Pack your skis, it's conference time

Share
Related Topics
IT'S conference time. Or rather it is party conference time, because the whole year seems to be conference time these days.

Organising conferences has become one of the great growth industries of the late 20th century. Any city wanting to revitalise itself does not now build factories; it builds a conference centre. Belfast and Edinburgh are both building one. Any academic wanting to push an idea presents it first at a conference. And any international body worth its salt will organise at least one conference a year, preferably in some exotic location.

Why the boom? A generation or more ago, not only were conferences much rarer, they were usually non-commercial ventures with a specific purpose. The aim was to settle the boundaries at the end of a war or to agree policy for a political party. Now, the majority of conferences are either grand conventions at which 'delegates' mingle and where the actual function is very hard to discern. Or they are narrow commercial enterprises on subjects such as 'new developments in the derivatives market' to which people's employers send them.

There are at least three reasons behind the growth - all of which say something about the changes taking place in the world in which we live.

First, there is the conference as media event. The media has become a more important element in society than it was a generation ago (though not perhaps as important as is sometimes claimed), and one way of capturing attention is to create some theatre. Thus a few years ago when the CBI realised that the TUC's annual conference generated a vast amount of publicity, it started its own conference as a counterweight.

Grand international conferences have the effect of focusing media attention on a subject: witness the Cairo conference on world population, just ended. There was no need for a conference to agree a pretty unremarkable statement of intent on population control - the deal such as it was could have been done by phone and fax. Nor was any information presented that could not have been circulated in the usual way. But the fact that there was a grand conference helped to gain publicity for the issues.

Once an annual conference is known to be a platform for interesting ideas, the media will flock to it. The British Association always comes up trumps in that way, with last week's prize entry the delicious story about the similarities between stress levels in baboons and civil servants: high status baboons, like top civil servants, suffer very little stress despite their responsibilities, while those at the bottom of both heaps worry their tails off. Great story - but if it had simply been published in some journal we might not have noticed. Party conferences are now packaged as theatre (sometimes unintentionally so) for the media.

The second reason for the boom in conferences is that they offer a reward for toilers. People seek different forms of gratification. In the case of party conferences the reward is the buzz, the feeling of being near the centre of power, the ability of the delegate to return to home base and tell colleagues that he or she was able to make a point with the minister or report on how tired/vibrant the leader looked.

In worlds outside politics the reward is more specific: the weekend at the country hotel or the international resort, complete with programme for spouses. (Some readers might recall that I wrote a couple of columns from Colorado last year. I'm afraid that I did not confess at the time that I was only there because my spouse had been invited to present a paper at the seriously upmarket Aspen Institute.)

North America, Europe and Japan all have different reasons for offering people the conference as reward, instead of the more obvious ones of paying them more money or giving them more time off. In North America the conference is typically a substitute for holiday. Because executives only get two weeks off, companies have created a plethora of incentives and attractions which involve a week at a resort hotel. You go to the convention with your golf clubs.

In Europe we have longer holidays, but we have also had until recently much higher marginal tax rates. One of the ways a company here can reward executives is by sending them to glitzy conferences, which - as well as their central purpose - also happen to take place in resorts that even senior executives could not easily afford out of post-tax income. The most successful conference in Europe is the Davos Symposium, which is structured to leave mid-day clear for the slopes.

Japanese practice combines both very short holidays and high tax rates. Large companies not only have their own hotels at the hot spring spas and ski resorts, but send their employees to compulsory conferences in Hawaii.

But these two factors, media and reward, would not alone account for the growth of the business. There is a third reason which, I suspect, is the most important of all. It is that the world economy is developing in such a way that people need to communicate far more widely in order to do their jobs well.

Professional jobs are becoming very complex, and anyone doing them needs to find ways of meeting other people in a similar field to improve performance. In manufacturing it is relatively easy to see what others are doing: you buy their products and take them to bits to see how they are made. Manufacturers learn from each other in this way. You cannot do that with services: with a hospital, a securities firm or a finance ministry. So anyone in a senior position in these business has to find ways of meeting others who face similar problems: their peers in other companies or countries. A conference is often the only way such people can meet.

There is also a need for people in one discipline to meet people of a similar level in others. A generation ago a firm needed to have vertical relations; that is, with suppliers and with customers. Now it needs horizontal ones as well. It must communicate with government departments, regulators, Brussels bureaucrats, the press, City analysts, pressure groups and so on. These people do not normally meet, and while formal links can be established, this is time-consuming and sometimes embarrassing. The conference that manages to mix senior people together in an informal atmosphere and on neutral ground is gold dust.

Besides, conferences can be fun. I'm off to Oxford next week and Madrid the week after. I shall, naturally, file a full report.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Patrick Cockburn: Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on