Barnes, operations director and shareholder at TLC, shares her thoughts on post-recession conferences exclusively with C&IT.

Ellie Barnes
Ellie Barnes

The traditional annual company conference is a dinosaur. The days of plastic delegate badges handed-out over a doughy bacon roll and ‘pump flask’ coffee at breakfast, presentations rattled-off one after another with the latest ‘Powerpoint’ graphics, and then a gala dinner that night to wash-away the learning is gone.  Thankfully - I hear you say.

Recognition is now key. Companies are reinventing their conference and event diaries. When I joined TLC five years ago, corporate events budgets were restricted, if not slashed, and motivational business plans were taken out of the equation. Although Brexit has created some uncertainty, we are now experiencing much more ambitious and innovative event requests.

While the rest of the world has moved on since those pre-recession days, so has the business of conference planning. One of the key trends that has developed is for more intimate conferences and events. We acknowledge that clients are looking for interactive programmes that have a very strong message. The return on investment is key, if not more important than at any other time, so the pressure is on for event organisers to ensure that the aims are achieved and budgets are well-managed.

There is even more emphasis on creativity and this comes through not only how the conference looks but also through the catering, the style and nature of the break-out areas and the design of main conference areas. Wider cultural changes recognise that long-gone are the days of grand, formal conference dinners with silver-service sit down. Street food has been the trend, and looks set to continue for a while yet, with lots of different types of dishes being served. 

This is where smart planners will utilise the budget to create the most exciting food and drink alternatives. From mini fish and chips in small company-branded newspaper cones, authentic Indian street food, Argentinian barbeques and bowls of hot Vietnamese curries - the popularity of this informal style of catering will undoubtedly continue as it reflects the exciting social scene of today’s delegates.  

And for the organiser, a chance to reflect a company’s ethnic diversity perhaps but also deliver food in keeping with the conference ‘theme’, on time and cost-effectively. Exciting and enticing catering is an essential ingredient in any successful event – after all, nobody ever remembers the baked chicken at a gala dinner!

Break-out areas now resemble the interior of trendy New York loft apartments with a focus on smaller areas, comfort, curved seating, bright colours, free movement and, above all else, shareability. In the age where everyone no matter how old they are sharing their professional and personal experiences on social media post recession conferences have to cater for this, and give even more. Aesthetically pleasing backgrounds are a must, as well as the obligatory hashtags, and twitter walls. Sufficient device charging-points for every single delegate is also a given.

When it comes to entertainment we are using an array of different options. From encouraging teams of delegates to help create graphic ‘graffiti walls’ as part of their team-building, over-sized retro games, to securing the best international artists for the post-conference dinner. Speakers at events are still popular.  Engaging and exciting is what we look for – inspirational leaders in their chosen field. The crucial element is getting delegates to participate – so offering a speaker that can deliver a presentation that also includes an element of delegate or team involvement is vital. Think carefully about what will motivate the audience, and then we go from there.

So, while the traditional annual gathering is certainly reconciled to history, the world of conference planning has reacted to post-recession needs and adapted (as every good species does) to ensure that it meets the requirements of new objectives and revised budgets. The emphasis on delivering a tangible result is key, and must be the overriding aim of the event.

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