As a general rule, I don’t accept invitations to speak at conferences in places I’ve never heard of, especially when I can’t even pronounce their name. But I made an exception earlier this year for the intriguingly entitled ‘9th International Forum on Human Investments’, which was held in Kislovodsk, a spa town in the Stavropol region of Russia.
Now, I’ve spoken at three conferences in Russia before, but they were all in St Petersburg, which seems very European to me. But Kislovodsk was something else altogether.
Despite the slightly odd title, this was a conference about regional development. Stavropol is best thought of as the Russian Riviera, rich in healing mineral waters and natural springs. In fact, the regional airport is even called Mineralnye Vody, ‘Mineral Waters’. All kinds of regional development opportunities were discussed at this three-day conference, but I was there specifically to talk about how spa towns could become conference destinations, based on examples from the UK (take a
bow Scarborough, Brighton and Harrogate).
You see, one problem facing this region is that there simply aren’t enough sick Russians any more.
In the good old, bad old days, the region’s spa towns could rely on business from a steady stream of people coming to their sanatoria to ‘take the waters’. But it would appear that these days, the Russian population is less in need of such cures, and so this region is looking to attract new market segments, including conferences.
I have to confess that my main motivation in accepting the invitation to speak at this event was my interest in seeing just how Russian conferences were designed and run. I’m fascinated by cultural differences in conference management, and I’m working my way through the BRICS countries, having attended Chinese and South African events.
For this event there were 3,600 delegates, 90 per cent of whom came from Russia, although the others, including me, hailed from 11 countries.
What made the event stand out was the lavishness of the occasion. Honestly, if there was a limit to the budget for this conference, I couldn’t see any signs of it. The contrast with conferences in current-day austerity, no-frills Britain couldn’t have been greater. No-one does bling like the Russians, and this conference was true to form.
No sandwich lunches with still or sparkling water at this event. The food was abundant and mouth-watering and the wine and vodka flowed freely. The venue itself was some gold-plated palace, straight out of Anna Karenina, and the speakers’ accommodation was the best spa hotel in town. Each foreign speaker was met at the airport by a personal interpreter.
But one of the biggest expense items for the event must have been the bill for security. Personal protection is obviously a preoccupation in this part of Russia.
There were battalions of at least two different types of armed policemen patrolling the venue and its surroundings, non-stop.
I don’t think their priority was the protection of a Senior Lecturer from Greenwich University so much as the real VIPs in attendance – people like the Governor of the Stavropol region and the world boxing champion, Natalia Rogozina.
It’s always interesting to experience different countries’ ways of running conferences. Brazil or India next?
– Rob Davidson is a Senior Lecturer in Events Management at the University of Greenwich. This was first published in the October edition of Conference News. Any comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org