Pack your skis, it's conference time

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The Independent Online
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.