Workplace Conference Evolution 2020 (Part 1)

by Marcus Bowen

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Last year, Work&Place media partnered with 12 conferences, from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Ireland to USA.  At the end of 2019, we asked some of the event organisers that we work with to reflect both on what they learnt in 2019 and their plans for 2020.  This blog in part reflects those findings but in the main my own observations as to how the ‘workplace sector’ events are trending.

Who is attending and how often?

For non-membership events, there is a core of about 30% who always attend a set event and the balance is split between new attendees and those who are more occasional.  Membership events probably have a greater proportion of regular attendees.

It’s clear that some practitioners won’t go to conferences and workshops.  They prefer desk learning. These folks are on line, review the planned sessions but don’t register for conferences. Finding a way to extend the event content and learning opportunities to them (i.e. monetise this group) is something we will pick up later, below.

I am told that attendance by in-house managers charged with workplace change might be on the increase.

Some event organisers are starting to register more HR-centric professionals, but this is not a general trend – yet.  Likewise, I see some traditional HR events starting to have what would previously be considered main stream workplace topics like change management in new ways of working, digital transformation and the workplace.  In this context, some organisers mentioned a need to cater for (my term) a ‘Head of Culture’ type role.

Why do people attend workplace events?

Considering that so much content is now on line, you would think attendees are principally interested in networking, but this is not the case. The lure is still high value content and relevant subject matter.

This explains why the best events are still dominated by great key note speakers and technical presenters.   A lot of effort goes into identifying and selecting the right topics and speakers.

How do you decide on what to include in the agenda?

Interestingly, this comes down to the influence of a small number of well-informed ‘researchers’ (or consultant practitioners) and a network of practitioners and academics willing to submit ideas upon invitation.  Feedback loops are used:  I know CoreNet Global and IFMA ask delegates what they found most of interest at one event and use that as a bias on next event agenda selection.

What can be done to gain more attendees?

Convenience and scarcity of delegate’s available time considering other priorities seem to be more relevant than price of the conference itself.

Broadening the scope of subject matter to appeal to a wider audience has led to even medium size events going multi-channel i.e. having more than one session on at one time.  Some explicitly signpost such channels by professional interest area.

Based on the fact that there are, year-on-year, more workplace conferences coming into our ‘W&P RADAR’, we assume that meeting the target delegate income figures is not yet a big risk.

Selling the ‘Proceedings’

Academic events publish proceedings of their events as a matter of record.  This is not something that the organizers we interviewed had considered.  From my own experience, I am sceptical as to whether publishing proceedings would be profitable without moving into a publishing type business, i.e. requiring advertising support.  Only Membership organisations, with their ongoing Knowledge & Learning agendas and CPD commitments, venture into this space – see RICS and CoreNet Global and IFMA.

Going remote

Could conference organizers make more income from selling remote access to conferences over video conferencing?  This is the sort of service that companies like zoom.us aim to make mainstream.  But that would present considerable additional upfront expense for organisers who would – to be effective – need to turn event sessions into television level audio-visual stages.  The price point of doing this plus expertise from the presenters, would have to improve … but no doubt that is just a matter of time.  Something to explore in the next blog on this matter?

What plans do you have for 2020?

It’s fair to say that event organizers are a focused on creating compelling agendas for future events and, as such, could be considered a good measure of what is trending and seen as important in the industry.   Here are the subjects that are reoccurring in the 2020 line-up.

  • PropTech related subjects – but not a full PropTec agenda – there are specific events emerging to cater for those markets.
  • CRE and Blockchain
  • Digital Transformation in the Workplace
  • Team work, engagement – how workplace design impacts.
  • Collaboration Economy – post Wework, this subject is still of interest.
  • Workplace Productivity (as ever).
  • Diversity – Cultural, Disabilities, Multi-generational
  • Office Tours – Organising office tours conducted by design sponsors, explaining the thinking behind the design is a growth area. Expect to see more of these.

Who are the speakers and presenters?

Communication skills are critical to making each session a success.  As such there seems to be a split in event type:  The large scale membership led events go through a ‘call for papers’ approach and hope to down select speakers and topics in line with a target agenda.  Non-member / small-scale event planners are bias towards first choosing the speaker and then seeing if they can get them to cover a particular topic they know to be of interest or in line with their thematic target.

Further research is required

During 2020, I am going to give closer attention to the evolving workplace conference market and will be back with an update on this blog mid-year.  By then I hope to have talked with more organisers (as part of our ongoing W&P media partnership work).

If you have a special interest in this area and would like to share your thoughts, please reach out to me at marcus.bowen@workandplace.com.

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