What makes a good convention?
Been there, done that!
You might think that would be the attitude of a seasoned keynoter and convention-attendee like Peter Urs Bender. But in spite of the hundreds of conventions Bender has attended over his business lifetime, keynoted for, and attended for his own edification, he views each one as a fresh experience.
"Whether you're presenting as part of it, or just attending it for pleasure and to pick up the latest information in your field, attending a convention is always exciting," he says.
"What isn't so exciting is if the convention bombs-and it happens."
With his experience of conventions, Bender, in his systematic way, believes there are five factors to a good one. Conference chairmen especially if they are new to the business of arranging and structuring such meetings should find Bender's comments helpful. Though his points may seem obvious, Bender says he has seen more meetings ruined through inattention to basic details than he cares to remember. As a keynoter and presenter who has also had to stickhandle his way around the minefield of a disorganized convention, Bender knows whereof he speaks.
Initial Planning is a very important factor to success, he says.
That might seem obvious but, Bender says, you can tell right away if the chairman and the conference committee have been working together or pulling apart. Careful planning ensures a convention runs down a track that has been smoothly laid down on a solid foundation.
"You can see this, not just in conventions. When the first man landed on the moon, he didn't just step out of the capsule. There were hundreds of people who planned it. In a sense, he was stepping out for every one of them. Likewise, the plan may not be obvious to the conventioneers, but everything had to be scheduled. It's almost necessary to do flow charts and spreadsheet analysis to make it work right.
Great conventions don't happen overnight. The planning is a very analytical systematic approach, which will create the much-wanted great emotional climax for the audience.
Location, Location, Location in the real estate professional's jargon, is a second critical factor. "I am a great believer in spending whatever is needed for a good convention location, " says Bender.
"Being in the right hotel or resort gives registrants the feeling of being in the right environment. You remember the location. If you've got a good location, the quality of the food usually follows."
Bender acknowledges, however, that sometimes choosing the location is out of the hands of the conference chair or committee.
"If the conference has always been held at the Royal York, or the Hotel Vancouver, or the Chateau Frontenac, your chance of changing the venue is limited. Moreover, with such prestigious hotels you'd be foolish to change the venue without a very good reason.
"A location has a lot to do with a convention because it sets the emotional mindset for the person who is attending. "Oh, we're going to the Royal York," gives attendees a different feeling from "Oh, it's just going to be in a motel," for instance.
"Pick the best location you can afford, so that people can look forward to it. You could do the same session in a big church basement, or a school hall, but it wouldn't have the same effect on registrants."
If the convention is a quickie (a day or two at most), whose purpose is information and education, hold it close to an airport in any major city. Toronto, for instance, has an airport strip full of great hotels and meeting halls. "One can fly in from anywhere in the world, go straight to the hotel, do the convention, and go back to the airport again with minimal fuss," says Bender.
If the convention is a few days long-three to five, for instance-and especially if you take your spouse, it's often good to go to a resort environment-Banff or Quebec City, for example. Again, the emphasis is on 'close to transportation' but 'relaxed and informal.'
One item that might surprise conference chairs and meeting planners is Bender's attitude on conventions in exotic locales.
"If I go to a NSA (National Speakers' Association) convention, I don't want to go to an exciting place," he says. "I go to learn, share, and get new ideas for my business.
"NSA had a convention in Bermuda a few years ago and I didn't go. This wouldn't be a working environment for me. If I go to Bermuda, I want to have some days off. If I go to a convention to learn, I prefer to stay close to an airport. The location depends on the idea of the session, of course, and there's no one answer for every occasion. It depends on the circumstances."
Setting a theme for a convention seems to go in and out of favor from year to year. Certain conventions never seem to have a theme. Others pick a theme one year, and not the next, says Bender.
"We all have a theme, even if only subconsciously. We might only want to do the same as we did last year. That's a theme in itself.
"But if a conference is truly theme driven, is must focus clearly on that theme. It should be lively, and be present on all the literature produced for the conference. Nothing is worse than choosing a theme, then failing to use it. That gives potential attendees an uncertain feeling about the whole affair."
Speakers are a real draw for any convention. They can be amateur or professional, but they must be good. How many times have you suffered through a conference session with a speaker who had all the information you needed to know, but presented it such a fashion you could only keep from falling asleep with the greatest difficulty, asks Bender.
Before hiring a speaker-any speaker-someone, the chair or a member of the committee should have heard the person.
Bender is adamant that you should go and see the speaker in real life. Don't just look at a video. Videos, he points out, are often spliced together from the five or ten highlights of a speaker's presentation. "You have to be a real klutz not to get two to five minutes out of a 45-minute presentation."
To drive his point home he tells the story of the conference chair that died and went to heaven. There, the gatekeeper offered him a chance to go to heaven or hell. When the chairman couldn't make up his mind, the gatekeeper offered to let him view videos of both places. The chairman chose hell, but when he arrived he found it was absolutely awful. Looking back at the gatekeeper he said accusingly: "You misled me!" The gatekeeper replied: "No I didn't. What you saw were only the demo videos . . ."
Bender believes a big draw is to pick someone who is well known in his industry. But he or she really has to be able to deliver.
Picking a professional speaker is a little easier, especially if the person belongs to a professional speaker's organization like NSA or CAPS (Canadian Association of Professional Speakers). These organizations try to hold their speakers to a professional standard. But even here Bender urges caution.
"The audience has a lot to do with the success of a speaker. If a speaker has a system, he or she can deliver well all the time, regardless of the audience. If s/he doesn't it's possible to be good in Vancouver and bomb in Montreal-same speaker, same topic, but a different audience.
Hopefully the speaker should be a known Canadian and respected both by the group picking him, and the audience. And the presentation must fit into the overall view of the convention. After all, you're hiring the person to keynote and inspire, or to close and sum up. Whatever the person does has to fit the convention theme.
"It's also always a good idea to ask if the speaker has written a book," says Bender with a grin. (He has three Canadian best sellers to his name). "Ask for a few copies as prizes to give away to the first ten or twenty people who register," he says.
Follow-up is a major factor in the success of any good convention, maintains Bender. He's not just speaking here of follow-up after the convention is over, although that's important if the committee wants to adjust its planning to its audiences needs.
"Following up means constantly checking on all the little details that make a convention perfect," says Bender. "Send our your literature plenty of time in advance. Keep emphasizing it with additional notices.
"It's also especially important to keep your speakers informed of what's going on, especially if the person is an outsider.
"What I mean by follow-up can also mean different things at different times. Don't expect to send out one flyer and see your convention succeed unless last year's convention was a raving success-and even then there's no certainty of future success.
"You may even have to make follow-up telephone calls through the year to important conference attendees.
Bender believes that if meeting planners, conference chairs and conference committees follow these five simple rules, the convention will give registrants something that makes them richer after attending. It will also generate business connections, and that can go right to the bottom line-more business for the future.
Shannon Moore is a Toronto freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in many Canadian publications.
© Peter Urs Bender
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