After 17 days, hundreds of pamphlets handed out and thousands of canapés eaten, Party Conference season has come to an end. Residents of Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow can breathe a sigh of relief as life gets back to normal. MPs and councillors will return to Westminster and their constituencies to get on with the more prosaic activities of running the country, activists will return home with stories of political celeb spots and selfies, and corporate lobbyists will analyse and evaluate the success of their events and return on investment for their attendance.
Party Conferences are strange events. They are a chance for loyal party members to get together and reaffirm the vision they have for the country. They are a chance for party leaders to both re-energise the base and differentiate themselves from their competitors in speeches broadcast to millions. And they are a chance for companies, charities and other lobbying bodies to meet large numbers of political influencers and debate the big issues.
But given the number of opportunities available, the number of events taking place and the cost of entry, do corporates and charities really get value out of attending Party Conferences? Based on my experiences as an observer this year, here are five things organisations need to consider when thinking about Conference season:
- Did you know what you wanted to achieve? Is your biggest strategic priority getting your evidence in front of key policymakers and demonstrating your expertise, or do you need to find out more about what your stakeholders think about an issue and the likely direction of travel? Were you looking for reasoned discussion with a few people or lively debate with large crowds? Organisations without a clear sense of what they wanted to achieve by attending Party Conferences will not be able to judge whether or not they were successful, no matter what they spent their time doing.
- Could you have partnered with another organisation? There are hundreds of fringe events taking place at each Party Conference, many of them involving the same people talking about the same issues. A number of organisations (especially think tanks) sought to overcome this by partnering with others that were interested in the same topic but potentially from a different viewpoint. This often increased the quality and marketing power of the events, and is also a useful way to share the costs.
- Were you focused on quality or quantity? Yes, it’s always good to have lots of people at your event and people may remember those which were standing room only. But quality, not quantity, is what really matters. Having hundreds of people come to an event simply because it’s raining outside and your room is closest to the door will not translate into long-term reputation building. Instead, organisations that focused on getting a mix of people from a variety of demographics and sought to build relationships with them that will continue beyond Conference Season will have seen the most value for money. (Quality canapés are also always a winner!)
- Were you prepared for it to get lively? Unless you hold invitation-only events, those who attend your event are likely to have a wide range of opinions and won’t be afraid to share them! Party Conferences are rare in that grassroots activists mix with corporate lobbyists, influential decision-makers rub shoulders with junior staff, and everybody has an equal right to be heard. It’s vital that speakers are well-briefed and ready to handle lively discussion and respond to difficult questions; everybody can tell when a panellist is squirming.
- Did you stay after your event? Party Conferences are expensive and time consuming, and it can be easy to think it will be easier, cheaper and therefore better to attend just for your event and then leave. However, this is to miss the best of the Conferences. So much of what makes Conference season special is the opportunity to network and find out which big issues people find most interesting. Organisations that will have seen the most value from Party Conferences are those that made the most of it: going to others’ events and finding out who else is talking about relevant topics; wandering through the exhibition halls and finding out what ‘ordinary people’ were interested in; and bumping into politicians and other useful contacts in the hotel lobbies.
Party Conferences are a once-a-year opportunity for organisations to get themselves in front of large numbers of politicians and grassroots supporters from across the political spectrum, find out what topics are keeping people awake at night and contribute to the debate – all in just a few weeks. They require large investments of time and money, but there is much to be gained by attending.
As organisations reflect on their successes this year, they should already be thinking about how they could get more out of Conference season 2015; by being clear about what you want to achieve and smart about how you engage, there are plenty of rewards to be reaped.