Skip to main content
A decade in the making

A decade in the making

Cameron Roberts chats to Heather Lishman about celebrating a decade as the association director for ABPCO.

Being the association director for The Association of British Professional Conference Organisers (ABPCO), gives one a unique perspective on the conference industry. By talking to organisers, suppliers, associates and destinations, Heather Lishman (pictured) gets a slice of the industry few are privy to.

Celebrating her 10th year at the helm, I spoke to Lishman about how the industry has changed during her tenure, what comes next for conference organisers and how ABPCO sees the future of our industry.

Known associates

Representing event organisers in the association means ABPCO is both a force for change as well as being beholden to it. Lishman speaks about how the association has morphed since she joined and why it is a force for good within the industry.

She says: “What’s great about associations is that you get different focuses every couple of come in have different experiences and different knowledge. I think it’s slightly different if you work in a corporate environment where you’ve got a five-year plan.”

While the experiences of the chairs may differ, the shared experience of the pandemic has impacted event organisers across the industry, Lishman sees the positives, saying: “I think we see where the industry is going, the focus on technology was greater, it just accelerated because of Covid-19.

“I think conference organisers and the events that they run are changing the world. At their heart, and they do have a heart, they can see that if the world needs changing, they can help to do that,” she continues.

Technology talks

Something Lishman has highlighted often is the impact of technology on ABPCO’s members, and certainly hybrid events and virtual events sit on the list of priorities for many event organisers. But this was not always the case. Lishman says: “When you look back to the first campaign I was involved with when I joined ABPCO, it was getting Wi-Fi in venues. So the industry has changed – you don’t necessarily notice it when you go through those incremental steps through the years, but it’s changed a lot.”

Despite this move to a more technology-focused industry, many organisers must keep in mind the benefits of being physically in the room with other people. I ask Lishman about her view on the changing face of live events.

She says: “I think we are human, we like to meet in person. You don’t get the same serendipity of who you meet when it’s virtual, maybe you don’t even see who the other delegates are. There are still those coffee moments or water cooler moments, or glass of wine in the bar afterwards moments, that is actually where relationships
are forged.”

Merging the two elements together is the puzzle that event organisers are struggling with in today’s market. But could the increased pressure to effectively run two events (in-person and online) be negatively impacting those in our industry?

Lishman says: “We’ve got to be careful about burnout now, because organisers are trying to catch up with conferences that have been postponed, as well as run those that were already in the diary for this year. I think all of them are under more pressure.

“Organisers are now trying to work out, do we do hybrid events? Do we do livestream? Do we record? How do we utilise some of that learning that we’ve had over the past couple of years and make it so that it’s better for the future?

“Some of that will also help with sustainability too, as far as cutting down on travel and things, but
I think it is about focusing on being collaborative and engaging, so that we really maximise that potential of live events.”

What’s next?

Beyond the need for technology, Lishman has a role in shaping what organisers prioritise in the coming months and years. She highlights how being transparent with other people in the industry and working with other organisers can create new best practices for conferences.

When asked what conference organisers should focus on in the next 12 months, she answers simply: “Collaborate. I think a lot of organisers, particularly the in-houses, find it quite difficult because they’re in an association but they’re running that one conference. I think the beauty of ABPCO is that they can ask questions, they can meet other folk that are in exactly the same situation.

“I think if you stand still, you’ll go backwards – the question now is how do you learn quickly enough? How do you have that network to support you, if you are just working on one conference in house?”

She adds: “What we’ve always tried to do with ABPCO is have that professional network so that people know that they can ask a question. We have a members’ forum where people ask all sorts of different things and people will respond with an honest answer.”