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25 April 2014

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Organiser's guide - Conferencing

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Creative thinking and new technology are shaking up the once-stale image of conferences. V&E samples the latest examples of how to invigorate meetings.

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In the past, the tools required for organising a company conference would have included a projector, extra Sharpie pens for the flip-charts, an ample supply of teas and coffee, plus a technician on standby in case of faulty lapel mics. Now, advancements in the conferencing world mean that your next event could feature theatrical staging, live camera feeds, integrated social media and mobile apps for greater audience engagement. There’s no longer any excuse for delegates to see the annual sales conference as a chance to catch up on sleep or to prop up the hotel bar all night. The art of organising an inspiring conference is about getting staff involved, giving them opportunities to participate and creating a few surprises along the way to make sure everyone is kept on their toes. Charlie Heavey, environment manager for Innocent says: ‘The most important thing is to have fun with the company conference. When budgets have been tight, we’ve had staff build and design the stage backdrop as part of the conference. We always have a dress-up theme to ensure that staff are fully committed and ready to engage. Last year, it was Young Farmers and the year before was Fairy Tales. Adding creativity, technology and social media to sex up your event will see delegates look forward to the conference, which in turn will help to get across the key messages and drive productivity.’

Case study: Office Depot

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Think ‘sexy conferencing’ and the first thing that springs to mind is unlikely to be a supplier of office products; sales conferences are more often associated with ‘death by PowerPoint’ sessions, new product information and the aroma of stale coffee. For Office Depot’s 25th year however, the brand set out to break the stereotype.

Holding its annual event at Telford’s International Conference Centre, the company took a simple decision to ‘mix things up’. The results left staff feeling inspired and with a genuine sense of pride in the company’s success over the past quarter of a century. Nick Ruffles, senior project manager at Office Depot’s event agency, drpgroup, explains: ‘To break from what had become “the norm” for this annual event, the agenda was reviewed with the keynote sessions planned in a new and different format. From arrival, it became apparent that this event was going to be full of surprises.’

Throughout the morning, delegates were given time to spend in the exhibition area, allowing anticipation to build for the afternoon conference sessions. An important part of this was the opportunity for delegates to meet key business partners in the exhibition before the main conference began, providing them with the tools to make the keynotes more inspiring. In the afternoon, drpgroup worked with the events team at Office Depot to bring to life the company’s messaging and content in an innovative and creative way.

The conference session began with a high-impact opening involving free runners dressed in Office Depot delivery drivers’ uniforms. The sequence was a mixture of live on-stage performance and an animated video, which created a virtual Office Depot City that took the audience on a journey, highlighting their key achievements throughout the previous year. After the conference, the room was transformed for an evening event, celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary.

Sophie Christopher, head of services, events and external marketing at Office Depot UK and Ireland, says: ‘It is a constant challenge to raise the standard, add in an element of surprise and exceed expectations every year, especially with events that the business is accustomed to and those that run annually. The Annual Sales Conference is by far the most important internal event that we organise and I can confidently say that this year’s conference was the most successful in the company’s history.’

Organiser's notes

Just because you’ve always run events a certain way before, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t embrace change:

  •  If the conference is an annual event, delegates will know what to expect. Surprise them by changing the format or by adding a high-energy wake-up session.
  • Mix live on-stage presentations with animated video or live video links to global offices. Mix up speaker formats by adding panel discussions, audience interactive voting or product demonstrations.
  • Give delegates the time and technology to interact with speakers. In an age of social media, people are less willing to sit and listen. They want to engage with the conversation.

Case study: Cisco Live

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In previous years, Cisco Live conferences incorporated an element of social media, but the company used it to respond to criticism rather than drive conversation. This year, for Cisco Live Europe at the ICC London ExCeL, online communities were built to extend the event to those unable to attend. Cisco wanted the conference to bring together a community of customers, partners and employees willing to interact, share, engage and network beyond the event.

Online communities require great content, and Cisco Live needed to engage online participation in ways that complemented the live conference. The aim was to produce a mobile app for on-site use, encourage bloggers, get Facebook ‘Likes’ to double from 600 to 1,200 and Twitter followers from 2,000 to 4,000. Attendees could upload images to a media gallery, with prizes for the best pictures, which resulted in more than 100 images per day being posted.

For the first time in the UK, Cisco’s events agency George P Johnson (GPJ) created a social media studio that monitored and managed the online dialogue around the conference, while responding to and acknowledging every post, tweet or comment.  ‘It amplified positive experiences and helped attendees stay on schedule and up to date. Simultaneously, it helped transform any negative online conversations into positive feedback, and allowed us to address any potentially harmful conversations, limiting viral spread and amplification,’ says GPJ’s former senior vice president and managing director Kim Myhre.

Following the event, the focus was on continuing the online conversation while publicising other global Cisco Live events. Before and during Cisco Live Europe 2012, social media activity rose by more than 300% and the online channels have since provided European audiences with content from Cisco Live Melbourne and San Diego conferences.

Organiser's notes

Maximise social media to amplify conference messaging and increase the longevity of your event:

  • Whether you want them to or not, delegates will discuss conference content on social networks so have a system in place to monitor, drive and respond to the conversation.
  • Promote an official event hashtag, incentivise posts and encourage the uploading of photos via competitions.
  • Make delegates feel more engaged with the conference programme by allowing them to drive the agenda and suggest speakers or topics through social channels during the conference planning stage.

Case study: Citroën

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Citroën UK was nervous about adding live elements to its National Dealer Conference. What if a difficult question was posed in a live environment? How can answers be prepared in advance?

Following consultation from agency Smyle and after much trepidation, the brand opted for an event format that was like a live TV show with a five-camera shoot and tiered audience seating. It was branded Citroën Live 2012. ‘At our previous conference, we felt a sense of “us and them” between the audience and the presenters. We wanted to get away from that by creating a conference in which the audience shaped the content and actively participated at the plenary,’ says Chrissy Hughes, Citroën UK’s events co-ordinator.

A pre-event registration site featured a page where delegates were invited to express their questions to the director of their choice. Webcams were also sent out to Citroën dealerships so that dealers could record their questions to camera. This created the strong impression that the people ‘at the top’ of Citroën UK genuinely wanted to understand the challenges and opportunities from the dealers’ point of view. Advance notice of questions also allowed the directors to prepare answers and analyse the relevant issues before taking to the stage.

To create the live TV experience, Smyle enlisted the support of television presenter Katie Ledger. Katie hosted the event, introducing the speakers who then had 20 minutes individually on stage before being invited to sit with her for a quick recap of the key talking points. The stage itself featured a super-wide 18x5m rear projection screen, which showed original content, including the main keynote and a greeting from Arsène Wenger. The afternoon session was a structured Q&A hosted by Katie who guided the speakers and audience through a 90-minute session. This session addressed issues raised on the pre-event website, as well as the comments recorded by the webcams sent to dealers and by a live camera on site during registration; the speakers also responded to messages sent to a free-to-text number in operation throughout the day.

By using a range of media, the organisers kept the session moving at a fast pace and made sure everyone, including the presenters, were alert and responsive. Employing the scale of the venue (Manchester Central), Smyle displayed Citroën’s full fleet of vehicles, making this conference one of the very few times a Citroën range of that size has been assembled for a single event. It also deflected attention from the fact that there was no new model launched at the event.

Organiser's notes

Don’t be afraid to take risks with audience participation. By engaging delegates, you’ll make them feel part of the event:

  • Give delegates multiple ways to interact with conference speakers and allow them to ask questions before and during the event.
  • Add a sense of theatre by introducing live elements. These can be managed by professional hosts and allow for the creation of memorable content.
  • Innovative live elements should be backed-up by technology. Appoint an agency that specialises in live camera feeds, rear projection and dealing with the unexpected.

This article was first printed in Square Meal Venues & Events, Autumn 2012.


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