Conference comfort zones

Conference comfort zones

It seems as if the hotel industry conference season now lasts the entire year, with a little time off for Christmas and for a spot of sunbathing in high summer. I don’t think that there have ever before been so many conferences, many of them pretty much focused on the same topics and presented by the same speakers. 

I realize that most delegates do not attend these events in the expectation of learning anything new from the speakers. Instead, they are there to network, relieve themselves of as many business cards as possible and shake hands with the handful of people who might represent the next business opportunity. In fact, I do remember suggesting years ago that an honest and courageous conference planner would organize a conference without any sessions at all — just coffee and tea breaks with lunches, dinners and receptions. The delegates from this conference would return to their offices with as much new and relevant knowledge learned from chatting with their colleagues as they would ever extract and remember from a staged panel discussion involving men in suits where all the creases have been carefully ironed out in advance.

The disappointment for me of almost all conferences is that they fail to generate real debate; they also fail to break down the barriers between the various professional groups that each contribute in their differing ways to the success of our industry. Take, for example, a typical hotel investment conference. Naturally, it focuses on the financial health of the marketplace, on where to develop, how to increase the value of the hotel asset and other worthy topics. But where are the architects, designers and engineers in this forum? Certainly, when it comes to increasing the value of the hotel asset, improving operations or enhancing the guest experience, architects, designers and engineers have at least as much to say as bankers, economists and property agents.

Having been involved as an organizer myself in the early Sleep Event conferences in London, I don’t underestimate the challenge of inducing people out of their professional comfort zones to engage with others. This is a shame not only because it makes the conference experience stale and boringly repetitious, but also because an opportunity to re-appraise one’s own notions and change attitudes and opinions is lost.