The conference message according to Siobhan McCray, HR director of the 3500-strong employee restaurant chain, Nando’s. And she has the nous to prove it.

So destination marketers have got it wrong. You can’t sell your destination if it doesn’t fit with the aims and outcomes of the conference.

According to McRay, destination and venue selection is secondary to your aims – that is, what do you want to get out of your conference?

Nando’s arrived in Western Australia in 1991 and has spread like wildfire since, now with 270 restaurants nationally and staff of around 3500. Every 12 to 18 months Nando’s holds a national conference attended by around 360 people which includes restaurant franchisees, restaurant managers, suppliers and central support staff.

The cost of the conference is around $500,000, and then there are indirect costs of another half a million dollars when you take into account flights and accommodation and paying others to keep the restaurants running while the managers and franchisees are attending the meeting.

That’s a big investment in anybody’s language which is why McRay says that getting the conference right is so very, very important.

“Destination selection is something we don’t decide on until we have determined what our key messages are,” she explains.

“Last year we were launching our global brand culture initiative `Nando’s Compass’ – an elaboration of what our values mean on a day to day basis. The CEO likes Jupiters on the Gold Coast, and I do too incidentally, it’s a fantastic conference venue – first-class – but we thought about the messages that we wanted to get across at this conference, and established that one of our key values is about being real and natural.

“We believed that the Gold Coast wasn’t the right place to go and launch something about being real and natural. We said okay, where in Australia is naturally beautiful and would fit with the theme and key messages we wanted to convey, and we agreed that the Blue Mountains was a great fit.

“We found that the Blue Mountains met with all the messages that we wanted to convey. It added weight to what we were going to be talking about. If you’re talking about being real and natural and you have casino machines nearby then it doesn’t fit and the real danger is that the message can get lost.

“Our next conference is very much about our continued journey and growth and invigoration and reengagement with our brand and our business, and so next year we’re going to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland because it adds to what we want to achieve. It’s a bit more fun and invigorating, and venues like Twin Waters, along with the great weather, adds to what we want to achieve.”

McCray believes that some venue operators and destination marketers understand this and others do not.

“We work with a PCO, and I have worked with her for a very long time, and she understands our brand and how important our conference is to getting our key messages across, and to the ongoing success of our business.”

And, with so many staff spread over so many different sites, the conference makes perfect sense.

“When you have multi-site businesses the conference is an opportunity to bring everybody together at a point in time, and particularly with franchisees, to communicate the bigger picture.

“If you think about it, if you’re a restaurant manager working in one store, how do you connect with other people in the same role in the business? And for franchisees, it’s also an opportunity for them to network with other franchisees; the main reason we do it is to communicate strategic direction, strategic messages, and engage everybody back into the brand. That’s important.”

Far more important, she says, than having a rip roaring entertainer, or a stylishly themed gala dinner.

“Eighteen months out we start talking about what we want to do and what we want to achieve. We’re running our next conference in March 2015 and we’ve already started discussing what we want to get out of this.”
Every aspect is analysed and measured.

“From our brand positioning to where we are with franchising, to what our mix of delegates is going to be, we ask how do we ensure we are delivering the right message to the right people?

“And often we have different audiences. Do we make sure we have one message for our restaurant managers and then different streams for our franchisees? What do they want to hear at this point in time?

“Anybody responsible for organising their conference has to ask themselves: what do you want to say? And how are you going to measure the success or otherwise?

“If you’re spending so much money [on your conference]; if you’re getting everybody together on a strategic message or new direction it should already be integrated into what you are doing post-conference. For example, we launched our Nando’s Compass at the conference – our life and soul – and for the next 12 months that’s been integrated into everything that we’re doing – training, performance appraisals, how we do business, workshops for new employees, etcetera. If you do stuff at the conference and you’re not talking about it after you’ve wasted a lot of money.

“People go to another conference and they say I saw this really good speaker or I saw this really good entertainment let’s throw it into our conference. But if it’s not relevant to what you want to achieve at your conference then why do it?”

Death by committee

“Don’t run your conference by committee if you can avoid it. Have consultation along the way, but somebody’s got to own it. I’ve never seen a conference delivered by a committee work because often the key messages are diluted to try and address everybody’s needs.”

She also believes that the bigger your audience the more succinct your message must be.

“I have a senior management meeting we’re doing for 25 people coming up. We’re doing a lot of work and there are a lot of topics that we’re covering during that meeting. Our annual conference for 350 people has to be run differently. I recommend having one message said lots of different ways.

“From my experience some people make the mistake of thinking that while they’ve got everybody together they should try and jam as many things in as they possibly can. Invariably it doesn’t stick and you get less traction. The more people, the less you tell them.”

She says a conference needs one gatekeeper – one person who decides what gets in and what doesn’t.

“I’m lucky because I have a CEO who allows me to deliver the conference message. He doesn’t get involved apart from what those key messages are at the start. I give him honest feedback on his opening and closing and he gives me honest feedback on the conference progress and consultation.

“But he’s not micromanaging it. I think that’s where there can be a problem with conferences. Because it’s a bit sexy, everybody wants to put in their ideas.”