How Do We Make In-Person Conferences Cool Again?

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This topic contains 29 replies, has 13 voices, and was last updated by  Pat Lockett 8 years, 8 months ago.

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  • #176041

    We all know that government conferences took a huge hit last year. You know the story – the GSA scandal, budget battles, political scrutiny, and the list goes on.

    I don’t know about you, but I believe that conferences have always been the social glue that holds us together as a workforce. When they’re taken away, we all lose something special and significant. Consider the function that conferences play in our professional lives:

    • camaraderie with colleagues
    • commiseration with people experiencing similar problems
    • connections with new individuals and new insights
    • credible learning opportunities with experts and peers

    Often these events serve as the one time each year we get to see people from across our organization and around the country. They’re the one thing we look forward to that seems to give us the energy we need to propel us through another year.

    You know what I’m talking about. These events link us to people who know more about us than our agency and title; they have celebrated our promotions, called or sent notes when we faced a personal or professional hardship and basically held us up and kept us going when all we wanted to do was call it quits.

    In fact, as we look back over our career – especially for folks who are nearing retirement – these events often created the moments and the memories, the insights and the individuals that we recall most quickly as being critical to our success.

    Now, for the most part, that’s been taken away and it’s my hunch that this reality – as much as anything else – is leading to low morale in almost every agency and organization.

    Is the loss of conferences and events contributing to low morale?

    How do we make the case for in-person conferences?

    Can we make them ‘cool’ again or are they gone for good?

    Related Interview: Post-Conference Gate: Why Government’s Not Going


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  • #176099

    Pat Lockett

    I agree. National conferences are energizing and connect us with the best and brightest in our field. When I was a non-fed, I always found the cost of national conferences to be a bit on the high-end. Why? Why does it cost $1000+ to go to a conference in Kansas City or Dallas or Orlando or Philly? Why does the conference have to be 4 days rather than 1-2 days? Let’s think of innovative ways to fund face:face conferences. How can we lower the cost of meeting space, lodging, travel, and registration without sacrificing quality? Perhaps, a consortium of agencies can pay into a fund and participants apply/compete to attend? Or perhaps feds can partner with state and county governments to find lower cost meeting space?

  • #176097

    Lori Windle

    At the Society of American Indian Government Employees (SAIGE) we work hard every year to develop our annual training program for federal, state and tribal government workers. As the only affinity group advocating for native people in the workforce as part of the National Coalition for Equity in Public Service (NCEPS) with an all volunteer board doing all the work, it is our primary effort, expense and fundraiser. Last year many people had their travel pulled at the last minute in spite of having their training dollars approved. This not only impacted our numbers but that in turn impacted our contract with the hotel which cost us more. These actions were directly tied to agency uncertainty after the GSA scandal. For nearly ten years, SAIGE has offered a unique training opportunity in one place for the myriad of people who work with tribes and native peoples in the course of their occupations in government. It has routinely been described as one of the best, if not the best training people have experienced, with no fluff. We strive to balance leadership and professional development, trust responsibility and Indian Law, culture and diversity, EEO/HR and Wellness workshops to offer a well-rounded week, replete with cultural presentations often incorporating those from local tribes and Indian communities. Our keynote speakers are nationally known and respected. It is an eye-opener to many. To have the continuance of these important training programs threatened by the lack of support from agencies now is a concern to how we can continue to offer the best training around in this area. A small non-profit serving the government community is seeing the cutbacks as directly affecting our ability to survive and provide this great service. It is an uncertain and rocky trail ahead of us. We will be in Spokane in June – see I guess, my point is that we have a very “cool” training conference and are still suffering the consequences of a few out of control people, which negatively impacts all of our hard work. Lori

  • #176095

    Lori Windle

    hi Pat,

    I have been involved in planning those events in the government sector as well and meeting space is generally free as long as we meet the food and beverage requirements of the facility. Believe me it is always harder to keep the amount of workshops within that 3 -4 day timeframe as there is so much information and interest areas people are clamoring to present at our events.(See my SAIGE post below) Any conference that is only one or two days must be concentrated on one very specific topic in order to be an effective training in my opinion.

  • #176093

    This is exactly what I’m talking about, Lori. Your educational programming onsite for participants is important and relevant to their jobs. They get the necessary updates they need on a variety of topics.

    While they could get much of this information via a virtual event (maybe via webinars throughout the year), there’s something important about people in an affinity group coming together physically for this same training – knowing that I’m “not alone” in my endeavors on behalf of my interest group / professional field.

    Thanks for sharing your input.

  • #176091

    That’s what I was hoping to hear, Pat – some concrete ideas.

    I like the idea of somehow sharing the cost of meeting space for agencies that host key events each year…and/or thinking up and down government for ways to find space and connect regionally.

  • #176089

    Monika Dlugopolski

    so true. Given ever-increasing travel restrictions, last year, we (an employee network within the provincial government) held a full-day learning symposium that was co-hosted by five hub locations simultaneously and linked by video-conference to one site for key note speaker, awards, etc. followed by regional in-person session (and workshops). Not the same as having all folks together, but this was the best we could do given the circumstances – no funding, no budget, travel restrictions. We also had piloted accessing the symposium live from staff workstations. Overall, it was a success. A first of a kind undertaking, and organized purely by volunteer power (on a side of our desks, as they say).

  • #176087

    Kevin Lanahan

    Getting out of the office is key to improving morale. Breaking routine does wonder for my mood. Plus, getting to see people from other offices, other agencies or other disciplines reboots the brain and promotes creativity. The off-hours socializing forms bonds with other humans.

    Big agency-wide meetings without clear goals and agendas are expensive and have low productivity. But valuing an employee enough to send them to an industry conference, additional training or other event can be very motivating.

  • #176085

    Adam Arthur

    Very timely discussion, Andrew. There is an online event dedicated exclusively to answering these questions on Feb 7th HERE. I encourage everyone to attend and participate.

    Indeed, it’s unfortuate that we are all having to pay for the bad choices of a few. Of course, you know that I have been trying to bridge the gap now for a couple of years with the Virtual Platform Initiative (VPI) at CDC. GovLoop has always been supportive of my efforts, (thanks again for the pub, Andy!), so I wanted to report that we may be able to expand our services beyond CDC this year! With inter-agency agreements now a possibility with our program, the VPI can perhaps serve as a learning ground in virtual events for other agencies.

    I’ve also been talking with Steve about co-hosting a Virtual Community of Practice with CDC, HHS, FDA, DOD, DOT and multiple industry SMEs and vendors, (and whoever else is interested) to nail down what’s really needed to fill the gaps through virtual events. I’m currently gathering support for it, hopefully followed by a professional designation for government virtual events producers/organizers equal to that of a PMP.

    I agree that nothing can replace an in-person event, but we are currently being forced to. I’ve recently added private video chat capabilities in our system to counter-act some of what is currently being lost online; which will hopefully add to the feeling of camaraderie.

    I also agree that credible learning is an issue, so we’re doing API integrations with webcasting platforms and Learning Management Systems to help fill it. Hopefully, all of this will help.

    I will keep everyone informed of the progress of the CoP and will be reaching out to many of you who have exhibited an interest in the CDC VPI to help combat the loss of events in your organizations.

  • #176083

    National is one thing. I’d be happy with a statewide conference bringing all the staff from our HQ and Regional offices together again. I’ve never met some of the people hired since budget cuts cancelled our biennial in-person all-staff conferences several years ago. We can do video conferences, but it’s not the same thing. Trying to tie together five locations (at least) means you’re looking at faces that are about one inch high. And the lighting is never right.

    So yes, I do feel the loss of conferences is contributing to low morale. If there were somewhere we could hold a statewide meeting with inexpensive lodging and meals, that would help. We would still have travel costs, but those are minimal compared to the lodging and meals. Maybe we need to open a hostel for government employees with kitchen facilities.

  • #176081

    You do what you got to do to get the support and training you need. I hope organizations don’t come to expect that as the norm, however, and provide some resources / support.

    Love the five hubs linked by video!

  • #176079

    I saw that, Adam (and it’s one of things that spurred this discussion)!

    I’m all for the virtual and we’re definitely working on a couple pieces of that puzzle from our vantage point at GovLoop, so let us know how we can keep supporting your efforts.

    Are you going to have a physical component? Let’s say you have critical mass in a particular location. Could you connect those people to participate / attend together virtually in one space?

  • #176077

    I’ve never met some of the people hired since budget cuts cancelled our biennial in-person all-staff conferences several years ago.” <= And this hurts rapport / efficiency, doesn’t it?

    “We can do video conferences, but it’s not the same thing.” <= Agree, Mariann

    Maybe we need to open a hostel for government employees with kitchen facilities.” <= AirBnB for Gov!

  • #176075

    Mark Hammer

    Well, I don’t know that in-person conferences have ever NOT been cool, just under-valued. I might point out that conferences can be a tremendous tool for “enculturating” new recruits to a particular field or profession that is not a subject of study in university. Conference attendance can also be a great tool for fostering engagement in staff that may have momentarily lost a bit of their zeal for their field.

    Some ideas:

    1) Don’t hold them in places that are pricey or perceived as “simply an excuse for a paid vacation”. I know most people attend conferences regardless of where they are held, but you have to admit that some folks put up a bigger argument to attend when the venue is somewhere exciting. If you want to be perceived as going to learn and network, rather than simply having a ski holiday in Aspen paid on the public nickel, hold such conferences at a place and time where being a subsidized tourist does not appear to be the primary reason for going. It doesn’t always have to be boring, but it doesn’t always have to be a major city either.

    2) Too often, people go, come back, and after they submit their receipts for travel expenses, that’s the end of it, with no collective memory of the value added. So, establish a binder or corporate blog that people complete when they return from a conference. Let them indicate what they learned, how they were able to network, and what value was gained for attending. If a particular conference yielded less than was hoped for, relative to an alternative, let that be identified so that spending priorities can be established for next year.

    3) I don’t know about where you are, but it is not uncommon for management to dawdle when committing to conference attendance. the result is that best hotel rates, conference registration rates, and travel rates, are frequently missed out on because of tardiness. COMMIT EARLIER RATHER THAN LATER and it will be cheaper.

  • #176073

    Ellen Blackwell

    Hi Monika – so glad to hear you tried this, I have put a similar idea before HHS officials for various meetings and it never happened. We have VTC capability in all our regional offices; I thought it a great way to hook up state officials with Feds. We’re there in person, by VTC, and they only have to travel to our regional office. Glad to hear it worked.

    I’ve noticed that some of the stakeholder/advocacy groups have started having more of their meetings in the DC area, where presumably the hope is that more Feds will be able to attend. Unfortunately this hasn’t always come to fruition (short local travel budgets, no/little money for registration fees, mass shutdowns on any in-person conference participation). And, as Andrew has pointed out, it’s a shame, because there is simply no way to replace the in-person relationship building that happens at face to face meetings, and it does add value. My pre-government career was in meeting planning, but it’s in this second career in government where I’ve come to realize the benefits of three-dimensional conferencing. Hotels and conference centers are always willing to make deals when they can and we may see more of this as the travel/meetings economy contracts. In the meantime, it’s good to take advantage of as many local and virtual activities as one can. Last week I went to a community-based meeting on health topics, just to keep my hand in. It’s good for the spirit to get out of the office, so chase those low/no cost opportunities down, be willing to pay your own way when you can, and work with your manager to maximize what you can do outside a computer or a phone.

  • #176071

    Adam Arthur



    There’s not one for this event, but “yes” to everything else you have asked. We are able to accomodate “hybrid” events (in-person event ran together with a virtual version) and have done several up to this point. They are really awesome. I get more out of them than just the in-person or virtual alone.

  • #176069

    Ruthanna Gordon

    @Monika @ellen We just did something similar in EPA’s Office of Research and Development–a workshop virtually connecting multiple locations, with local people gathering in each location. About 200 people attended, and 3 of them traveled. It was fairly successful and we even had some good cross-site interpersonal interaction during the breakout sessions. I still feel that we need to do better in terms of the “hallway conversations” that give value to in-person meetings–some of that is better technology, some is better vision, and some is an open challenge.

    This is an area where I feel very torn. With my background in psychology, I’m intimately familiar with the advantages of in-person meetings–massively increased opportunities for relationship building, serendipitous connections, and the way that traveling someplace new can literally give you a new perspective on your work. On the other hand, GSA aside, this kind of travel vastly increases our environmental footprint. In general I think there are win-win solutions to most apparent conflicts between environment and well-being, but I don’t see it yet here.

    I love the idea of a government AirB&B. More generally, it would be helpful to find ways to make this kind of voluntary cost-saving easier bureaucratically. I sometimes stay in hostels when I travel for work, but get less pushback on my reimbursement forms when I go to a standard hotel because the hostels tend to have less formal-looking receipts.

  • #176067

    Lori Windle

    Again, the cost of the facilities is not the problem.They can be had for free. It is travel budgets primarily.

  • #176065

    Lori Windle

    I think that I read that over 80% of Federal employees work outside of Washington, DC, “in the field” as they say, and it is not necessarily cost effective to be shipping them to DC all the time. That and the fact that locations in middle American are vastly cheaper in hotel and food costs, do not really make DC an attractive location for people planning these types of events.

    In the case of SAIGE, we hold our Annual National Training Program in a different location each year across the country to provide our participants with the exposure to the many native cultures there are in the areas. It is never the same program twice, and this cultural immersion is not something someone can really “get” video conferencing, unfortunately. That said, we continue to work on finding ways and incentives to get people to the trainings

  • #176063

    Terrence Hill

    I have pretty much given up on requesting to go to in-person conferences, unless they are local and free. Otherwise, I try to attend via remotely via the web. Conference sponsors will either have to offer them at low/no cost or make conferences a virtual experience to retain their participation rates. I can’t afford to pay for both the travel and cost of an average professional conference (often over $1,000 each). I’ll miss attending these conferences, but I’d rather sacrifice them then to see furloughs or layoffs.

  • #176061

    Timely discussion. Really this is three questions Andrew, right?

    –How do we make conferences legitimate again?

    –How do we make them worth attending?

    –How do we make them buzz-worthy?

    Here are some quick thoughts on each of these.

    –Legitimacy–make it transparent. Put the conference info on the web. CBP does this with its annual Trade Symposium, to an extent. Justify the event to the public. Show how you’re putting it up for the minimum cost possible. Incorporate virtual where possible as it seems the EPA did very well. Cut unnecessary costs. No swag.

    –Worth attending–Great keynote. Relevant topics. Opportunity to talk openly without attribution (collect those cellphones from the evil live-Tweeters!) Small group interaction. Meaningful case studies. Wii. GovDelivery did this well a few years back.

    –Buzz-worthy–Content should be educational, inspirational, complex, high-profile, high-level, even controversial.

  • #176059

    Dick Davies

    2 ideas – Any course (or meeting) that does not produce a project is just a survey, and GS2 Yoda, who says, “There is no try, only do.” Hackathons are not just for code.

  • #176057

    …and any project that does not produce a useful result…

  • #176055

    Ruthanna Gordon

    I’m thinking about this one–I believe there is a place for “survey” meetings and have learned a lot from them, but at the same time I can’t think of any that wouldn’t have been improved by a few “doing” oriented sessions. And this was a central part of our philosophy for our recent hybrid virtual workshop: that we needed the discussion groups to *produce* something.

    I disagree with Yoda–Jedi are too risk-averse. Sometimes the useful result of a project is lessons learned about what to do differently next time. And that’s a worthwhile result. There’s a big difference between “do not,” and “try and fail.”

  • #176053

    Ellen – How do you think we could leverage the nuggets from this conversation to help you make the case at HHS? I’d love to leverage the insights here and make something happen that brings value to your agency.

  • #176051

    Agree here: “Too often, people go, come back, and after they submit their receipts for travel expenses, that’s the end of it, with no collective memory of the value added.”

    Our GovLoop live blogs or writes up a report to share with the community about an event. I’ll bet it takes 45-60 minutes to write up, but it brings value to those who could not attend and sparks discussion that fosters the value added you mention.

  • #176049

    Hey Ruthanna – Did you help to organize that event? I’d love to do a write-up about it with lessons learned. It seems like others here could benefit from it, too…and maybe help them to make the case to do something similar. If you have time or could put me in touch with the organizers, I’d like to interview them / encourage them to blog about it. Thanks.

  • #176047

    I’d be okay with only 1 and 2: legitimate and valuable. I know I use the word “cool”, but it’s just a title enticer to get the conversation going (“click me”). I really care about ROI of these things. Like Mark said above, events are almost always cool. A better word in it’s place might have been “viable.”

  • #176045

    Ruthanna Gordon

    I did, and would be happy to talk about it–I’ve sent you a message off-thread.

  • #176043

    Ruthanna Gordon

    Just wanted to check if you’re still interested in chatting about this–if so, we should set up a time.

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