Isn’t it time for better conferences?

Marcus Magee, managing director of new agency Uncommon Conferences, sets out a challenge today to shake up the staid shipping calendar.

When was the last time you went to a maritime or energy conference and thought: “Wow, that was a fantastic use of my time!”?

Hopefully you can think of one or two instances, like the Maritime CEO Forum series organised by the publishers of Splash.

Sadly, the reality is that business conferences these days, and not just in these industries, simply have not kept up their end of the bargain. As attendees we continue to pay thousands, fly hundreds of miles, hole up in below-average hotel rooms only to suffer through hours of PowerPoint sales pitches and awkward networking breaks. Let’s not start on the hopeful sponsors and the amount of time, effort and dollars they plough into these supposedly lucrative activities.

According to Wake Media, there are roughly 1,700 conferences, exhibitions and events every year, globally, that the maritime industry can choose from. Where would you even begin to start the process of filtering?

Our quick survey of sales and marketing departments across a range of shipping companies revealed the following typical responses:

“We simply must be there, or the market will think we’re going under.”
“It’s to see and be seen.”
“Our competitors are going to be there!”
“How else will we get our message across?”
“It’s not all about digital. This industry is still very much about relationships and relationship-building.”

It is within these responses we can find the solutions for making conferences better. If these are the true objectives of those who need conferences, then it’s no wonder we often leave feeling underwhelmed and disappointed.

Most conferences organisers (understandably) slip into complacency quicker than you can say ‘early-bird discount’ and the process of putting together next year’s conference is less about fulfilling customer needs and more about re-signing sponsors as quickly as possible. We get it, everyone’s here to make a buck and that’s fair. What’s not fair is rolling out the same (literally and metaphorically) tired speakers, agenda, tirade of un-vetted PPTs and yesterday’s muffins. Wouldn’t this be more rewarding and enjoyable for everyone involved if we always start over and more importantly start with why?

Let’s re-visit the reasons companies invest in conferences and our take on what they’re actually looking for:

PROFILE: “We simply must be there, or the market will think we’re going under.”
PROFILE: “It’s to see and be seen.”
PROFILE: “Our competitors are going to be there!”
EDUCATION: “How else will we get our message across?”
CONNECTIONS: “It’s not all about digital. This industry is still very much about relationships and relationship-building”

If we simplify (and yes, it’s bordering on over-simplification, but that’s not always a bad thing) it’s about profile, education and connections. So how can conferences deliver these without putting everyone to sleep – or have them trawl the internet on their phones for hours while they’re there?

Robust and ongoing research

For every company that’s on the speaker or sponsor list, there’s another 10 that haven’t been considered or approached. We need to bring rigorous research back into conferences. No more recycling. This will ensure a fresh and ever-growing list of companies that can profile themselves and benefit from the profiling of others. Check that your speaker list represents a diverse range of experience, backgrounds and viewpoints.

Experimental formats

Learning can and should be an interactive and enjoyable affair. Putting the best minds of the industry in the same room should result in ‘A-ha moments’ and collaborative efforts that continue far beyond the realm of the conference room (which as a default should have access to natural light, by the way). Most importantly, true learning comes from immediately applying a new idea, even if it’s just conceptually, rather than passively listening.

Thoughtful and varied networking opportunities

With the wealth of behavioural science that is available today at the click of a mouse, it should be easy to come up with new and innovative ways for your participants to engage, interact and form meaningful relationships. Offering a free flow of (house) wine and (watered-down) beer at the end of the day maketh not for an effective networking affair.

Last but not least, we need not rely on the existing choices available to us. We can and should challenge the status quo. It’s time for better conferences.


Splash is Asia Shipping Media’s flagship title offering timely, informed and global news from the maritime industry 24/7.


  1. Good to raise the issue – it’s been a frustration for the industry for a long time. I can’t see it changing unless a conference producer has the confidence to produce an event where editorial control is rigorous and independent and sponsors don’t get speaking spots unless they’re deserved on the merit of their presentations. You’ll get much higher paid attendance if delegates know that what they’re going to hear is free from sales pitches and commercial compromise.

    1. Totally agree Mark. It’s something we know from experience can be done, and does deliver the results you mention.

  2. SHIPPINGInsight in Stamford, CT defies the odds! High quality speakers, innovative format, and engaging networking are the hallmarks. Last year’s survey of delegates showed 97% said being there was useful, 96% cited its value,95% noted the networking experience and 98% the quality of the speakers and roundtables. We work hard to create community and value for delegates and partners. This year’s theme is 2020: A Shipping Odyssey. Be prepared to confront industry’s “monolith moment”!

    1. Great to hear that Carleen! Good to know there are already trail-blazers out there

  3. Just like Social Media, it’s challenging to even get people to interact with new individuals at these events without it being an awkward experience. It’s hard for vendors to get in front of prospects and for operators and owners to actually fully understand what these individuals are trying to bring to the table. Some ideas to increase the value of attendees?
    1. Connect owners and operators with vendors that they could find interesting and the reasons why. This gives all parties a “why attend”.
    2. If the speaker could present the idea in a WebEx, is there any reason for them to be presenting on the stage? There are alot speakers who have great presentations but they need to further the knowledge base of the audience, we all have google, we can all look up how XYZ company will save you time and fuel etc.
    3. Roundtables and actual discussions would be more insightful and increase participation by attendees.
    4. Enough with the softball questions to speakers and presenters. Numerous conferences that I’ve been to have employed a chat or question moderation. And many times I’ve sat in the audience as a thought provoking and challenging question was raised. And the speaker either glazed over or outright refused to answer the question. I understand you’re not trying to offend the speaker (and the sponser), but if you’re getting up on that stage and you’re not going to answer the tough questions; why are you even up there?

    There is alot things that conferences can do to actually increase participation and make these events more valuable not only for the owners and operators, but particularly for vendors. It’s truly up to them at this point to implement such changes.

    1. Thanks Jay. You’ve covered a lot of the basic principles of what makes people resent giving up their precious time, and why it’s so important we make changes to the way events are run

  4. Also time to have more diversity on panels this will lead to better debating and broader opinions. Now is the time for sponsors to make sure they put it into their contract panels must be diverse or no sponsorship.

  5. I never go anymore. There’s just so little value in the marine sector, both at conferences and awards. I’ve been to one conference in the past six years, and immediately realised why I never go.

    1. Sorry to hear that M.T. We’re hoping to change that sad reality though – so don’t give up just yet!

  6. As a maritime media & marketing agency, part of our role is to regularly discuss, review and brainstorm with event organizers on how the future should look. To be fair, the majority do recognize the issues raised in this article. However, activity does appear to be limited on making a difference.

    We strongly agree that more urgency should be placed on shaking up the approach by introducing new and fresh ‘value added’ options for both delegates and sponsors. One example that we believe would support the future credibility of event organizers is to switch the financial model from sponsor/speaker package to delegate revenue. The key for this to happen is to ensure high quality speakers and useful content exists AND that it’s designed and led from the needs of the ‘delegates’ and not those who ‘pay to participate’. We are not just entirely sure if this is achievable.

    In addition, until there is an independent 3rd party or system in place that allows the delegates and sponsors to ‘rate’ the conference and ensures event metrics are audited, the decision ‘to go’ or ‘not to go’ will rely on sentiment instead of facts. In turn, attendance experiences will continue to remain unstable.

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