Making Impact is not easy...

Making Impact is not easy...

Making Impact is not easy...

A very interesting conference took place in Kraków the other day. Yes, I know there are plenty of interesting conferences out there. One might feel almost tempted to think there is nothing unusual in the above, except, this one was truly special, for reasons of its own.
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Before I get into details, let me just say, for the sake of what is referred to as (attempted) objectivity, that going to conferences, analysing what works, what doesn’t, and why, has been part of my job, and professional background, for over a decade now. I have literally been to hundreds. I have also been in charge of organizing conferences, on both local and international scale, and worked as MC, host, facilitator, interpreter and moderator (even voice-over) at a large number of those. What I have always found by far the most fascinating in event management, however, is the importance of seemingly (very) small factors in determining ultimate outcomes, whether it's participant behaviour during events, collective event-quality perceptions or media relations that follows. At a time when almost every large-to-middle-size city hosts countless conferences every month (e.g. medical, NGO, local government, start-ups, tech, IT, academic, industry-specific, to mention but a few) following more or less the same, nauseatingly repetitive formula of ‘keynotes + panel discussions + (at best) streams’, true creativity and innovation in event management assumes special importance. But let’s get back to https://impactcee.com, because that’s the name of the conference I wish to focus on in this article.

 

For its 'special characteristics' category, I’d start with the following: 

  • The mystery surrounding its organizers (nobody seemed to be able /or willing/ to provide a clear answer as to who the organizers were); coupled with very limited information on the website; reportedly, a dedicated foundation was set up only a few months before the event to manage the key preparatory processes.
  • The budget for the 2-day event must easily have exceeded 1 million PLN, judging by the scale, number of guests, the price ticket for the prestigious venue rental, above all, however, the technological gadgetry employed to create a very specific, targeted, almost subliminal impression on the unsuspecting participants. Among other things, a fancy LED floor was set up on the stage, massive LED screens were used as flashy backdrop for the (spell-bound?) audience and TV crews present – quite likely the biggest that the ICE Congress Centre has seen to date; there were the kind of animations, special effects and gimmicks only a few could afford, even by the standards of the moneyed corporate sector where many have to contribute a lot, only to be able to afford a far less ‘cinematic’ effect. In short, it was the ultimate incarnation of ‘form over substance’, as confirmed by dozens of people I asked the same simple question: ‘What do you think about the conference?’. In the process, I was careful to also ask those who attented the great majority of the event's sessions. Their response was surprisingly unanimous in expressing the above sentiment.
  • Master of Ceremony there was none. Instead, a strange-sounding voice announced whoever was to follow on stage. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this approach BUT ONLY if you are a true expert in putting the key accents and stresses where they belong, in order to achieve the desired effect.
  • Networking is what conference organizers usually try (and hope) to make part of their agenda. In this case, however, it clearly spun out of control very early on, leaving the main auditorium ca. 40% full (see below; photo taken at 1 p.m.; and believe me it's not the 'emptiest-looking' I have), long before conference mid-day, compared to over 100% (of available seats), during the conference opening, clearly dominated by a political agenda, and strongly over-represented in that sense, to everyone’s surprise. Interestingly enough, even though the conference itself was (meant to be) about Economy 4.0, the language spoken by the two key ministers present and the leader of Law and Justice (PiS) was mostly ideological, with very little (closer to none, in fact) conference-relevant content, if by content we mean any type of data, analytics, reference points, measurable plans or goals.

 

 

  • The irony: it is in fact quite ironic that by the time politicians left the room after the conference opening (i.e. the time when the “real” Economy 4.0 part of the conference was about to start) the 2000-strong auditorium almost immediately shrank by more than half - this is something that simply shouldn't have happened and could have been avoided!
  • The politics hidden behind the official event's agenda, which really explains all of the above, albeit with different levels of subtlety.
  • The logistics:if only for the sake of positive PR, let alone a healthy dose of rational reasoning, one really shouldn't organize conferences for 2000+ participants, only to change the main venue for its key sessions mid-way, from a 2000+ auditorium to a 700-max one, which is exactly what happened half way through the first day of the programme. In effect, many, many participants who tried to enter the so-called SALA TEATRALNA were simply refused access, for obvious reasons (it's not that difficult to pack full a room 1/3 the size of the main auditorium, with the same number of participants (in total), thus, inevitably, generating the 'must have been soooooo interesting' effect). Well, it really wasn't. 
    The other issue related to logistics was safety/security: (reputedly) minutes before the conference opening, the registration queue reached half way to the hotel situated opposite the ICE Congress Centre. Looks good on video but says a lot to those in the know. 

 

The Three Musketeers of 'Dobra zmiana'

The question is (perhaps the only one that matters here!) why would anyone need a 6m-tall Polish flag (a pretentiously large and 'waving' one, on top of that; animated, that is) as a continuous backdrop to 3 successive statements from ministers(!) and politicians at an 'independent' Economy 4.0 event? The reason I use the word 'political' is quite simple: that's what Impact CEE very much appeared to be. The single, red spotlight above the stage (see photo below) didn't make matters look any better, especially in the eyes of those who can't resist a symbol or two . One may therefore feel slightly abandoned in entertaining some faint hope that it wasn't intended as some kind of North Star metaphor.

The Three Musketeers

 

A disclaimer of sorts

I'm not a supporter of any political party in Poland, and, as a matter of principle (courtesy or conference etiquette), I am not against politicians taking the floor at conference openings, as long as they actually have something meaningful to say, which, again, as a matter of principle, is hardly ever the case. Ideology, fluff and puff are, clearly, the easier options.

Every since I remember, whether in parliamentary or presidential elections, casting a vote has always felt like choosing the lesser evil, frustrating as it is after almost 20 years of going to elections. Much as I'd love to, I have never been privileged, not once, to cast my vote with a clear sense of conviction and faith in the qualities, character, integrity and, last but not least, charisma of the politician(s) at stake. Even in contemporary Poland, I don't know a single politician towards whom the word 'charisma' would even apply. I do know many, however, whose very existence makes the feel of contemporary politics much more transparent ('straightforward' might be a better word) than it has ever been, i.e. it no longer beats about the bush in its perennial effort to keep proving, over and over again, that politics stands, first and foremost, for manipulation, hypocrisy and double-standards, sad as it is. There are no towering figures around, at least not of the kind that would be at least vaguely impressive. By 'impressive', I mean the intellect, the inner calm, the rhetorical skills, the passion, the ability to attract supporters by means of genuine, convincing worldview that translates to visionary, strong leadership. For too many good people, politics is a 'no go' zone, for too many reasons.

 

And now, on the positive side…

Having said the above, this conference was only the beginning of a learning curve. Much as its organizers may feel tempted to pamper to future political agendas (perhaps for pragmatic reasons, as would so often be the case), the event itself does have an interesting potential, hidden between the lines of the current format. It also boasts the organizational prowess vibrant enough to make it successfully compete with events such as the Krynica Economic Forum, which has lacked innovative approach for at least a decade now. What it needs is a much clearer voice, one supported by interesting research and visionary, yet tangible goals. Last but not least, the 2016 edition of Impact CEE did have some (at times very) interesting moments and the effort put into pulling the whole thing together at short notice was in many respects impressive.

Kraków now hosts a number of multi-national, ambitious annual conferences - among others, the European Cybersecurity Forum (CSEU16), which, even though in the same new-comer category on Kraków's event stage, was much more impressive on the content-to-form scale, even in its inaugural 2015 edition.

Finally, chances are that, given far more emphasis is put on content and creative event-format design, Impact CEE may become a genuinely successful effort in addressing the future challenges of technology, innovation and economy at large. In doing so, it will help stimulate the much-needed trend for thinking ahead instead of backwards, i.e. Poles' favourite political pastime - digging in the past, while others pass by. 

As the organizers will have learned by now, it takes much more than the fancy LED screen and state-of-the-art packaging to conquer the territory where conference content is the No. 1 priority, all the way from design to implementation.


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