Conference or event evaluation on a professional basis is a service I offer. Having a qualified outsider’s view provides constructive ideas on how organisers can continuously improve on each event. The question is: ‘How can we increase the value from the organisation and participants’ point of view? And it is important for them to remember to continue doing what is working well and stop certain aspects to create space for what needs to be started.
Recently, over a ten day period, as a presenter or guest, I was privileged to have been involved in four different conferences, seminars or major events staged by organisations, firms or businesses. These varied enormously and were independent of each other: I have chosen this combination of diverse organisations and functions in order to provide real-life examples for the points that follow below.
- The Summerhill Stud - ‘Emperors Palace Summer Ready to Run Sale’
- TAFI (‘Travel Agents’ Federation of India’) - Convention held in Durban
- Graemor (Leaders in Business Growth) - 40th Birthday Party
- Morar Incorporated (Chartered Accountants, Registered Auditors) - Post Budget Breakfast
Here are ten of the many areas that need to be on the organisers’ checklists and they are listed in random order:
1. Be authentic
A public event or event planned for a selection of clients should be an extension of what your firm stands for. You can always test the validity against your vision and values. And is the event in line with your corporate branding? The hosts are able to be ‘real’ when leaders and staff appear and behave in line with the corporate image. They are acting out ‘this is the way we do things around here’. A huge amount of unnecessary energy goes into providing a veneer, something on the surface that does not reflect the real soul or culture of the organisation. And the participants may feel confused by the different ‘messages’ they are experiencing.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try something new. We have to do that in order to grow. And if mistakes are made, we need to learn from them. We also need to apply our immediate ‘bounce back’ strategy. And this includes communicating immediately with all relevant role players when expected standards are not reached.
A good example of ‘authenticity’ was the ‘Emperors Palace Summer Ready to Run Sale’ day at the Summerhill Stud. Can you picture the scene? We were in the beautiful thatched conference centre enjoying food from the award winning Hartford team and looking out over the most magnificent view. And yet Mick Goss and his team found a way of bringing the horses into the same room, with their grooms, one by one in order to be auctioned. The event also incorporated advanced technology. We remained seated at the round tables where we had enjoyed lunch and this unusual combination of events worked. Why? It was authentic.
2. Head, heart and action
There needs to be a cohesive welcoming attitude coming from the people at the top to those lower down in the organising and hosting chain. Guests need to feel that the whole team is really happy to have them there. And I must say that all four events mentioned above scored exceptionally high on that point. A watchpoint should always be that enough preparation has gone into the event so that the organisers can relax and enjoy the event with their guests. The team who are collecting papers or dealing with emergencies can work unobtrusively in the background.
Being pro-active in anticipating what guests may need also makes guests feel really good. There needs to be ‘action’, too. For example, at the TAFI (Travel Agents Federation of India) event at the ICC (International Convention Centre) in Durban, even the dignitaries always watched and stepped forward to help my husband who has had a stroke and is handicapped. And as a presenter I was overwhelmed by the expression of sincere gratitude after my ‘keynote’. It was important in both these examples that ‘head, heart and action’ were combined.
Each event listed above had excellent hosting. In all cases it was a great team effort where the leader was actively involved and the team members followed through in an appropriate manner.
I liked the way that at the TAFI convention, where some of us were staying ‘on site’ at the Hilton next to the Convention Centre, two of the SATSA team (Southern Africa Tourism Services Association) were on duty in the hotel lobby assisting participants from early morning till late at night. For any queries, whether they referred to the convention, accommodation, transport or the tours they handled them for us with an attitude of helpfulness. Nothing was too much trouble and I commend them highly.
At the Morar Incorporated event, during the talks, two staff were allocated to vigilantly watch the audience from the side of the room and they did. If people needed more water or had any other requests, the staff noticed and immediately followed through, liaising with hotel staff or whoever else needed to assist.
Being a ‘foodie’, the food that is offered at any event is important to me. Once you have had the pleasure of enjoying a Hartford meal, as was provided at the recent Summerhill Stud event, everything else pales into insignificance. And I’m not the only one who loves Hartford food! It is superb. I quote from Mick Goss’s message: ‘The Washington Post is America’s most famous newspaper. When they talk, you listen. Just recently, their man in the food business said “Hartford House is one of the three best country restaurants on the planet” On the planet? Yes, and if he had the means, he’d hire a jet for his twelve best friends and head to Hartford for a long weekend.’
We can’t always have the benefit of food of this quality. However, there are many watchpoints even when mediocre food is being served. For example, although I do eat meat occasionally, I usually prefer ‘vegetarian’. Where there is a buffet, vegetarian is usually marked. One event this week had very little for those who don’t eat chicken or meat – and it wasn’t marked.
When planning with the venues, organisers should check how buffets are going to be laid out. At one event, queues would have moved much faster if people had been helping themselves on both sides of the table. But the table was placed almost against the wall. The table could easily have been moved a short distance away from the wall and people could have worked on both sides of the table.
I must say that the TAFI gala dinner at the ICC was an amazing event. To have 1000 people seated at round tables (100 tables) and served expediently requires great skills. And this was executed by cheerful servers with precision and minimum fuss.
It is wonderful when you see the corporate branding consistently showing throughout the event. There should be consistency from the invitation, during all aspects of the event to the ‘thank you’ sent after the event.
Personal branding is very important, too. I commend Mick Goss of Summerhill on the way that he and all the staff are dressed in a way that is congruent with breeding horses. It added a feeling of ‘trust’ to all that happened that day. Graemor and Morar Incorporated were also excellent in the way that the outfits worn by the staff were in keeping with the branding of their events.
6. Conference bags and what is on the table
If you are providing bags, please make sure that you provide all delegates with a bag. And this includes the presenters. We need programmes and we need to have the information that the delegates have.
It always wonderful when participants are given ‘just what we need’. With theatre-style seating it isn’t possible to give each person a pad, pen, water and sweets, laid out – there are no tables in front of participants. Graemor handled this magnificently, giving each person a brown paper bag containing relevant and useful items. And I must commend them on the notepads they gave out. These were beautifully branded with the programme printed on the inside cover of the branded notepad. It was so easy to find and refer back to.
Summerhill also handled this well as each person took a folder as they arrived and all the items they needed for the day were in the folder.
Morar Incorporated had their branding running through. Even the ‘question cards’ for the speaker were branded. It was excellent that anyone could write down their questions on the cards and these were collected at the appropriate time during the session and handed to the speaker. It was very well organised.
7. Sticking to time
Both Summerhill and Graemor scored a huge ‘plus’ for this aspect. If there are boundaries, the guests know what to expect and this makes it easier for everyone to stick to the structure. However, in the case of Morar Incorporated, there was a very good reason to go overtime and it was worth every minute of listening to that spontaneous ‘impromptu’ speech by a dignitary. And it was the last event so it didn’t impact on speakers following.
By going overtime into the breaks, often participants need to disrupt the event to get to an appointment or are late. And people become very frustrated. So there is a ripple effect.
Events need to start exactly on time and end exactly on time. And there can never be the excuse that ‘oh we didn’t have enough time’. Professionals fit what they have to do into the time available. And they are flexible so that they can adapt when the need arises.
I believe that we need to honour those who are present on time, and start. At least call the event to order and ask for an immediate 5 minute recess (an example – you may ask for a different time period) if necessary. And then reconvene exactly five minutes later – at the time that you said you’d resume. But respect those who are there on time and thank them. By the Programme Director being ‘in control’ an orderly event can be expected and is more likely to satisfy the majority of participants. The organisation’s goals will be met and so will the participants’ goals be met.
In the planning stages, manage time and manage energy. Time is not renewable whereas energy is.
It is important to plan enough time for people to comfortably network in appropriate breaks. There is a narrow balance between people feeling that time is being wasted and that it is being used constructively. Allow comfort breaks and tea breaks carefully and if people aren’t back on time, just start without them. Delaying for the few who are late isn’t fair on others and they soon learn that the Programme Director is in control. People need to know that the event is being managed. Professionalism is an important part of all that we do.
9. Deliver what you promise
Whether people are paying to attend your event or participate in some other way, deliver what you promise – or ‘overfly their expectations’. Don’t offer them a ‘fun morning’ and then bore them with long speeches that are not relevant. Don’t use this event as a platform for other issues. Of course, you are entitled to promote your business, or products or get the sales. But people must know what they are coming to and be satisfied that they have had value for money and value for the time invested. So, in planning we have to be absolutely sure of what we are offering, make sure we are communicating this effectively and follow through on delivery.
When things go wrong and those involved are not satisfied, we need to have a sound ‘bounce back’ policy in place. What can we do to more than ‘make amends’? The way we handle this can ‘make or break’ our relationships. The sooner we respond, showing that we acknowledge their concerns, the more professional and effective the outcome is likely to be. Remember that people want us to validate them: ‘I see you, I hear you and what you say matters.’ If we leave serious issues to smolder, more emotion is added and the outcomes can be disastrous.
And this is another reason for ensuring that all communication comes from a unified base. Does every member of your team understand exactly what is being offered? And does he/she understand the impact of not following through according to participant’s perceptions?
10. Relevance, energy and balance
Is every component relevant to the whole? This is one of the questions that we need to ask when we are in the planning phase. And will it help to add balance to the whole programme or sequence of events?
Will energy levels be maintained? Is another question we need to ask. For example, after a serious speech we may need something light. At the TAFI convention I was delighted when the organiser asked me to keep my keynote ‘light’. I knew what was expected. I needed to provide a powerful message in a way that the audience enjoyed. Knowing this I was able to plan accordingly and it worked. The follow up was excellent.
At Summerhill I am always very impressed by Mick Goss who is the master of creating events that achieve his purpose in the nicest possible way. He and his team are continually trying new things and improving. This time he held the viewing, followed by the video footage of each horse. During the auction as each horse was brought into the room to be auctioned, the video specific to that horse was again played in the background. There were also staff members available to show the videos at any time that prospective buyers wanted to view them.
I have mentioned just a few of the many areas that need to be considered when evaluating a conference or other event. Get greater value from your events by having them evaluated by an expert. You and your clients or members will benefit. You’ll be able to continuously improve.