The four Ps of successful conference organising

Keith Burton and Kristen Tremeer
Keith Burton and Kristen Tremeer

WITH world class infrastructure, famous tourist attractions and a competitive exchange rate, South Africa is set to continue its climb up the ladder of top international long-haul destinations.

Add to that the Department of Tourism’s ambitious goal of attracting 15-million international arrivals by 2020 – many of which will be business travellers – and local conference organisers are faced with a golden opportunity. However, in order to capitalise, conference organisers will have to ensure they deliver a world-class conference experience from inception through to execution or risk losing valuable return business to its long-haul competitors such as Australia and Singapore.

Keith Burton and Kristen Tremeer of African Agenda, a South African professional conference organiser (PCO) and the only sub-Saharan member of the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO), have extensive experience in delivering world-class conference experiences to speakers and delegates from all over the world. They share some of their hard-won insight into the essential elements of a properly planned, perfectly executed and profitable conference.

According to Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa has secured more than 200 international conferences scheduled to take place over the next five years, attracting 300 000 delegates and providing a massive cash injection of R1.6 billion into our economy. “When foreign investment of this magnitude is at stake, competition between countries for share of the international conference market becomes fierce and the margin for error small. Maintaining the very highest global standards is critically important to not only secure but grow South Africa’s share of the global market,” Mr Burton explains, who heads up African Agenda.

“We have identified four key elements to successful conference organising – the Four Ps, as we call them – and we apply these rigorously to every conference in our care,” Ms Tremeer adds, a director of the company who has worked with Mr Burton for close to a decade. “To ensure a great conference experience for hosts, delegates and speakers, consider the following four points as your guideline,” she added.

“Advance planning and preparation is the key to success,” Mr Burton states. “By having a detailed timeline and applying critical path analysis to your project plan, you can avoid bottlenecks in the implementation process and ensure the entire team understands their respective roles within the larger context of the overall conference.”

For Mr Burton, proper preparation has been the most important aspect of his company’s success. “It extends beyond the planning team though. You need to ensure that delegates and speakers receive effective pre-conference communication and information so that they know what to expect and can also plan well in advance.”

He said the ultimate aim is to achieve a smooth transition from the pre-conference phase to the actual conference. “We know we are getting it right when we get feedback such as “Speaking at this event was a breeze – I knew exactly what to expect and everything was as I’d been advised beforehand” and “The pre-conference communication was well-written and useful.” The purpose of planning properly is to reduce the amount of stress for all parties involved – from the organising team to the delegates to the speakers,” Mr Burton explained.

Ms Tremeer’s specialty lies in ensuring brand consistency throughout the conference experience. She relies on her strict style enforcement to ensure all outgoing communication achieves the communication objectives that she determines in consultation with the client at the start of the planning process. “You have to understand that the conference is a product that has its own identity,” she explains. “Consistency is crucial: the conference website, newsletter, printed collateral, PR – it all needs to fit with the broader communication strategy.”

Supporting proper positioning with a strong marketing drive ensures that participants understand the purpose of the conference well in advance. “It’s important that the conference experience delivers to the needs of the hosts and delegates. The hosts may be aiming for profile-building or fundraising, while delegates could be attending to educate themselves, earn Continuing Professional Education points, or network with their peers. Knowing what all the parties involved want to achieve enables you as organiser to position the conference appropriately and makes for a successful experience for the hosts and delegates alike.”

According to Ms Tremeer, the conference programme is the key to ensuring every delegate gets what he or she wants from the event. “Everybody attending a conference has his or her own varied, divergent objectives. The conference programme is the key to meeting as many of these objectives as possible. A critical role of conference organisers is determining what information must be imparted, what the proper format is and how to best deliver the knowledge to delegates. What works for a 60 year old is quite different to what works for a 30 year old, so you need to be very familiar with the needs of your audience.”

Once the programme has been determined, it’s critical that it is implemented with minimum fuss – a speaker that is stressed or faced with last-minute surprises will not deliver to the best of their abilities. “There’s another ‘P’ that is important here – Professionalism,” says Tremeer. “Getting the best out of your speakers means treating them with respect. The speakers are often the VIPs and must be treated as such – and if there are any protocol issues, they must be dealt with respectfully and patiently.”

Price & Profit
One of the key factors that has led to African Agenda’s success over the years is Burton’s ability to understand the concept of profitability and ensure that the conference moves in this direction. “This may mean different things to different clients. Profit to an association could mean maximum attendance, increased membership and an enhanced profile in the media. It may even be financial, but that in itself doesn’t always mean the same thing – it could simply be that the conference doesn’t run at a loss. Whatever the objective is, it’s important that it is made clear early on and that it becomes the primary guiding element throughout the planning and implementation process,” Mr Burton explained.

He added that profit extends beyond the conference itself, to factors such as an enhanced profile for the organising committee, the chair of the conference or the host organisation or destination. “Professorship or tenure can also be fast-tracked through high-level involvement in a conference, so in academic circles the concept of profit takes a completely different form. Conferences represent an opportunity for the host city or town to receive an economic boost, with increased revenue and tourist numbers being the ‘profit’ of hosting the event. Conference organisers need to be very clear about what ‘profit’ represents for each conference in order to deliver to the objectives of the client,” says Burton.

Each conference may be unique, but the rules that guide the successful planning of conferences are universal and can be applied by any organiser. “By making these four elements the centre of your planning and implementation process, you lower the risk of making costly mistakes and help ensure that every person attending the event has a valuable, memorable and positive experience,” Mr Burton concluded.