What Isn’t Going On In Your Conference Committee!

Meeting room stencil graffiti

I understand what is going on in most annual conference committees: personal agendas, conference schedule deadlines, speaker favorites, leaders seeking control, volunteers posturing for their own ideas and power.

What I struggle to comprehend is what isn’t going on.

What Isn’t Happening

It seems to me that annual conference committee volunteers should be serving the organization’s whole customer base. That includes potential customers and non-customers as well.

But I don’t see the annual conference committee paying any attention to the ordinary Jane or Joe customer. Or those that have been in the industry more than 10 years and whom the burden of economic instability is unjustly falling. Or the young professionals who, except for techies, see a gloomy future.

I don’t see the annual conference committee strategically identifying major industry issues and mapping conference content to them. Or focusing on those that are struggling with best practices that fit a specific historical time and that are now out of context. Or allowing those that want to ask others how they navigated rough waters successfully and instead insisting that they must sit quietly in sessions.

What about them?

None of the battles over which speaker or topic is better for the conference will actually touch them, except to make their experience even worse.

That doesn’t strike me as wise or adequate leadership.

Isn’t It Time?

Annual conference committee members, isn’t it time that you get to know your organization’s audience better?

Isn’t it time for you to put aside your personal preferences and think about what’s in the best interest of Jane and Joe Conference Participant?

Isn’t it time for you to step off of your self-made pedestal and admit that you do not understand good presentation skills, adult learning techniques and what audiences want from their speakers?

Isn’t it time to speak up and acknowledge that you don’t know what qualifies for a good education session?

Isn’t it time for your choices to undergo the scrutiny of tough evaluations and whether your decisions attracted new markets?

Isn’t it time for you to say that all you know is what you personally like and that probably doesn’t resonate with the majority of our conference participants?

The World Evolved. Did You?

Annual conference committee (and conference organizer), the world around you has changed. Unfortunately, you have not changed with it.

You have clung to old ways long after they have stopped working. Betting the farm on the way your conference has always run. Using the same schedule every year instead of diversifying your conference offerings. Looking inward at your own personal tastes and not seeing the needs and problems outside of your realm. Fighting over personal favorites that really don’t matter to most conference participants anyway.

We could think about those shortcomings. But the shortcomings aren’t the issue.

The process is broke and needs to change. We need to realize that our one- or two-year term on this committee is actually a hindrance to the conference success. We need to acknowledge what we don’t know and let experts do their job! We need to start advising about big picture issues and get out of the conference content planning business!

Don’t you think?

What would you tell the volunteers of the annual conference committee today? What do we need to change to transition from the old industrial revolution thinking of completing tasks to a twenty-first century thinking of a strategic approach?

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  1. For planners who’ve not yet read it, I recommend the Association Forum’s white paper, “What is the Purpose of Associations?”

    Case in point:
    I gave 2 of the same keynotes: one to a large association audience and the same to a smaller. Surprisingly, the *large* association/crowd scored relevance of my speech higher than the smaller. In fact the smaller audience was a complete mismatch. Why?

    First, both committees were given my name by referral. Both committees were not under time constraints to make a decision. But the smaller made too many assumptions.

    The smaller assumed that my content was a match (w/ audience needs) based on the referral of the larger group. They assumed that the referral PLUS a speaker who promised an honestly different viewpoint (set of answers) for a burning problem was certain joy.

    It’s a shame because after spending time w/ the smaller association I discovered how *far* more in touch with members they were. And how *far* more capable they were in pulling off an honestly fun yet worthwhile (take-aways-a-plenty) event. And (based on my discussions w/ both groups’ members) how members were getting *far* more value out of their membership as compared to the larger association.

    Jeff, you’re Isn’t It Time section can be flipped around in a way to help association staff (who need to set directive) & committees who suffer from budget and time constraints. What better conferences? Ask better questions…

    1) What are you doing to make sure your committee is getting to know the organization’s audience better? Who are you selecting and why?

    2) How can you structure (what can you say, do, suggest to) committee meetings that assure personal preferences are set aside? How can you “gently encourage” (force?) everyone to think about the best interest of Jane and Joe Conference Participant? What specific ways of interacting can produce this?

    3) How can you encourage members that do not understand good presentation skills, adult learning techniques and what audiences want from their speakers to WILLINGLY SAY SO… without making them look stupid? (so you can move on!)

    4) How can you vet your choices — force them to undergo the scrutiny of tougher evaluations? How can you define “tougher” in ways that resonate w/ member goals?

    Just my two cents 🙂

  2. William says:


    Oh, Jeff. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen speakers adding sessions just so they can get a friend (or relative) on the programme. I even had one committee member joining the committee and then suggesting a set of roadshows, that she would run and for a fee of £1500 a day. Shameless.

    Here’s a couple of paragraphs from my book “successful Events for Not For Profit Organisations”.

    Managing your Committees

    An active and engaged Committee can help enormously in the event process if handled properly, however, the involvement of a Committee or a volunteer panel in an event can also not only slow the process down but can seriously damage the event. It’s a tricky balance.

    A Committee’s involvement should be limited to a pure advisory role. In some organisations Committees ask to see budgets; want to set prices; try to decide on duration; dates and the location of events. Sometimes I wonder why the organisation has a specialist events team in place if these decisions are allowed to be made by a Committee? However intelligent and experienced the professionals on it may be, the Committee invariably lacks a single person with any event experience or event management qualifications.

    Politics and the cultural make up of an organisation will determine the role that Committees have in your events and the wider commercial area. In most not for profit organisations they have a role to play in the event process, and as a senior manager you must have a say on how much they can manipulate the process. The organisation’s commercial eye has to look at every process, including the role of a Committee.

    An alternative to the reliance on Committees for content is to develop a close relationship between the events team and a member within a policy type role. In this environment the events team are creating and managing events themselves but work closely with the ‘in-house’ expert. This relationship tends to be easier to manage and the planning of the event normally moves much quicker, and has a greater chance of achieving more of the objectives than the organisations in which a Committees or volunteers have an unruly element of control.

    I came up with a five point plan to manage committees. I might use that as the basis for my next blog.

  3. Amber Kelleher says:

    We have been experimenting with a new format for our kick-off planning committee meeting, which we are fortunate enough to hold face-to-face with committee members. We put together a list of “unusual” questions (What are your kids into? What books did you read last year? What images come to mind when you think about HostCity/Country? How have the conversations with your customers/vendors changed in the past 12-18 months?). Then, we sit back and listen as knowledge gaps and new ideas bubble to the surface. It may not work for everyone, but we’re enjoying a different approach.

  4. William…
    Wow. Many thanks. I’m so glad to have made my way to Jeff’s blog. I’m getting lost in all the useful comments here. I should say, I’m meeting some really smart people with useful experiences to share. Cheers.

  5. William says:

    Here’s my related Blog.


    I will track down the paper Jeff recommends.

  6. I will certainly email it to anyone who requests! Just hit my site’s Contact form and I’ll bounce it to you. I’m not sure if Association Forum is making it available online.

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