Tim Woolgar finds that what makes a good conference is a wide range of
contacts and value for money
Nigel Dugdale: Group marketing manager, A. G. Barr
‘The best conference was the Marketing Forum, three days at sea on board
the Oriana,’ says Nigel Dugdale.
Part of the attraction is the opportunity to see new presentations
without any commitment, he adds.
‘I can’t just get on a train and go and meet an advertising agency
speculatively. I need to be able to justify the cost both to myself and
‘With the Marketing Forum, I can meet maybe 30 exhibitor companies. It’s
opportunistic and unpressured.’
From a commercial perspective, the event may seem unpressured but
Dugdale confesses the Marketing Forum demands plenty of stamina. ‘It’s
exhausting. You tend to stay up every night, drink a lot then go to
meetings first thing in the morning.’
Dugdale believes the opportunity to mix business with a bit of
socialising works well. ‘You do mix with people in the bar, but that is
often a great time to find out more about anything that may have caught
your interest during the day,’ he explains.
Brian Wade: Brand manager, Ford
Brian Wade is not a man who sets much store by fancy venues or exotic
locations. For him, content is all important. He says he’s more likely
to attend a conference held in London, as it’s easy to get to, but he
has travelled all over the world as a brand manager. Indeed, he says the
best conferences he’s attended have been Ford’s annual get-togethers.
‘It’s fascinating, you get to meet brand managers from all over the
world. All these guys doing a similar job to yourself, you get a great
sense of team spirit developing,’ he says.
The Ford conference this year took place over eight days at the Cobo
Centre in Detroit. Wade admits eight days is a long time for a
conference, but says the opportunity to bring people together from bases
all round the world makes it worthwhile. ‘I think you do get fatigued,
but you leave feeling very enlightened.’
The conference was made up of a mix of talks, seminars and interactive
exercises involving delegates. ‘We were working on case histories,’ he
says. ‘We had rooms where groups could go to work on developing ideas.
By the end of it, you could be making a presentation to 500 people.’
John Dixey: Managing director, Playtex
John Dixey rarely attends external conferences although he sees internal
ones as an invaluable opportunity to build team spirit and promote
competitiveness. ‘I prefer a conference when it is linked with some
activity, like go-karting,’ he says.
Dixey’s experience of attending conferences has helped convince him of
the value of building a mix of activities into the process. He recently
returned from a high-level Playtex conference in the US. The purpose was
to educate managers on the development of the global economy.
‘We were in a beautiful hotel in Palm Springs with easy access to the
golf course,’ says Dixey. ‘People were playing golf and discussing world
economics as they played. You could be having a really in-depth
conversation, for example, about the ageing of the world’s population
and how that will affect marketing in the future.’
Like many major companies, Playtex relies on in-house specialists to
select venues and buy in conference services. However, he says he is
always interested in new ideas and relies on magazines and circulars for
the latest information.
Neville Benbow: Manager of service quality, Midland Bank
Neville Benbow says he sometimes feels conferences are too much trouble.
His views were changed, though, by the European Business Excellence
Forum in Edinburgh. ‘I’ve been to many conferences where at the end of
it I thought: ‘Why did I bother?’. With this one, I knew why.’
The conference, organised by the European Foundation for Quality
Management, presented a sincere challenge, bringing together 1,200
delegates from across Europe for a two-day conference, culminating in
the European Quality Awards ceremony. According to Benbow, it ran like
clockwork. ‘We had simultaneous translation in five languages, the link-
man, Peter Hobday from Radio 4, was excellent. All in all it was just
very slick and very well run.’
Benbow also regards meeting the right people at a conference as one of
the main justifications for attending. ‘By the right people, I mean
other managers, not necessarily from the same industry but who share the
aim of improving the quality of their management. Like-minded people on
the same journey as yourself.’
Phil Horton: Communications director, Renault
Phil Horton is invited to attend at least three conferences a month. For
him, that’s too many. ‘I work on a committee at the Incorporated Society
of British Advertisers and it’s one of the things we’re debating. I
believe there are too many professional organisers putting together
conferences simply to make a financial return.’
Horton says the most important consideration is the subject matter being
discussed, followed by who is doing the presentation. The third factor
is the location. He prefers to spend as little time away from the office
as possible, although he admits his best conference was last year’s
Media Research Group event in Barcelona.
‘I was involved in presenting one of the discussion groups otherwise I
would not have gone. I would have said that media research was too
specialised to justify the time and expense, but the content was quite
stimulating and, in the end, it turned out to be very worthwhile,’
‘It was also an opportunity to meet and socialise with other like-minded
people,’ he adds.
Horton says he’s been disappointed by conferences that fail to deliver
on this level. ‘I went to a big conference in Brighton about the future
of television. The majority of the delegates were either TV people or
media owners, there were only about half-a-dozen people representing
client companies. The speakers were good and so were the presentations,
but there was no-one there I was interested in meeting. Considering the
ticket cost pounds 800, I would say that was not good value for money.’