I’m sat writing this in Birmingham at the Conservative Party conference and have been struck once again by how active charities and other third sector organisations are here. It seems like 50% of the fringe meetings are organised by charities and leading sector figures are very visible in the conference halls (and the bars).
But what does it take to be successful at conferences? Here are a few tips:
1. Know what you want to achieve
It sounds obvious but decide what outcomes you want before planning your conference activity. Too many organisations fall into the trap of doing the things that they want to do, rather than the things that will have the most impact. I met one charity public affairs professional yesterday who was spending the week going to other people’s fringes and having the odd meeting. Now that may have its benefits, but you’re going to have to work very hard with such a vague programme to get any real return on the considerable investment you put in to be here.
2. Focus your efforts
Conferences have become increasingly expensive and people need to do more with less. Think about coming up and down in a day, or having one overnight pit stop staying just outside the conference town/city to keep the costs down and then cram as much in as you can.
3. Know your audience
This goes for any communications activity but it is also vital at conference. If you want to reach a very large number of delegates and money and resources are plentiful then a stand may be right for you. Some charities here in Manchester have fantastically innovative stands, with Guide Dogs’ obstacle course where you are led round by a guide dog a real highlight, but you have to work hard to stand out from the crowd. If it’s MPs you want to see, then make sure you book meetings in before you come to conference (or even consider seeing them at Westminster instead – it’s a whole lot cheaper). Whatever you do, be clear about your targets or you will end up disappointed.
4. Be careful how things look
In these straightened times charities need to be even more careful than normal to ensure maximum value for their spend. They also need to be aware of how spending looks to other people. So a programme composed of three fringes, a reception and a breakfast seminar (unless clearly sponsored) may look slightly over the top.
5. Enjoy the networking
Despite the need for caution, don’t forget that party conferences are still an excellent opportunity for networking and building your organisation’s profile. It is also a good place to meet and learn from other communications people and pick up examples of best practice which you can apply to your own organisation when you go back to the office.