Meetings

When to Consider Shortening a Conference

By / Dec 13, 2018 (Freer Law/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Does some of the reasoning experts give for compressed workdays also apply to multiday events? Some things to think about before making a cut.

There is lots of talk in every workplace about how to help employees improve their work-life balance. Some ways to do that include telecommuting, flexible schedules, and even shorter working hours.

That last strategy is something Amazon has been talking about since it announced in 2016 that it would pilot a 30-hour workweek. And just this week, a Harvard Business Review article made the case for a six-hour workday, arguing that it would not only increase employees’ productivity but also improve their mental state and give them more time for rest, friends and family, and other activities.

As I was reading the HBR article during my commute the other morning, my initial reaction is probably similar to one you may be having now: “Wow, a six-hour workday. I want that.” But then I began to consider where the same argument could be applied outside the workplace. One area that popped into my mind was the length of conferences.

For attendees, being at your conference often involves some kind of sacrifice that’s usually time- or money-related. It’s time away from work and family and friends. For attendees who are working parents, there could be additional childcare costs involved, and for those paying their own way, there are hotel stays and meal expenses that add up. Those are just some of the reasons why an association might consider shortening a multiday conference.

Take the Canadian Bar Association, which reimagined its annual general meeting (AGM) in 2017. The biggest change: It shortened what had been a three-day meeting to one day.

In addition, members who couldn’t get to the one-day event in Montreal could go to one of about 20 hubs across the country, all linked electronically, to watch AGM and participate remotely.

In an interview with Canadian Lawyer magazine, CBA President Kerry Simmons said the three-day event, which was held more recently over weekends, was no longer practical for members. “We were seeing the numbers decline,” she said.

When CBA asked its members why they weren’t attending, many cited time away from family, while others focused on the costs involved.

“From a business perspective, traveling to come to the annual meeting for three days, it was not a priority for spending. [Members] said they would rather attend local conferences focused on their area of law,” she said.

Of course, the decision to shorten a conference isn’t a one that any association should make hastily. But if, like CBA, you’re starting to see a decline in numbers—whether in terms of attendance or attendee satisfaction—now’s the time to ask your members why that is and what can be done to make your conference a can’t-miss event for them once again.

If a significant amount of that feedback reveals that attendees think your conference is too long, consider what elements could be compressed or eliminated. And also keep in mind that shortening an event may have some of the same benefits that experts say a compressed workday brings employees: more engagement and satisfaction.

How would you determine if it’s time to shorten the length of one of your conferences? Please tell us about it in the comments.

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now. More »

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