How do you develop a conference? | Conference Matters
Ton Soons

How do you develop a conference?

Most associations organise their conferences in the same way. There is a scientific or conference committee that is responsible for the programme. It is given or chooses a topic and focuses rather quickly on scientists as potential speakers, selected, or not, after a request for abstracts or proposals. One rarely thinks about other stakeholders. Thus, at medical conferences, you rarely see practical or visionary contributions from patients, nurses, insurers, hospital administrators, process developers, lawyers or policy makers. They are not only not there as speakers, but also not in interviews, brainstorming sessions, panel discussions, duo presentations, workshops or debates.

One rarely chooses

One rarely chooses, in the development of a conference, the approach that commercial conference organisers use, such as that of the media company, Informa Group, with such renowned daughters as Informa, IIR, Taylor & Francis, Lloyd’s and Euroforum. These commercial conference creators start their programme development with researching. Is this a good topic? If not, what really is a topic of interest? Is the subject still relevant by the date of the conference? What exactly needs to be discussed, how and by whom? In order to achieve this, they interview, first and foremost, the primary target group. Those are the people for whom you design the conference, for SUBSTANTIVE reasons, as a communication vehicle. They are the operators, users and “victims” of the topic.

Secondary target group

The so-called secondary target group is emphatically avoided in the research phase. After all, they consist of consultants, vendors and suppliers. They are also less interesting for research purposes because they do not come for content, but for each other and to pounce on the primary target group. The programme content hardly interests them at all; the breaks, exhibitions, drinks sessions and the evening programme all the more.
The primary target group, during the research, will usually show interest in the following types of content: research results, practical experiences, case studies, views on trends and developments, future expectations, pitfalls, do’s & don’ts and lessons learned. This list reveals that they want much more than scientific facts. They also want to hear what their own colleagues and other professional relations experience, believe and expect for the future. Thus, what-if questions are more interesting than simple explanations or information.


Now you may say, if you can already predict all that content, why must you still interview the primary target group? The answer is: because you can then hear about the current experts, case studies and specific angles. They might want to hear, for once, some financial and organisational experiences from an ordinary, average colleague, the experiences from patients, the lessons learned from a project, specific legal advice from a well-known top lawyer, the policy of a major insurer, experiences in a poor, developing country, the trending vision of a leading administrator.
Aren’t these things that a conference committee would not have thought of?