Conference overload and what does the sector really need from the events we attend?

Written by: Dr Adam Read | Published:
Dr Adam Read, practice director for resource efficiency & waste management @ Ricardo Energy & Environment

Each month, Dr Adam Read, practice director for resource efficiency & waste management @ Ricardo Energy & Environment, discusses the big issues from his point of view, and this month reflects on the ever increasing number of conferences, workshops and events in our sector and whether they really offer value for money.

I know the waste sector conference silly season starts in September and runs through to November, so many events to choose from, and undoubtedly something for everyone to enjoy. But it seems the silly season is running almost throughout the year, with a small break at Christmas and during the long school summer holidays) and there is hardly a day that goes by without me receiving a flyer through the post, an email or a phone call advertising a new event, or the 3rd annual gathering of X or Y.... it seems the calendar is more full than at any time in the last 25 years, and I am starting to wilt under the pressure.

Choosing the right ones?

So where should you start when deciding on what events to attend in the coming months?

First of all understand why you are attending... do you want to increase your knowledge, understand new regulations, appreciate best practice or learn from peers through case studies and more detailed analysis? Are you there to network, to share your ideas, or to develop new potential clients? When I first started out, events were attended by local authority officers looking to broaden their knowledge and experience, with some waste contractors and consultants in the mix.

Over time, and with austerity biting hard, the life of your average local authority officer is busier, with more day-to-day demand on their time, making the attendance at multiple events in any week or month harder than ever before. Now we see a much more balanced mix of consultants, waste contractors and local authorities, which may improve the quality of the debates, but might decrease the appeal of an event if you are looking to target prospective new clients.

Value for money?

Once you have identified the best handful of events to suit your needs, technical, geographical and temporal (the time of the year might impact the budget available and your availability after all) you need to consider the costs involved. The portfolio of conference costs are quite extraordinary from free webinars and briefings through to several thousand pounds for a full two-day event.

How can you decide what is going to best meet your needs and expectations and ultimately provide you with a suitable cost that you can take forward to get budget approval from your line manager or departmental head?

Take a closer look at the programme, and think long and hard about the number of speakers, the amount of discussion and networking time, and whether the slides might be available after the event for a smaller fee? If there is no real value in you being there in person why not buy the DVD/CD afterwards and suck up all the technical insights and case studies in the comforts of your own office /home?

I like events where there is plenty of breakout sessions to discuss in small groups key topics that arise from the keynote speakers, and I always prefer longer coffee and lunch breaks because that is when I can talk to my target clients and follow up with interesting people based on what I have seen and hear in each session.

But we all want different things from the events we attend, so you need to assess which ones will give you what you need at the best price, and then act on that by creating a business case for your line manager outlining the benefits for you, for the organisation and for them, plus an indication of why this event is better value than others being advertised. If you do your homework you are more likely to get your seat at LARAC, CIWM, RWM or a Recycling & Waste World event of your choice.

Making the experience work for you

Too many people go to conferences expecting to hear something new and to gain great new insights and are often disappointed. Perhaps it was the wrong event, perhaps the speakers were offering up nothing new and simply recycling the slide deck they gave at a previous event earlier in the year, or perhaps you haven’t planned well enough to get the most form the opportunity.

I like my staff to think hard about why they are going, as part of their business case to secure the budget, and by doing so they can identify the key sessions/papers/case studies they expect to learn from, the people they will be targeting to speak with, and the issues that they feel will benefit most from their attendance. So getting hold of a delegate list and working out else you could learn from over coffee/lunch will give you that added benefit that can take an event from C+ to B+ and leave you feeling far more positive about your day out.

I like to follow up with some of the speakers after the event, seeking more details on their examples, or asking clarification questions that could be addressed during the short workshop sessions. Most speakers are usually more than happy to answer these and provide additional reference materials, so be proactive and starting asking.

Finally, plan your day. You don’t want to arrive late and miss the key note session, nor do you want to be packing up to catch a train home just as the plenary panel debate is hotting up – these are the session you can often learn most from and are the ones that usually don’t have a slide deck available afterwards. So plan your day and be prepared to take notes in these sessions.

And which type of events are becoming most popular?

I think site visits and half day seminar programmes are becoming increasingly popular, a way to see a new technology/service/operation up close and to hear about the planning challenges, the budgeting, the communications and management associated with getting it up and running. This is why CIWM regional events still remain so popular today!

I also think multiple day events are dying a death because of the costs incurred, but also because of the time required away from the office. Perhaps only LARAC in my option can buck this trend because of the exceptional value for money they offer for their two-day event with gala dinner and excellent speakers. But LARAC is not a fully commercial body and is not trying to make the same profits that you would associate with the organisers behind the major/mainstream events that we all know and love. Which is why the trend towards video conferencing and webinars is also providing popular. I now attend far more of these than ever before, and with the ability to host an excellent focused session in only 60 or 90 minutes, and with delegates not having to leave their desks, no wonder we can get 100 delegates over lunch for our events on a regular basis.

Looking forward?

So with technology advancing I expect more and more webinar and virtual conferences/workshops to become more of the norm for the sector. They are cheap (or free) and require no time lost to travel – so a win-win. They will not however replace more traditional conferences, where the debate, face-to-face interaction, and a possible site visit are considered the main reasons for attending.

They will work together to satisfy the needs of the sector and the people who work in it. Just as the annual RWM show will retain its position at the forefront of showcasing all that is good and exciting about our sector, we will need a mix of local, cheap and easy access events to quench our thirst for knowledge, insights and exemplars.

But, don’t expect not to see me at the next big event, the Municipal Collections Conference in February, the London Conference in March, RWM next September or LARAC in October because I truly value the interactions, the coffee chats and the time spent with committed and passionate people who can help inspire me and those who work for me.

Thankfully conferences aren’t dead and won’t be for a long time to come, but I expect to see a thinning out of events in the next few years and an associated upsurge in site visits, shorter briefing and the afore-mentioned webinars. I hope to see you in a virtual event soon, and if you are interested in how they work then we are hosting a few in the coming months, so register here and see the benefits of bite sizes technical sessions first-hand.

Join Ricardo's free webinars organised in association with Simmons & Simmons

- Waste contract management: Wednesday, 15 February 11.00-12.00

- 2017 Changes to the EIA Regulations - what you need to know, 23 February

- Incentives update - Contracts for Difference and reforms to the RHI: 16 March

- Preventing and successfully resolving disputes in the waste industry: 11 April

- Landfill Tax evasion by landfill operators and the new offence of facilitation: 24 April

For more details about Ricardo's free webinars, visit

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