John Addis

The conference circuit can become a vicious cycle. Solve one conference problem here, and you could win a free subscription to SmartCompany.

So, you think you’re smart, eh?

Here’s a problem to which there’s an elegant, simple solution. Solve it and a free subscription to SmartCompany Premium, is yours.

Ever received one of those glossy brochures from a conference company? They’re often on subjects that, for a time, become fashionable in business circles: TQM, business process re-engineering, managing teams, all that sort of stuff.

You can pay upwards of $2000 to attend one of these events but, amazingly, the speakers present for free. Hit the right market with the right material and it can be an amazingly profitable business.

But the sector’s attraction is also its downfall. Anyone can produce a conference. A desk, a computer, a phone and a few grand to get the thing to market is all you really need. When people saw how well the established companies were doing — and these people tended to be employees of those companies — some left to set up their own shop.

It was a textbook case of what economists term “excess profits” attracting new entrants. Supply expanded, prices fell and everyone had to work that much harder to stay alive.

Enter a small but established conference company based in Sydney. This was its problem, similar to those faced by everyone else in the industry: Conference producers put the events together by speaking to various “experts” within the niche they were targeting. They would develop the basic two-day program, work out how the subject would be addressed, the number of case studies to be used and the format for panel discussions etc. Then came the difficult bit: finding 16 speakers to fill the program.

Before the additional competition had entered the market, the entire process would usually take about two weeks. Sometime after the new entrants had arrived, that figure almost doubled.

You see, all the speakers on a particular topic were already speaking at someone else’s event. Production costs were out of control, and what had been a very attractive, profitable industry was barely making money at all.

You may already have some idea as to how this company should respond, but I’m going to make it difficult for you (Amanda doesn’t give away subscriptions for nothing). So here are two strategies you can discount.

The first concerns poaching staff from competitor companies. Some organisations, realising that the very best conference producers could ameliorate the problem of lengthy production times, lured staff with higher pay.

As a result, the salaries for conference producers went up and everyone was back where they began. It wasn’t a solution.

The second approach involved extra resources being spent on discovering conference topics not previously covered. But as soon as they found one, their competitors jumped in, developing the subject matter and flooding the market with copycat programs a few months later.

The whole sector began to resemble something that previously only existed in the minds of economists; a perfectly competitive market. Everyone was making enough to stay alive but not enough to prosper.

So the answer to the conundrum wasn’t either of these two strategies. Any ideas yet? Send them to and if you come up with the strategy that was adopted, or something better, you’ll get a free subscription to SmartCompany Premium, valued at $198.

Next week, we’ll give you the answer, but here’s a hint to get you started: It was a very simple technological solution.


James Manche writes:  Response to the conundrum….Introduce a closed loop web enabled communications solution that facilitates all communications between registrants / attendees-speakers / presenters and event organisers. Value adding to the product “event / conference” captures the audience for each event. Value adding to a product in most verticle markets provides the single most powerful competitive advantage.



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