What Makes A Good Business Conference?

30 September 2015 -


You probably receive many invitations to corporate events and business conferences. “Exciting keynote speakers”; “Essential agenda-setting topics”... Here’s how to tell the difference between a great business conference and a long day in an airless room

Professor Adrian Furnham, guest blogger

Business conferences are big money. They can cost between £500 and £1,000 a day per attendee. Senior executives are bombarded by invitations to attend “essential, key, agenda-setting, seminal, state-of-the-art thinking events that are breakthroughs in achieving world-class… blah, blah, blah.”

Attendees for all conferences – internal and external – are encouraged to complete the “happy sheets”, otherwise known as evaluation forms. These provide all sorts of interesting and useful information.... as well as the actual data on the experience.

Using feedback can help organisers to justify, plan and adjust future events. They can provide useful information about what people really enjoy and why they really come, as opposed to the official reason they used to justify their attendance.

Off the record, conference organisers report some rather interesting findings. The following factors seem most closely related to happy-sheet ratings:

Party bags

Over the years. parents have realised that children’s parties have to end with a party bag of assorted goodies. The idea is twofold: first, the bag eases the departure for an excited, happy child. Also the bag fulfils the reciprocity norm – they gave a present on arrival; they get one on leaving. At conferences, party bags consist of books (normally by the speaker), stationery with client logos and, if you’re lucky, more frivolous gifts. Sometimes you even get wine. It’s a bit like airline bags or hotel toiletries: trivia (usually, cheap trivia) are important.

The moral is simple: charge an extra £20 and put that dosh into a really good party bag. It could make all the difference to client satisfaction.


Never underestimate the food and ambience. Most conferences are held at hotels, and attendees have come to expect a damn good lunch. A good lunch (as well as the morning coffee and afternoon tea) normally means quality, quantity and choice.

Think about it. Lunch is tangible, easy to judge. People will chat about the Danish pastries when they begin; and they’ll rabbit on about the cold plates or poor vegetarian options. In recent years, they’ve even started moaning about the carnivore options!

The regular conference attendee has had their expectations raised. For £500+ per day they expect a damn good lunch: good food expertly presented and served. They expect their quirkiness to be dealt with, whether they’re Kosher, diabetic or vegan (ideally not all three at once) and they expect their needs to be met.

Big names

People are attracted to conferences by famous (or infamous) people, even if they’re old, tired and well past their sell-by date. The odd politician, guru or TV star can both attract and please an audience.

Occasionally the Big Name strategy backfires. They can be very disappointing indeed, particularly if the blurb builds them up. Some big names have, alas, lost the plot; others appear arrogant or lazy; plenty don’t follow the brief.

Big Names are expensive but they do help. But they need to be briefed, checked and monitored. They need to press the flesh; kiss babies; even appear to be sincere. It’s a pretty tall order for some.

Networking opportunities

People go to conferences to meet others. They go to benchmark. They go to buy and sell. They go to gain competitor knowledge. They go to try to find a job. A conference is a marketplace. Organisers need to know that, and make sure people have sufficient ‘networking opportunities’. They do this at coffee, lunch, tea. But that is not enough.

‘Break out’ groups are not only for the lazy presenters, they are also for networking opportunities. People study the attendee list: they like details such as email addresses. They like an opportunity to introduce themselves. Arrange times, places and activities for people to meet, sell, disclose, start an affair. It’s all part of the process, as they say.


Conferences last four to eight hours. Even the best speaker can only hold an audience’s full attention for an hour or so. Attendees like a good programme: four to six speakers; videos; games; break-out groups.

The more extrovert the individual, the more they need stimulation and variety. Sitting on your bum is just not enough, however entertaining and engrossing an individual speaker is. Speakers are difficult to arrange and can be very expensive. Conference organisers would love to reduce the number of speakers to a minimum. Many are prima donnas, egocentric and demanding. And they’re expensive.

The paradox for the conference organiser is that the package is as important as the content. Forget the old idea that conferences are about the effective communication of ideas. Seminars and conferences are meetings at which people talk about things that they should already be doing.

Never forget that the etymology of the word seminar is semen. To succeed, they need to be sexy, as we said in the sixties.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School. Find his website here.

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