9 Points to remember while planning a conference

By Abhik Dutta

Or, how to avoid doing the Dandiya on Awards night..

Planning a conference for your company is an exciting task full of responsibility and fun and yet fraught with unknown danger. You are accosted at the lift, staircase, cabin, corridor, canteen, car park, toilet (yes, no place is safe for you anymore) by your colleagues with the common refrain “Guru, kidhar le ja rahe ho isbaar?” or “Boss, Lonavala mat leke jana” or “ Lets go to Rio yaar.” or finally, “Pichle baar jaisa 3 star hotel mein mat rakhna. Kuch luxury 5 star hona chahiye, na?” You roll your eyes and go to your Boss’ cabin. “Boss, budget kitna hai isbaar?” “Same as last year, less 10%.” “ Kaise hoga Boss..inflation, rising currency, business class entitlements for seniors..” The Boss looks up from his laptop and says, “Matsagandha Chinnappa, pls manage karo, yaar. And this year no Thailand. Plan for Europe,” and goes back to his laptop screen. You turn to leave and his trailing words catch you, “Isbaar, entertainment has to be better than last year, Chinnappa. Get a belly dancer, a female Bollywood item number or Mika, not that joker who made cup cakes on stage last year and thought it was magic and made us look like idiots. Logon ko maja ana chahiye. Jashn mangta hai. Otherwise, you will have to do dandiya on the stage, huh, Chinnappa?” You mutter something inaudible. Suddenly you look older. The burden of expectation can be daunting.

But help is at hand. Here are 9 basic things you and your Organising Committee (OC) need to remember to avoid doing the Dandiya. It will make the process smoother, help you match budgets with expectation, make you choose the right destination and hotel at the right price and maybe, just maybe, you can get that Bollywood item number for your Boss after all. (For Mika, you have to slog much harder and achieve the targets many times over).

Point No.1: The Season

This is critical. Some questions you need to ask are..Is it a good time to visit the place? If its the rainy season in the area, would you get stuck in the hotel all the time or will there be enough interesting things to do there? Is it the hottest month? Will the cold be unbearable for most of the delegates travelling to Moscow in winter? If its offseason, are you getting excellent rates?

Point No. 2: Visas

How easy is it to get a visa? Documents, time taken etc. If you are planning a trip to Europe for eg, and a lot of your Sales staff are first time travellers out of India and are based in smaller towns, you have to consider the fact that they maybe called for an interview to the Consulate in Delhi, Mumbai etc. So, additional cost of airfare and stay for them during the interview process has to be budgetted for. If they are upcountry dealers who are not well travelled with a terrible balance sheet and no IT returns, there could be high chances of rejection if their paperwork is not in order. Consider other issues like..How expensive is it to get a visa? How long is it taking to get a visa? Is the consulate notorious for visa rejections?

Point No.3: Flights

Have you checked the connectivity to the location from the delegates’ flying hubs in India? Eg, if the sales person or dealer is based in Itarsi, you have to get him to Mumbai or Delhi or Kolkata. But first, you have to get him to Nagpur or Bhopal..additional costs there. Have you checked the entire duration right from dep from India to arrival at the destination airport? This is very important, specially if they have travelled all night long or more and you are planning a conference on the day of arrival. The snores in the conference hall can drown out your welcome speech!

Have you checked flight availability and fares? If its peak season, the fares could be sky high and impact your overall budget adversely.

If VIP’s are on the flight, does it have a Business class/First Class in all sectors?

Point No.4: Fairs and festivals

Have you checked if your dates coincide with a fair or festival in that country? (Good source could be the tourism website)

Eg, rates are high in many cities like Istanbul or Moscow in May due to congress (conference) season. Or in Munich during Octoberfest; or in host cities for sporting events like F1, football tournaments, medical conferences, industrial expos etc. Or like in Bangkok, they are low during Songkran (mid-April) but high in Chiang Mai.

Point No.5: Indian food

Will the delegates demand Indian food on the trip? Can the hotel provide Indian food?

Is it easy to get a reputed Indian restaurant that can accommodate your group size?

How convenient is the location of your hotel from the Indian restaurant? How expensive is it? Eg, The Wanderers once took a group of 40 pax to Rovaniemi, in the Arctic Circle in Finland. The place had only 1 Indian restaurant with a capacity of exactly 40 covers. Had our group been larger or if the restaurant refused to accommodate our group as it could have impacted their regular local diners, we could have been in a spot of bother as the group primarily demanded Indian food and yet wanted to be in Roveniemi during the summer Solstice! Similarly, last year we took a group to Prague. While the city had many Indian restaurants, our day trip to Karlovy Vary was a challenge. Again the group of 80 pax demanded Indian food and we were lucky to get hold of the lone Indian restaurant there which had a 40 seater restaurant. So, we had to manage the sightseeing to ensure that Group 2 came 90mins after Group 1 left as the restaurant owner cum manager cum cook (!) needed 90mins as turn around time to cook and serve!

Point No.6: Shopping and nightlife

This is perhaps a top reason for destination selection these days. Is it a good place for shopping? Not high street stuff, but regular souvenirs? What we have realised over the years is that ‘most’ Indian MICE (jargon for conference) groups don’t go shopping for luxury brands. They go shopping in kilos. “Bhar-bhar ke khajana le jana hai” is how one traveller puts it. Average shopping spend of Euro 100-200 should get him/her 1 suitcase full of rubbish to last 3months at home or till his wife finds the same at Lucky Stores, whichever is earlier. And if its Bangkok or Dubai, your waiting period at the baggage belt just gets longer as the Samsung LED’s wind their way through belt traffic!

Is it renowned for its nightlife? If the city does not have a good nightlife, then Chinaappa and his Boss are doomed. Self inflicted dandiyas would be the only way out for some companies. Further, you don’t want to get marooned on ‘castaway’ island with a bunch of high testosterone spewing studs. Not a good sign for Chinnappa. So do your homework well and if the group is mostly men, you may want to vote in favour of a Prague over Salzburg.

Point No.7: Safety

You are travelling with company employees or business partners (dealers, distributors, doctors etc) and you are ‘responsible’ for their general safety, so you might want to junk Lebanon or Somalia till the situation improves a bit. You have to be careful with a place that has a history of violence, strikes, terrorism associated with it. No point in planning everything for a mega conference and then a bomb explodes in that place followed by multiple explosions in your office cubicle right under your chair. “Who asked you to plan the trip to this place you moron, you $%^&*@? Weren’t you following the news over the last one month, Chinnappa?” (Note: The Boss doesnt follow the news. He IS the news.)

Also, what is the safety record of the destination specially wrt Indians? Any major hate crime incidents in the city of late? Are they antagonistic to Indians? What about safety for women specially after dark?

Point no. 8: Your travel partner

Do you have a good travel partner in place? Are they tried and tested? What is their record with your company in delivering great conferences? In case you are trying out a new partner, do a thorough background check. Seek references. Speak to the OC of the other companies with whom they have worked. Maybe your company standards for delivery are far higher than the companies the agency has worked for. Or maybe the conference you are planning is far more complex than the agency is used to organising. How important are the delegates? If they are junior staff, the success or failure of a trip may not have any impact on your business. But if you are taking people who are an integral part of your business, you cant afford to be callous in your delivery. It could have severe repercussions on your business. And the OC could just end up looking silly. Remember, the onus of organising a great conference rests with the OC. You want to look good in the eyes of the CEO at the end of it.

Point No. 9: Budget

Do align the budget with the destination. And more importantly, people’s expectations with the budget. If your Boss expects you to fit in last years Bangkok budget into this years Amsterdam budget, you have to display all the skills of a courteous traffic sergeant to guide him to the nearest door. Some things you have to consider are..Is it overall a reasonably priced destination? Can I get a good 4 star instead of a 5 star? Can we go to East Europe instead of West Europe and save 20%? Can we look for a good quality hotel which may not have the best location instead of a city centre hotel which is more expensive and thus save a bit? In some places it may make sense while in some it could just be such a bad idea, specially if public transport from there to city centre is limited at night and the place is unsafe or private transport is too expensive.

Are you getting good rates from hotels and airlines? Remember, the adage ‘the early bird catches the worm’ holds true here as well. Starting early gives you the pricing edge. We recommend a good 4-5 month early start for an important conference. The rate saved could buy the group an additional 2 hours of unlimited booze on the gala dinner night plus some excitement thrown in. And if you know that you have a conference every year in Feb, then why wait for New Years to get over to start planning? Hotel rooms and airline seats are perishable commodities. They cant produce more. So, as they start filling up, airlines and hotels start jacking up the rates. Further, dont just base your budget on a basic rate that includes acco, airfares, visas, meals, sightseeing. Gala dinners, evening entertainment, booze, permits, additional transport, gifts, AV equipment, stage, lights etc must be budgetted for as well. In India they are the cheapest. But outside India they will form a substantial part of the budget.

I might as well add the 10th point here. So, here goes..

Point No. 10: “Apple to apple comparison” for a quote

This is where you need to get the magnifying glass out. You have asked a few agencies for a quote for a 3 night trip to Prague. They all come back with a quote ranging from Euro 400 to Euro 600 per person. You reject the ones closer to Euro 600. According to you all have quoted for the foll:

3 nights stay in a 5 star hotel on twin share

Airport transfers by coach

Full day conference with lunch and 2 tea/coffee breaks

Gala dinner with 2 hrs free flow of local liquor and snacks

Lunch and dinners as specified in the itinerary in local Indian restaurant

Sightseeing trip with shopping break

Airfares and visas

All applicable taxes

According to me, they haven’t. Here’s why?

  • 3 nights stay in a 5 star hotel on twin share (Which hotel? Sheraton City centre or the one near the airport? What kind of 5 star? Sheraton is a 5 star, so is the St. Regis. But both have a qualitative difference with the latter being more expensive. What room category? One has given standard rooms on the lower floors facing the garden, the other has given higher floors with river views- thats a price difference)

  • Airport transfers by coach (Have they quoted for 1 single transfer or will they organise transfers throughout the day aligning with the different flights your delegates are coming by? What is the quality of the coach? On the last day, will they give just an airport transfer or are they OK with a shopping break as well? is water in the coaches included?)

  • Full day conference with lunch and 2 tea/coffee breaks (one agency has given a small room with theatre style seating while the other has given you the largest ballroom to accommodate your group in cluster style seating and has built in the cost of the ballroom hire ‘coz thats what your company desires. One has given you an entry level local lunch while the other has figured out that its an Indian group so added a couple of dishes from outside resulting in a higher cost)

  • Gala dinner with 2 hrs free flow of local liquor and snacks (one has given you a local restaurant for the gala dinner, the other has opted for the same 5 star hotel or a chic venue with applicable higher costs; as far as ‘local’ liquor is concerned, you might as well drain it down the Bosphorous. Your boys may drink Officers Choice in India, but abroad its “Black Label please.” The other agent may have considered that. For snacks one may have considered local snacks which are cheaper compared to the more expensive outside catering from an Indian restaurant given by the other).

  • Lunch and dinners as specified in the itinerary in local Indian restaurant (As you read the itinerary carefully, you will notice that you arrive at noon on Day 1 and leave at midnight on Day 4. While one agent starts with dinner on day 1 and ends with breakfast on Day 4, the other has quoted for an itinerary that starts with lunch on Day 1 and ends with dinner on Day 3. Thats 3 meals extra. In Europe its a min. Euro 15 per head or Eur 45 for 3 meals (approx Rs. 4000 pp). You cant let your boys go hungry, so you will have to eventually pay. Further, some Indian restaurants pass off as a langar in most places, so check what you have got. A langar or a near-fine dining experience. Next, ask for the menu. One gives you 1 non-veg item and 1 gulab jamun, the other gives you 2 non veg and 2 desserts. Check if thats okay with you or it means an increased cost as well).

  • Sightseeing trip with shopping break (A full day sightseeing trip in Phuket is cheaper than a full day trip by speedboat to Phang Nga Bay, though both are full day trips. Similarly, a full day tour in Prague is cheaper than a full day trip to Karlovy Vary or Cesky Krumlov. Not all Coral island trips in Pattaya are the same. While one attracts 90% tourists and is insanely pedestrian and is thus the cheapest, there are excellent spots around the island that offer exclusivity and a cleaner environment that you may want to consider, though it comes with a higher price tag. Dig deeper. Find out whats the difference).

  • Airfares and visas (Here’s a chance for another bloomer. You don’t want to fly your jet-setting business partners in a low cost airline that goes via half the world to reach a place that has direct flight connections just because it was 3 grands cheaper. Also check the flight connections. No point reaching late evening on Day 1 and departing at 6am on Day 3 because you saved the 3 grands. Why go at all, if all you saw was the insides of airports, airplanes, coaches, hotel rooms and conference hall? Choose your airline well. Aim for quality and connectivity. It always pays in the long run)

  • All applicable taxes (It should mean ‘all’ including the Govt Service Tax of 3.09%)

    Each of the above have price differences. And that could be the difference between Euro 400 and Euro 600. When you add up some of the compulsory elements of the Euro 600 quote, you will find the Euro 400 goes upto Euro 625 pp. ‘Apple to Apple comparison’ is a common phrase but its also the most misunderstood one. You have to dig deeper and find out where the difference lies. If a price is too good to be true, it probably is!

Thats enough food for thought. Armed with these ‘nuggets of wisdom’, dive headlong into planning a conference for your company. Its great fun if planned properly and well in advance. I am sure you will love the challenge and excitement of organising one. And who knows, Matsagandha Chinnappa, you might well be on your way to being the next Rajni Sir in your company.

And in the process, you can give those Dandiya classes a miss..

Call The Wanderers on 2267023377 or askus@thewanderers.co.in to plan your next conference.

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