Mid-Autumn brings with it the most beautiful of scenes and sounds – none of them sweeter than the sight of the mad party conference procession disappearing into the sunset for another year.  “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, as Keats almost wrote, “When barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, and touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue; when memory erases the dancing May, and Labour’s Brexit shambles too.”

What every conference-going public affairs type really needs now is several days off work, and a meal with some fresh vegetables in it. So it seems almost cruel to suggest that now is the time to start planning for next year’s slog, even as immune systems do battle with the conference cold. If the very idea of it has you spluttering into your Lemsip, just hear me out.

Most conference events aren’t very good

The truth is that most fringe events aren’t very good. In fact, a lot of them are rubbish. Sorry.

Party conferences still attract corporate lobbyists because they offer the opportunity to convene the right individuals in one place at the right time. Subject them to the right messages, and you win for your organisation a good chance of shaping the political conversation on your chosen issue. (For what it’s worth, I thought that Sky’s tie-up with the newly fashionable IPPR think tank to deliver panel discussions in both Liverpool and Birmingham on digital policy this year set a fine example: stellar casts, incisive questions, carefully framed.)

But a good chunk of these party conference events fall short. They bring together the right people but ask them the wrong questions, or ask the right questions of the wrong people, or ask the right people the right questions – but at 8am, which is, quite obviously, the wrong time.

This happens because nobody wants to contemplate conference for months after the last cycle has finished, by which time it’s too late: too late to secure the budget, too late to book a good room, too late to find the right speaker. Painful though it is, looking ahead now will save time, money and precious brain-power. You’ll be thankful later.

Here are a few considerations to help you get started.

Why are you doing this?

There are plenty of bad reasons to run a conference event: because everybody else is doing it, because you have budget to use up, because that is what lobbyists do. Deciding to run an event and then working out which of your strategic objectives it meets is the wrong way around. You should be able to sum up in one sentence what the aim is before you start, and progress from there.

Remember that you don’t have to do something at conference. They say that one of the great advantages is that everybody with a stake in policy-making is gathered in one location, as if Parliament hadn’t been fulfilling this function for a millennium. You can always do it in Westminster.

What’s it going to look like?

Format matters. Ask yourself again what you want to achieve. If you’re after a frank, honest conversation with your stakeholders, you’ll probably get more out of a private dinner on the sidelines than the classic panel discussion and Q&A format. If your aim is to get a message to as many politicians as possible, consider taking a stall at the ‘exhibition’ – a sort of lobbyists’ maze, which Ministers and MPs are obliged by head office to navigate over the course of the conference.

When’s it going to be?

When are you going to hold your event? Avoid early mornings at all costs – you won’t fill the room. Remember that in the early afternoons and early evenings big names will be off enjoying private lunches and dinners. The prime slots – mid-morning and mid-afternoon for fringe conversations, after dinner for receptions – are more costly, so if you need to win the budget from management, start building your case now. By late Spring next year, the best options will be blanketed with bookings, like German beach towels on the prize deckchairs.

It’s also worth taking the time to check in with other organisations operating in your space. Are they planning anything? It’s so exasperating to see two (sometimes three!) promising events on the same subject scheduled for the same slot, on the same day. Pencilling in ‘How can the party win back young voters?’ at the same time as ‘Young voters: how can the party win them back?’ is a great way to halve your attendance.

Who’s coming?

The first rule of conference is that if an event promises ‘the Foreign Secretary (invited)’, the Foreign Secretary isn’t coming. And if a Minister or their Opposition counterpart isn’t coming, neither is your audience. Political stardust is the difference between a navel-gazing industry wonkathon and an agenda-setting policy forum. It’s not excessive to start putting out feelers six months in advance.

If you opt for a panel event, you’ll need a competent chair too. Not just a passive moderator to maintain the running order: you need somebody who can cut short rambling speakers, ask probing questions of their own, and swiftly shut down the chap (it is invariably a chap) in the audience who interjects with ‘more of a statement than a question…’

Plan early, plan often

If all this makes you wonder whether it’s really worth it, well, good. You should wonder. But if the answer is yes, it is worth it, then go for it. Properly conceived, conference events represent great bang for your buck. There are very few cheaper or more efficient means to ‘shift the needle’ on specific policy, as the jargon has it.

So get stuck in. When the great bandwagon emerges over the horizon to lay waste again to the UK’s conference centres, you’ll be ready for it.

thomas newham
Thomas Newham

Tom Newham is based in APCO Worldwide’s London office and works across public affairs and corporate communications, having previously worked in PR and government relations roles in the alcoholic beverages industry. Read More