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What makes a good annual conference?

  • May 24, 2018

If you have not registered for the Cosmetics Europe Annual Conference (CEAC) yet, I would strongly urge you to do so. With 17 sessions and over 40  speakers, it will address a huge range of business and regulatory topics, from both a European and global perspective. If you want to understand what is happening in our industry (hint: there is a lot), you need to be there.

Conferences (of some variety) are a key part of any Association’s outreach - for networking, for information, and to some extent for building  esprit de corps. They take a lot of work to organise. Much can go wrong, and  frequently does. You can usually recognise an Association leader at conference time by their dishevelled, sleepless and care-worn look.

But Annual Conferences – even bad ones – are usually very enjoyable. Conference time is when business rivals let their proverbial hair down and a sense of common cause prevails; when the feeling of being part of something special comes to the fore; a time when old friends meet again and share a reminiscence; and when intellectual and even emotional engagement with the industry is at its most intense.

I have participated in over 300 conferences in my career. These are my rules for a good one:

1. Don’t expect to be told just what you want to hear.  This is a strange principle,  since in my experience the best received sessions are ones that amplify pre-held opinions and prejudices. I have seen conferences perfectly confected to eliminate contrariness and bathe in self-congratulation. But are these good conferences? Not in my view. It is our duty to challenge, for only this way can we evolve.  Provocative sessions, on the other hand, are not well received. I have witnessed heckling, walk outs, and in one particularly regrettable case, physical menaces. But on these occasions, the universe of human comprehension was expanded, and this is something to be proud of. The sheer range of CEAC this year means we are bound to upset someone. We are not worried about that.

2. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, as Lincoln nearly said. I once asked an attendee his view of a conference. ‘Great location, terrific speakers,’ he opined,  ‘but I noticed that the breakfast buffet orange juice wasn’t freshly squeezed’. Decide what you want to get out of the conference – knowledge , networking , reinvigoration – and judge the conference on whether you were able to achieve these things. At CEAC  we are lucky in not only having a rich programme, but also a large and well informed global audience. Tell me afterwards if you didn’t get what you came for, but please don’t mention the orange juice.

3. Respect the speakers.  Without speakers there is no conference. Few people like public speaking, and even fewer are good at it. People suffer and make sacrifices to appear as speakers, and they must be spared hardship and humiliation. On one occasion I arrived for my speech to see the room crammed full of people. There was a tangible  atmosphere of nervous expectation. My self-importance zoomed into orbit. Then I was politely informed that my keynote would follow a session of Bingo. After the Bingo, 95% of the audience left. I have not fully recovered from this. If there are any of the 45 CEAC speakers reading this blog, we hereby offer to cater to your every whim.

4. Location isn’t everything. In Europe, the most enchanting of all the continents, you could have a conference at a beautiful location every day of the year. How about Salzburg, in the shadow of the Baroque splendours of the cathedral, the peaks glistening in the distance,  and entertainment by a Von Trapp Family Singers tribute group? Or Majorca, with the azure Mediterranean  gently caressing the feet of sun-kissed delegates as they sip sangria and peruse their conference packs?  We thought about it, but for CEAC we have settled for Brussels. Yes , we know you have all seen the Mannequin Pis, and the weather can be lousy. But Brussels is where the work gets done, and decisions get made.  Call me a killjoy if you like, but a good conference is all about the work in the end. Well ok, work and chocolate. Oh ok, work chocolate and beer.


See you at CEAC 2018!


John Chave, Director General, Cosmetics Europe


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