PAC asks is it worth companies and organisations attending party conferences?
A question we are often asked by clients is whether they should ‘do something’ at the party conferences. They perceive that these are the major political events of the year and they don’t want to miss out on a potential opportunity to promote their messages and network with policy makers and influ encers.
Although there are exceptions, outlined below, more often the answer is no, they shouldn’t bother than yes, they should attend. ‘Doing something’ at conference can be hugely expensive, very time consuming and often not very effective.
There are four levels of attendance.
- Go the full monty and have an exhibition stand. This is very expensive both in terms of cost and time. If you get your presentation right you might attract a lot of visitors, but are they the right people to have any influence and will they remember you after they have seen many other stands just like yours?
- Hold a reception or large lunch/dinner. Probably the biggest waste of time and money. 90% of people come for the free drink and food and most have little interest in listening to speeches and do not stay long before moving on to the next freebie.
- Organise a fringe meeting. If you have a specialist subject that you know will appeal to those attending conference you may get a decent turn out which is only about 50 or 60 given that there so many taking place (around 400 to 500). Again, are they the people who can help you with your lobbying objectives? Might you just be preaching to the converted
- Attend conference to network and possibly hold bi-lateral meetings with selected politicians. If it is MPs you are after, you would be advised to seek these meetings when MPs are in Westminster. For a start, many MPs don’t bother going to the conference and those that do often only stay there for part of it. A report last year stated that 70% of Conservative MPs did not attend the conference. For those that do go, they have hectic schedules and can be easily distracted by other events or passing people they know if you are chatting over a drink or coffee. On the other hand, if you want to meet councillors from around the country, this is a good opportunity to catch many in the same place.
The key factor to be bear in mind in considering whether to go is who are you trying to reach? If your lobbying objectives are very centrally focussed and rely mostly on gaining support from MPs, Ministers and officials then you are better off using your resources to secure meetings with them in Westminster than at conference.
If your campaign involves local authorities, it may be worth attending conference and organising bi-lateral meetings or small round table events with food for selected councillors.
If you are running a mass campaign seeking to gain widespread support amongst party members who might then lobby their MPs, then conference is the best place to come.
It is important to remember that only a minority of those at conferences are party members. The majority of those attending are representatives from all sorts of pressure groups and NGOs, businesses, diplomats, media and, dare I say it, public affairs consultants. According to the Labour Party some 13,000 people attend their conference, but last year just 1,155 of these were delegates representing constituency Labour parties, although there would also have been a significant number from affiliated trade unions. Only about a third of those attending the Conservative conference are party members.
So of all those people you might talk to if you have an exhibition or hold a reception, how many actually can be of any help to you? You might be better off missing out on the 3 or 4 very late, and very boozy nights, unless of course, that’s why you want to go to conference.