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Are conferences value for money?

8 November 2022 at 4:39 pm
Kaushik Sridhar
Most people in business attend conferences at some point, but Kaushik Sridhar asks whether they are worth the cost of attendance.

Kaushik Sridhar | 8 November 2022 at 4:39 pm


Are conferences value for money?
8 November 2022 at 4:39 pm

Most people in business attend conferences at some point, but Kaushik Sridhar asks whether they are worth the cost of attendance.

Unless they’ve just started out in business, most people have been to a few conferences in their lifetime. But do they represent value for money?

If you’re the type of person who goes to lots of them or all of them and you think, “I’m going to get something from each of these,” here’s the truth:

If you go to a lot of conferences or all of them but you’re not implementing anything in your business, then all you’re doing is just wasting time.

There are over 1.8 million conferences, incentive events and other meetings in the US alone, according to the Events Industry Council. Conferences are a great way to introduce new employees to an industry and they offer those established in the industry a stage for their expertise.

However, there are a number of issues to consider when attending conferences.

Firstly, the focus on one-way presentation. Sitting in a session room with 75 other people listening to a presentation might be interesting, but chances are you’ll find yourself watching a dull PowerPoint slideshow explained with too much jargon and not enough charisma. You can’t really have a conversation about the topic, unless you can corner the speaker afterwards, and you are unlikely to connect with that other person across the room who asked that great question and then disappeared at the end of the session.

If your goal is to network and bring back new tactics you can apply to your organisation, the crowds and the spectacle of presentation-focused events can get in the way.

Secondly, people frequently refer to conferences as “shows”, but I would argue that a show is antithetical to a conference. Literally speaking, a ‘conference’ means a place for people to confer, a meeting of people to have a conversation about a certain subject. A show, on the other hand, implies a separation between the performers and the audience – and it’s this separation that people are losing patience with.

Thirdly, session descriptions inaccurately or poorly written because they were submitted months ago in hopes of being glittery and catch-wordy enough to be selected but when selected, it’s “oh crap, now I really have to DO something about this idea that I pitched months ago”.

Can we just have video promos for each session that will give clues about how dynamic the presenter might be, and how good their materials & ideas might be? Better yet, just make all of the sessions available on video/podcast the day the conference opens, then make their sessions the Q&A/takeaway stuff that people really want anyway.

Marvel characters

What does it say about a conference when there are approximately 40 sessions, and in 15 or so of them, there is a consistent cast of characters much like in the Marvel Universe — people crossing over, pairing up, sharing panel speakers — does that mean that they didn’t have enough session applications?

So before deciding whether to attend the next event, ask yourself these questions:

  1. How much of the program is devoted to presentations? The most valuable part of a conference is the time between the presentations, when you can spend time discussing with colleagues and developing new partnerships and collaborations.
  2. How strict are the entry criteria for attendees? Selective, invitation-only events tend to be more valuable, focusing on quality over quantity.

So, are most conferences a waste of time, money and efforts? It really depends on your expectations and what you want to achieve at the conference. You could have several motivations like presenting something because you have promised it in a proposal, meeting old friends and catching up with them, engaging stakeholders that you could not approach in a different situation, meeting the great names in your field.

If you make sure that the conference will be able to provide you with what you expect, then they are a good thing – if not, they might be a waste of money and time.

More action and less talk

Let’s start with some sobering headlines recently:

  • Humanity ‘going in the wrong direction’ on climate change, UN warns.
  • 8 out of 10 at risk of modern slavery with approximately 50 million — mostly women, children, and migrants — still trapped in forced labour and marriages.
  • According to the WHO, 93 per cent of children are living in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution.

While the world is trending in the wrong direction environmentally and socially, there has never been more sustainability and ESG conferences than there are today. If this is the case, what impact are these conferences actually having?

Did you know, in 2017, more than 1.5 billion participants—from about 180 countries—travelled to attend conferences. The number of regular, international convention events—of more than 50 people—doubles every 10 years, and the convention industry’s market size is expected to grow at a 11.2% rate over the next decade.

Are these conferences mainly used as an opportunity for people in power to get attention? Aren’t these conferences meant to change the whole system one step at a time? Is the expiry date on ESG and sustainability conferences’ usefulness limited? Are we discussing issues and topics that were being discussed 10, 20, 30 years ago with little no progress since then? Don’t we (as speakers and participants) think about the ‘why’ more closely when choosing to speak, or even attend, a sustainability conference?

While in their speeches, speakers stress the importance of sustainable development, in the ‘collaboration rooms’, stakeholders would rather protect their own interests. Furthermore, with so many meetings and side events, there is little time to absorb and learn from the new and innovative ideas presented.

While it’s true that conferences and trade shows can provide learning opportunities and in person interactions with potential future contacts, they also carry big carbon footprints.

The growth leads to substantial greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon footprint per individual participant reaches up to 6,600 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, as reported by life cycle assessment studies.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has, unexpectedly, shown humanity a new way to reduce climate change: scrap in-person meetings and conventions.

Moving a professional conference completely online reduces its carbon footprint by 94 per cent, and shifting it to a hybrid model, with no more than half of conventioneers online, curtails the footprint to 67 per cent, according to a Cornell University-led study in Nature Communication.

Yes, there is nothing like walking into a conference where we have people frantically “collaborating” on outcomes addressing economic and social development and the environment, corridors resembling a giant trade show or carnival, thousands of people networking and advocating for their ‘cause’, businesses showcasing sustainable technologies…and the list goes on. There is definitely electricity in the air as thousands unite to solidify aspirations for a better world.

I ask this question; have these conferences meaningfully advanced sustainable development? Just how effective are such large, high-profile events? Conferences can capture the attention of the media and politicians and potentially secure political agreement on future priorities.

Do they catalyse the necessary actions at the national level to promote sustainable development? If each action plan results in lacklustre implementation, are these conferences worth the effort, money, and carbon footprint?

Kaushik Sridhar  |  @ProBonoNews

Dr Kaushik Sridhar is an experienced and purpose-driven ESG and sustainability leader with over 14 years’ experience developing and implementing ESG programs, strategies, and initiatives focusing on improving business’ financial bottom line and contribution to society while reducing their environmental impacts.


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