I used to worry than there was more active culture in yogurt than at many a conference I’ve attended and May’s ICN Conference in Melbourne did nothing to help. (see my review here). It amazes me that people at conferences are STILL talking about it months later. Sadly, ICN 2013 has become a yardstick for all of the wrong reasons.

Four conferences in the last 2 months have changed my mind. First, I declare an interest as I was an invited speaker at each of them, but I’m leaving myself aside in this review….
The ANMF Victoria, conference in Melbourne, ACN’s ‘National Nursing Forum’ in Canberra, ACNP’s ‘Nurse Practitioners across the lifespan’ Conference in Hobart and the ANEC Nurse Educators conference in Wellington were absolute gems and for many of the same reasons, so ‘Listen up’ conference committees!

Hospitality? You’re Welcome:

As nurses, whether we like the term or not, we are in the hospitality and human relationships business. A big part of what we do is make people welcome. These conferences were among the most welcoming and friendly events I’ve attended in some time. That’s a skill and it is the result of people working at it. It doesn’t happen by accident.

The ANMF conference was at the same venue as May’s ICN but a world apart in engagement, ‘buzz’ and that intangible but utterly creatable ‘Conference feelgood factor’. I make no apology for harping on about food and hospitality again but at each one of these conferences, people instantly recalled how inexcusable it was to host a major conference and NOT have lunch and tea/coffee for your guests. By the way, my vote for ‘most wecloming venue and city’ goes to Hobart!

It’s the speakers, stupid.

The invited speakers at each of these events were top quality. From the speakers outwith Nursing such as Robyn Moore, Jessica Patterson, Barbara West, Angus Macfarlane and Louise Mahler, to our own Glenn Gardner, Jan Draper & Liz Clark, Kathie Lasater, Val Browning, Lee-Anne Pederson and Michael Carter, we were entertained, challenged and informed in equal measure.

At last, I think that nursing conference world is waking up to the fact that your conference speakers should not be the “$2 shop” element of a conference programme. We absolutely need a conference platform for our own brightest and best, but why on earth spend a year or more planning an event, marketing it like crazy, booking a great venue, choosing lovely lunches, ensuring top flight IT facilities, organising a fantastic conference dinner and then expecting your delegates to be enthralled by the usual bog standard academics or senior managers, ‘but hey, they were “free” so didn’t we do well’! Watching how the professional speakers performed was an education for many, but it wasn’t surprising. They are THAT good and contribute THAT value to a conference because their livelihoods depend on how well they do their job. Doff your hats ladies and gentlemen to these conferences that didn’t just settle for giving their delegates more of the same but recognised that WE in nursing also deserve the country’s best speakers.

Nourishing the Networks

These were truly great conferences for the all-important networking between colleagues, speakers, sponsors and exhibitors. The buzz at these events was palpable. This is an essential part of ‘conferencing’ that goes way beyong swapping business cards. Learn how to do it well and your conference rego costs will be more than repaid. Fail to do it and you have barely turned up. On the subject of business cards, I was hugely impressed to get a proper business card from some of the Emerging Nurse Leaders (emergingnurseleader.com.au) at the conferences. It’s a small touch but one that says. ‘We mean business’. I’m amazed at the number of senior clinicians and other nurses who think it’s acceptable NOT to have a card or that somehow they are not ‘entitled’ to have one.

Passing the baton

Like so many others, I’ve been incredibly impressed by the passion, enthusiasm and sheer quality of so many of the new grads and emerging leaders that we ‘seniors’ will be passing the baton on to. This has nothing to do with them being ‘young’ and everything to do with them being hungry, whip-smart, poised and assured without being arrogant, mentored by our very best (a huge thanks from all of nursing to the Belynda Pennisi’s of our profession) and ready to do the work that’s required. Some of the best and best prepared presentations I heard were from our ‘rising stars’ so take a bow eg, Georgia Corrie, Jayd Moule and the others.

Welcome to the funhouse

Most people get that conferences are meant to be fun as well as serious business. Most people. Some conferences are so po-faced they almost disappear….. You know the rest. These conferences were so great because the delegates and speakers were clearly having fun and people were more than happy to laugh and learn. The tone was set by great ‘volunteers’ (ANMF Vic team take a huge bow!) and wonderful committee teams whose helpful welcoming and ‘nothing is too much trouble’ approach absolutely set the tone. In Robyn Moore’s memorable phrase, they were enthusiastic, helpful, enjoying their work AND “they had told their faces” :-)
Special mention goes to the incredible team at ANEC in Wellington whose Bollywood formation dancing at the conference dinner was so infectious that no-one could be “too cool” to sit out of the fun. One photo will suffice!

A great tip here from the Whitireia organising team at ANEC 2013. Have your conference dinner on the first night, not the last. That way, all of the benefits of the socialising and fun spill over to the next day(s) of the confefrence. Bonus!

Get organised

These events were so incredibly well organised I can’t remember a single glitch in any of them. Perhaps they were so well run that even if there WAS a glitch, no-one was aware of it. So let’s hear it for the backstage conference heroes, the organising committees that do this work for love and to make a difference, and the event management companies that make all of this look so easy and make sure that we just have to turn up, perform and enjoy ourselves. Take a bow, Dave Treeby and team at Eventuate in NZ, Emily Galbraith and the ACN events team, Sofija Kusic et al at DC Conferences and Bobby Kuriakose and the events posse at ANMF, Victoria.
Next year’s conference season is already being planned. If you are involved in the organising, learn from the best. If you are thinking of presenting, start planning and practicing now. As I love saying: the bar has been set and it is no longer a high jump, it’s a pole vault.

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