CQT: The engage edition

Over 70 meeting industry professionals attended CN’s latest Conference Question Time (CQT) event at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in London.

The second in the CN Question Time series, CQT – The engage edition, broached the topics of Qualification vs experience; What is best: face-to-face or interface?; and Audience engagement.

This year’s panel consisted of Fay Sharpe, MD of event management company Zibrant; Kerrin MacPhie, Director of Sales at ACC Liverpool and International Congress and Convention Association UK and Ireland Chair; Rob Davidson, Senior Lecturer in Events Management at the University of Greenwich and CN Columnist; and Chris Elmitt, MD of Crystal Interactive. The event was facilitated by Simon Green, a journalist, television producer and PR guru.

The topic of qualification vs experience kicked off proceedings with Paul Cook from Planet Planit asking the panel: “If you were looking to employ someone and were presented with one candidate with qualifications and no experience and one with experience but no academic qualification, who would you go for?”

Sharpe said that above anything else it is attitude that is the most important. “You could have someone brilliantly qualified but unless they have the will, drive and passion to do the job they are not going to be the right person. If someone came to me with no qualifications but a great attitude I would give them a go.”

Davidson, who has spent the last 12 years in education, said that by having a degree in event management the next generation gain something that those who go in at ground level and just work for one company don’t. “A degree provides students with the opportunity to see the bigger picture. Not a week goes by at our university in Greenwich when there are not speakers coming in to share their expertise with the students and with us. That’s a great experience for them to hear a lot of different experts and to get the education.”

Davidson added that it was rare these days to find a graduate in events management who did not have experience as well. “A lot of my students are working part time in events or are volunteering right, left and centre every week, so they are seeing behind the scenes at a lot of different events by the time they go for interview.”

MacPhie agreed with Sharpe that attitude can go a long way regardless of whether a candidate has either qualifications, experience or both. “Sometimes if someone comes to you with a degree they almost have a ‘I have what it takes attitude’, when they really don’t have much knowledge at what it can be really like. Degrees don’t give you an entry point, graduates still go in at ground level and have to prove themselves.”

For Davidson, the research that shows graduates have a lifelong advantage when it comes to earnings means education is a “no brainer”, but he said a degree does not necessarily mean a candidate is a better investment than someone who goes in at the ground level. “Some of our students do decide that the industry is not for them after their degree.”

Elmitt referred to the generic benefits of completing a degree, predominately the fact that graduates are more mature and the statistics Davidson mentioned that show you will earn more if you have a degree compared to those who don’t.

Facilitator Green interjected to ask whether the education system services the industry well enough in providing the right people to grow the industry as far as it can potentially go. While Davidson referred to the role lecturers play in generating research for the industry, Sharpe questioned how the industry is perceived by some in the education sector.

“My daughter is going to Godalming College and she was interested in the events management course. I went to speak to the lady running it and asked ‘What do you know about event management?’ She responded by saying ‘It’s parties and stuff isn’t it’. That worried the hell out of me. It’s a big, well respected college, but sometimes event management is thought so little of that they think its just party planning. If you look at the Olympics and the technical creativity involved, that’s event management at its fullest beauty.”

With technology evolving everyday and playing an increasingly important role in conferences and events, Elmitt was keen to make clear that “one of the most important decisions to get right at an event is technology”.

“The problem with venues and technology is that the venue is often not dealing with the person who is organising the content of the conference,” he said. “The decision to use interactive whiteboards, for example, is often not taken during a conversation between the venue and client. Sometimes the people who are organising the content don’t have sufficient good uses for the technology and just do what other people do and use Twitter boards, for example, when in some cases it is not necessary or appropriate.”

For Sharpe, the use of technology should only be decided on once the objectives of a conference or event have been put in place.

“Technology is a vehicle to deliver a message or engage the audience,” said Sharpe. “I don’t even think about what to use until I know the objective of the meeting and then I advise about engaging the audience. What is certain is that we are going to have to adapt how we engage the next generation of delegates.

“The next generation of 16-25 year olds are on iPads/devices all of the time and we need to make sure meetings mirror this,” she added.

MacPhie noted that associations at ACC Liverpool were not really using technology such as Twitter, although Sharpe believed it is just a matter of time. “Those associations will have to change because they will not survive if they don’t cater for the audience.”

Davidson made the point that we need to be careful not to confuse interactivity with technology. “Interaction does not necessarily mean iPads and Twitter. Delegates want a chance to work in small groups; it’s not about people coming on stage hour after hour and talking. It’s about putting people in the audience into groups and letting them interact with each other.”

MacPhie said it’s important to make use of both face-to-face and interface in today’s world. “It is important to have both. Gone are the days of contracts being sent out in the post and returned by post; we can do it online and it saves the planet, but it doesn’t negate the need for CRM.”

Sharpe added that “it is possible to be transactional and not have to interact when booking rooms for events, but as you get more complex and need multiple rooms and overnight stays the human touch is needed”.

When questioned by Green on the trends they expect to see in the coming years and their predictions for the future, MacPhie believed there would be an increase in face-to-face and the exchange of knowledge in networking scenarios rather than plenary sessions.

Elmitt, whose company has been working on its ‘Bring your own device’ campaign for the last two years, hopes to see venues investing more in building up their technology infrastructure and bandwidth to support this. “Venues should save money on Smartboards and buy bandwidth,” he said.

“I think we need to take it on the chin and accept there is a small category of meetings where virtual conferences are fine,” said Davidson. “The vast majority of meetings will remain as face-to-face, but the biggest challenge will be getting and keeping delegates’ attention. We have a generation coming along where keeping their attention is going to be a challenge. One thing that is coming loud and clear from them is that they want much shorter presentations,” he said.

Sharpe also indicated a need to focus more on engagement in the years to come. “Engagement is key to any meeting and this will become more and more a part of the planning process for a meeting. Face-to-face will continue to be important, but I think people will start to use some elements of virtual meetings to save costs and transportation.”

Sharpe went on to say that Zibrant’s booking trends have indicated a dramatic change in the length of meetings. “It was quite normal a few years ago to go away for a three-day conference, but that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s a cost saving but it also saves peoples’ time; they can’t afford to spend three days in a conference anymore. Organisers will now be looking for ways to provide short, snappy meetings that keep people’s attention.”

The next CQT is scheduled to take place on 26 September 2013 at 1 Wimpole Street.

This was first published in the June edition of CN. Any comments? E-mail conferencenews@mashmedia.net

Paul Colston

Author

Paul Colston

Managing Editor, Conference News & Conference & Meetings World.

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