Conferences are a regular feature of modern corporate life. There are many diverse types: sales meets, marketing seminars, strategy summits and manufacturing symposia, etc. Undoubtedly they add to productivity, profitability, team morale and success, else why would companies splurge huge amounts on hosting these shindigs?
We have little advice to offer on the serious content of conferences (that bit is best left to our bosses), but have plenty of ideas on how the fun and happiness quotient of these events can be significantly enhanced. In fact, a key objective of any conference should be fun, because none of us really wants to see hundreds of blank faces at the meets we attend. So here are some useful rules for you to read, and to send across to the relevant folk within your company.
Limit serious work to 3 hours
In any conference, the serious content includes keynote addresses, impressive presentations and panel discussions, etc. Our view is that such vital but solemn content should cumulatively not exceed 3 hours, in any event. There is a simple basis for this conclusion. If the best of movies, with all their scintillating actors and emotive appeal, cannot hold our attention for more than 3 hours at a stretch, do heavy-duty speeches and PowerPoints delivered by middle-aged balding men really have a hope in succeeding beyond this time limit?
Choose a bohemian location
For a conference that everyone looks forward to, the location should be a strong anti-point to the serious demeanour of our cubicles. Budgets may limit specific choices here, but excellent locations—whether you choose extravagantly exotic South America, expensively chic Europe or just good old India—should always have a liberating bohemian feel to them. In contrast, cities with museums, cultural hot spots or theme parks have niche appeal. The ability to indulge in relatively harmless but deliciously sinful activities, such as minor gambling or visiting cabarets or a massage in a beach shack, always adds to the overall appeal of the location. The casinos of Macau or Las Vegas, the night spots of Bangkok and Pattaya, the punky streets of Rio, and the beaches of Goa—take your pick.
Invite an inspiring speaker (not from the corporate world)
Conferences are worthless if they do not inspire the participants. But all of us know deep in our hearts that the business world has become increasingly staid and monotonous. Most speakers can only speak about growth, productivity and financial returns, which they do in distressingly similar ways. On the other hand, so much inspiring work today comes from the world of music, movies, art, adventure and sports. So, unless Steve Jobs or Richard Branson have agreed to address your conference, go ahead and invite an unconventional guest speaker or performer from one of these fields, someone who will elevate the audience. Two of the most memorable conference sessions I have witnessed recently have been a dialogue with a fabulously wealthy maverick investor who spoke fearlessly, and a stand-up comedy show which made fools of virtually everyone.
Concentrate on food and drink
When people come to conferences, they like to eat and drink shamelessly. Even conscientious dieters are known to let themselves sinfully loose. This is a universal truth that organizers must bear in mind and feed generously. Great conventions have needlessly bitten the dust because the food was not properly planned (“no Jain food, so we ate dry bread”), or was too restrictive (“a solitary vegetarian salad amid oceans of seafood”), or was hugely repetitive (“three days of kali dal spooked my intestine”), or involved great amounts of hungry waiting (“only one live pasta counter for 500 people, can you believe that?”). Serving up memorable food and drink at conferences requires imagination and balance, a perfect mix of the reassuring and adventurous. And even if you have the finest single malts and ice-vodka on tap, never forget the local brew; it always kicks in with a fiery ethnic touch.
Jam the mobile signals
BlackBerrys, smartphones, Wi-Fi tablets and mobile phones transform promising conferences into noisy technological jungles. People are forever on the phone, conversing with their colleagues back in office, secretaries, spouses, maid servants at home, clients, headhunters, and God knows who else. To liberate participants guiltlessly from this trap, conference locations should completely jam all mobile signals. This is a proposition which will appeal, because buzzing mobiles when an interesting speaker is on stage or while jiving on the dance floor is quite a bore.
Organize a rocking DJ and a dance floor
Nothing brings a conference alive like a rocking dance floor that parties boisterously into the night. To give the evening that special touch, have a party theme that is wild and fun. For real bonding to happen, everyone needs to let their hair down together, including senior and junior management, guests and every single participant. For this, you need a smart DJ who has a spontaneous feel for music that connects with your audience, so invest generously in such a man. You also need a location which does not impose draconian time limits which specify when all music and dance must shut down instantly, or at the very least a place which displays flexibility in such critical matters. Of course, you also need a well-stocked bar, equipped with bartenders who can conjure up wicked blends quickly.
Harish Bhat is chief operating officer—watches, Titan Industries Ltd. He has just returned from an exciting office conference in Pattaya, but prudently refuses to divulge any further details. We understand, well, sort of.
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