Let's Make the World a Better Place, But Not Just Yet!

International conferences, congresses and debates are my passion. They also happen to be a truly fascinating ecosystem for testing and exploring ideas and inspirations. The amazing diversity of learning and development opportunities they provide is almost second to none. I may have participated in well over 300 such events professionally, in Poland and abroad, with privileged access to all aspects of event management: as organiser, supervisor, contractor, emcee, debate facilitator, creative adviser and, last but not least, the co-called ‘secret guest’, aka auditor. Looking at the MICE industry today, somewhere in the middle of its impressive global evolution, this is what I find painfully missing, and, more importantly for some, why.
Foto: Open Eyes Economy Summit 2019, ICE Congress Centre
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Open Eyes Economy Summit 2019, ICE Congress Centre

Don’t get me wrong, by ‘learning’ from international conferences and congresses, I don’t just mean the actual content presented from the stage during those events. Often, quite to the contrary, in fact. Much of the learning comes between the lines, from careful observation, the study of various speaker/participant reactions and interactions, talking to dozens of participants from various walks of life, on and off stage. Last but not least, the individual and the collective body-language feedback during and after the individual sessions (always among the most reliable sources!). Interestingly enough, much of the knowledge emerging from ‘conference analysis’ comes from the ‘unplanned and unintended’ territory (not by organisers, at least).

Year After Year...

When it comes to organising ‘serial’ (annual) conferences, the ‘quality of content’ (i.e. content discipline, structure, prioritisation, preparatory coaching, preparation, storytelling, factual/big data insights, analysis, research, overall goals, vision and cohesion) is, inevitably, the toughest of them all. This is why, today’s congress organisers often try to compensate for the underlying content deficiencies, such as lack of fresh, not to mention breakthrough ideas, with high ‘packaging’ budgets, and putting comparatively too much effort into the What it feels/looks like factors, inevitably at the expense of the discipline/quality of content. They also often fall into one of the most common traps of the conference world: trying to squeeze too much into a 1-2 day agenda, preferably across too many parallel sessions. There is a separate, often elaborate list of reasons why they do it, of course.

Open Eyes Economy Summit, CSR Debate

A Glass Half Empty?

Any such observations have little to do with being cynical, mind you. Instead, they have a lot to do with genuinely wanting to raise the bar much higher for the MICE industry as a whole, especially in areas where it really matters in the long run, if at any point in time you hope for anything close to a competitive edge, let alone thought leadership.It is probably not unusual to expect that conferences, especially in their -th edition, will eventually develop tools to translate their ‘ideology’ to the language of prioritised, manageable projects, not to mention the institutional ‘lobbying’ required to have them implemented and make others see that there is undeniable value in spending (also public) money this way, rather than another.

Open Your Eyes!

This week, I was lucky to attend the 4th edition of the Open Eyes Economy Summit (#OEES4) in Krakow, one of those few conferences where a truly massive effort is made to build a changemaker storytelling around it. And yes, the conference gathers a lot of people whose long list of shared values and qualities includes empathy, responsibility, ambition, care for the people and the planet, including the many activists and NGOs represented. The congress covers a wide range of topics, from global trends in economy, politics, job markets, travel and tourism (overtourism), all the way to important ethical questions of the day, including institutional CSR policies, the language of propaganda and persuasion in politics, consumer choices, climate change, and a long list of other issues, for which one common denominator stands out above all other, the biggest questions of them all: What's the future of mankind, when is it going to hit us hard and how come we've been on such a wrong track for so long in so many critical areas and ways?

So Why Is Open Eyes Economy So Important?

After four editions of watching the OEES format up close and enjoying the many aspects of it, including a wide variety of thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable discussions, I must say, in the spirit of continuous improvement, it would be great if the organisers asked themselves a couple of questions afresh, with a sole purpose of raising the bar higher in the future:

  1. Who is my audience? Are these people who know little/much/a lot about the topics we are going to address during individual sessions? In other words, how big a risk for the conference comes from occasional lengthy openings, too many platitudes, structural or organisational weaknesses?
  2. Am I paying enough attention to speaker coaching, i.e. avoiding the common risk that they may come a little unaccustomed to the specific needs and expectations of THIS PARTICULAR AUDIENCE (see cultural and event-specific context)? Will my speakers show enough respect to my audience (of ca. 2000 people) by coming prepared enough, smart enough, insightful enough or will I end up seeing too many blue screens lighting up the faces of those that haven’t left yet, for whatever reason? And how do you show respect to your audience? Well, first and foremost, by avoiding the obvious, the woolly, over-repeated commonalities and generalisations that offer little beyond wishful thinking (and annoying your audience, of course).
  3. Is there anyone around, during the conference, assigned specifically with the task of watching the audience’s body language during sessions and later juxtaposing those with the many comments (questions) left behind in the event app…and eventually drawing meaningful conclusions?
  4. Are you auditing your conference, at least once every 2 years, in search of fresh ideas and new, creative approaches for perfecting the quality of your content (not to mention logistics and preparations)? Importantly, this should always be done by an external auditor (not a post-conference organising team workshop).
  5. Which part of your overall conference content is ‘designed’ to get the extra life (hopefully go viral) after the conference? Ok, you have spent two days talking and a lot of money on recording on camera all that is being said. How much of that is really smart enough, intelligent/insightful or otherwise valuable, interesting or 'shareable' enough to get published in its raw, unedited form?

 

The Common Risks of Annual Conference Formats

Ultimately, a conference reputation also relies on its systemic ability to translate all those hundreds of hours of videos recorded during the carefully planned sessions into at least minutes of TOP OF THE POP soundbites and insights that define the event and place it in the context of other (international) events, with comparable aspirations.

The big risk of ‘let’s make the world a better place’ conferences is that they are often far too ‘academic’ (or, simply, complacent) about actually implementing any/all of the ideas they try and preach, and by ‘implementing’ I mean acting and prioritising the available budget and resources in ways that go beyond publishing books, leaflets, posters, organising symposiums, smaller conferences and workshops. In doing so, they often risk, among others, falling into the very trap of repeating the patterns of the 'unsustainable world' they are so keen to criticise (see environmental impact!). The most obvious examples that come to mind, perhaps, include #climatechange conferences and summits, the organisation of which almost always leaves behind a gigantic carbon footprint.

And One Last Thing...

Having said all of the above, if you haven't experienced the Open Eyes Economy Summit in Kraków yet, it's definitely well worth paying a visit, if only for the wonderful networking environment it creates, in the best sense of the word. Finally, it's really quite unlikely that, having read the programme and spent two days at the conference, you will leave Kraków with a sense that the word 'fascinating' hasn't crossed your mind at least once.


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