Ask someone what the best business conference is that they have attended and you’re likely to hear about how good the food was at one event, or how great a keynote was at another. If it was an out-of-state shindig then you’re likely to be told about how great the hotel pool was – along with the local nightlife depending on the person.
Without realising it, by answering this way the biggest secret to hosting a conference is being given up – it’s all about the little things. While you could cover all your bases by doing everything well when putting an event together, its more likely that someone remembers your conference for the one thing it did wrong than the 50 things it did right.
There are lots of reasons for a business conference – whether it’s an end-of-year meet up for staff and stakeholders, or its an independent event chock full of networking and forward-thinking presentations. Whatever the motivation, it’s important to do it well if you are going to do it at all.
To find out just how you should put together a great conference, Nett spoke to the top conference organisers to find out.
Located on a sunny slice of Moreton Island, Tangalooma is an appealing destination for conferences. It takes a ferry trip from Brisbane to get there, but the local dolphin population stops by the jetty at 7pm for a nightly feed, so it has its attractions.
Robyne Wilson, business development manager at Tangalooma, has seen his fair share of conferences take place on the island. He believes you really need to focus on the needs of delegates, as it only takes one blip on the radar to mar what people remember of an event.
“We had a glaring example of an organiser who refused to find out dietary requirements and was very blasé about [it all],” he recalls.
“Of course we ended up having two delegates who had dietary needs.He also points out that the organiser needs to understand their boss’ requirements, and make sure the event focuses on team-building rather than just things that are They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, as Tangalooma has a whole suite of fun activities from beach volleyball to the classic tug-of-war to cater for fun team-building activities for your eventScheduling these types of events can help bring a team together, or even be used as an ice-breaker for delegates at a conference, but people should be warned they are on the agenda.
Getting heavy-handed with conference attendees is another mistake that Robyne recommends avoiding.
“Being far too over the top and wanting morning tea to finish at 10:04AM dead on time when most of the guests have wandered off for a walk,” he adds.
“Be flexible and bend to island time – if you don’t then you can bet your guests surely will.”
Byron Beach Cafe
When it comes to sun-and-sand destinations, one of New South Wales’ most popular is Byron Bay. Given the long strips of pristine beaches, regular music festivals, and a stones’ throw from the eccentric town of Nimbin, it also comes with significant conference credentials.
Ben Kirkwood, owner of Byron Beach Café, used to run a fine dining restaurant in Byron called Dish prior to taking over the café.
“We were always being asked to stage high profile weddings or blue chip corporate functions or dinners and to bring the ‘dish’ experience to the event,” he explains.
When he renovated the café upon taking ownership back in 2007, Ben didn’t have a formalised corporate event service, but he was constantly getting requests for functions and conferences.
“All this happened very quickly, and basically off the back of positive word-of-mouth,” he says. “All of our early business was generated by strong customer referrals and from the reputation and experience we had gained from our days at Dish.”
It was the strength of those referrals that led Ben to create a sideline – Word of Mouth events at Byron Beach Café.
“Byron Bay is unique,” Ben claims. “There is nowhere else that offers visitors such a fascinating mix of world famous beaches, amazing natural beauty, urban sophistication, country landscape and colourful residents.”
To be fair, almost every proprietor at a sunny destination will tell you how wonderful it is, though Ben likes to talk up less well-known aspects, such as the therapeutic massage, hot oil treatments and Yoga offered in the region.
Ben’s advice for running a successful conference is to add in a bit of variety.
“Rather than schedule a day packed with endless presentations, break it up a bit,” he suggests. “This includes games and activities, workshops, expert panel discussions, exhibitions, offsite presentations and various networking opportunities during the conference.
“For all presentations, ensure that suitable audio-visual equipment has been hired and allow time for thorough testing,” he continues. “Also work with all presenters and facilitators to ensure sessions don’t run overtime and keep the day running as close to the original agenda as possible.”
One of Ben’s recommendations is that conference organisers make the effort of visiting the location beforehand, and make sure to clear time to meet with contacts face-to-face.
“Although this might seem extravagant, it can greatly assist with overcoming any unforeseen issues or complications – in the long run this could save you money and keep your budget intact,” Ben explains.
A Little Elf
Karan Koedding considers herself to be a ‘recovering’ accountant. She’s worked for several companies as a financial controller, served as an outsourced chief financial officer and was bored and starved for creativity. It was that mindset that led her to start her own business back in 2002 helping people get organised, becoming Australia’s first certified professional organiser and founding A Little Elf.
“I’ve always loved organising,” Karen explains. “I went back to uni for an interior design degree, saw a TV show about organising, researched the industry, and started my own business.”
In addition to helping people get their lives and businesses on track, she also founded the Organising Australia conference.
“We had the opportunity to work with Dorothy Breininger, who is an organiser on the TV show Hoarders in the United States,” she says. “We held the conference in Melbourne and Sydney and it was very well received.”
The biggest mistake Karen sees other conference organisers make is failing with their marketing. She believes you really need to get the word out to get enough people in, and to make sure you communicate with those expressing interest in the event.
She also recommends having a disaster plan in place, after having witnessed a conference that almost faced the worst.
“There was an industry conference in Christchurch,” she recalls. “I was on the industry board, but not on the planning committee. The conference was originally planned for Christchurch the week after the big earthquake in September 2010.”
As a result, the conference had to be rescheduled, and it just so happens that it fell on the week before the second big earthquake in February 2011.
“The conference planning committee were themselves victims of the quake and were understandably traumatised by the event – communication was difficult as well,” she says. “As a result of the timing, some attendees had already arrived in Christchurch for the first date, so had the expenses without the conference.”
This caused a big financial hit for the conference, which is why Karen recommends having a plan in place for what happens if the event can’t go on.
When it comes to tourist destinations, it’s hard to go past the Whitsundays and Hamilton Island in particular. Given the natural bounty of the Great Barrier Reef, the location is hard to beat.
Julie Ford, business tourism manager at Hamilton Island, explains why she thinks it’s also one of the best conference destinations on offer.
“Hamilton Island is literally a one-stop-shop for all conference requirements,” she claims. “One key differential is our unique island location – right on the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef – which means we can provide an offshore experience at a domestic location.”
She also points out that the owners have invested more than $350 million into the island over the last 10 years, which helps boost the credentials of the refurbished accommodation options.
One of the more fun aspects of the island is that the preferred mode of transport is a golf buggy. Most accommodation venues will hire them, and are an amusing way to traipse around the various resorts.
Julie heads up the island’s business tourism team based in Sydney, and she explains that it’s the first point of call for conference bookings.
“We review your requirements, check availability and create a bespoke itinerary, as well as discuss and assist with organising everything you may need – from airport transfers to special dinners or activities,” she adds.
According to Julie, one of the things to avoid is not leaving enough planning time. If you leave it too late you will get less competitive airfares and room rates and less availability for speakers and that’s the thing people will remember.
Ben’s top 5
Ben Kirkwood is the owner of Word of Mouth events at Byron Beach Café, and has a number of tips for conference organisers.
The golden rule is to plan ahead. Whilst this sounds simplistic, there is nothing more important. By creating a comprehensive timeline of tasks and responsibilities you are much more likely to achieve a successful conference.
1 Use social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or a business blog to create buzz for your conference. Engage the delegates with regular information updates and ask attendees for their feedback on what they might like to experience at the event. Also don’t limit your updates to text, include engaging content such as images, videos, polls, testimonials and graphics.
2 Ensure suitable accommodation is booked. Accommodation needs to be comfortable, have in-house dining options and high speed Wi-Fi for people who need to stay in touch with their office.
3 Don’t overlook regional areas for your conference. Even when you add the additional travel costs the overall expenses are often less than holding your conference in metropolitan areas.
4 Allow for your delegates to arrive a day earlier if they are travelling. This will give them time to settle in and avoid any risk of stress from possible travel delays.
5 Variety is the spice of life. If your delegates have travelled to your event, organise for one or more of their meals to be offsite rather than in their hotel or conference centre and always schedule some free time for attendees.
Top 5 destinations
Natalie Demirgellis is the founder of Travelmanagers Australia, we asked her to list her top five conference destinations in Australia. She made the point of ignoring state capitals and focusing on exotic and atmospheric locations.
1 – Port Douglas
2 – Cairns
3 – Sunshine Coast
4 – Byron Bay
5 – Hamilton Island
Julie’s top 5
Julie Ford is the business tourism manager at Hamilton Island and she has a few tips to share.
1. Really sit down and think about your return on investment; determine what your objectives are for the event.
2. You need a good, balanced program. Networking and social functions are just as important, if not more important, than the business side of your conference.
3. Give delegates some, even if only just a little, free time to explore their surroundings. If time’s restricted, this could be in the form of a team building exercise such as our famous ‘buggy rally’.
4. Don’t try and cram too much in otherwise your delegates will be exhausted rather than revived and refreshed.
5. Research the MC and/or speakers; just because someone is well known doesn’t mean they are a good fit for your group, or that they can engage an audience. Some of the best conference speakers are not necessarily household names but they have a good message to share.
Global speakers and entertainers
Susie Christie was an event manager specialising in community and youth events before she decided to utilise her web of contacts and start her own business. She originally called the business Susie Christie & Associates, but renamed to Global Speakers& Entertainers in 2000 – around the same time the goods and services tax was first introduced in Australia According to Susie, one of the biggest mistakes made by conference organisers over the years has been not leaving enough time to get everything you need done.
“Remember, the longer the lead time, the more chance of getting your preferred presenter,” she explains. “Also, everything is around budgets – not disclosing it, not allowing enough room for things like production, flights, ground transfers and accommodation needs.”
Susie firmly believes that there is no point bringing in the most expensive speaker you can find if it means skimping on production as nobody will be able to hear them at all.
“Most excellent professional speakers are $4,000-$10,000 for a presentation,” she says. “Celebrities start at about $7,000 and there is no upper limit.”
The best way to book your speakers is to line it up six-to-nine months in advance, according to Susie. She is also a strong advocate of having a great MC.
Ask the expert
Kimi Anderson is the general manager of sales and marketing at Best Western Australasia. We asked her for a few conference tips.
What are some tips when organising a conference to save money?
Choose the right time. Consider holding your conference in off-peak times – that means not during school holidays, summer break or key tourist seasons to take advantage of accommodation and various conference discounts.
What is the most common mistake you see conference organisers make?
Not having a clear goal for the event – how will you gauge whether it was a success? Having a clear objective or outcome for the conference will make sure you can analyse how it worked afterwards. Have feedback forms or encourage delegates to email you with their thoughts for improving the conference in the months or years to come – it will ensure you keep delivering a standout event.
What premium destinations would you recommend for conference organisers looking for an amazing location?
Melbourne and Sydney will always be popular destinations, purely for the fact that there are so many entertainment, dining and hosting options available. For something a little bit different, regional destinations like Ballarat, Bendigo or Toowoomba offer unique after-hours options including heritage tours, zoos and botanic gardens.
What other tips do you have for running a great conference?
Don’t over-pack the schedule. Leave plenty of time for networking and side-events, as a great conference will balance both business and leisure activities.