With a brand new venue and date on the cards for 2009, what will Harrogate's last annual CIPD conference and exhibition serve up for delegates this year? Verity Gough finds out.
Holding out for an HR hero
It's one of the most widely anticipated events in the HR calendar, attracting thousands of professionals from across the industry to live and breathe all things HR for three whole days. But is the self-proclaimed 'single most influential people management event in Europe' still coming up trumps after an exhaustive 60-year run?
Following last year's plethora of new initiatives, which included the ever-popular 'Employee Reward Zone', the CIPD Conference and Exhibition 2008 is promising to be bigger and better than ever. Delegates will find the usual line-up of top industry speakers as well as the new online, interactive organisation tool: My Event, to make delegates' time even easier to plan. In addition, Jeremy Paxman's seat has been laudably filled by Channel 4's Jon Snow, who will be chairing the 'Talking Talent' keynote.
Jon Ingham, HR Consultant
So as the final year at Harrogate approaches, will it go out with a bang? "2007 was a great success and feedback on the new initiatives was very positive," says Nina Harman, head of conferences and exhibitions at CIPD. "For us, it's about getting the right format, the right topics, the right features, the right showcases on the exhibition floor, and making sure that what we are offering is relevant."
One of the main themes running throughout the whole event this year is the credit crunch and includes a keynote from the chief executive of GCap, Media Fru Hazlitt, who will be discussing business strategy and its challenges and opportunities. "We are looking at all the pertinent industry issues for HR practitioners working in a variety of contexts," says Harman.
Alongside the trend of industry-specific technology, other hot topics up for discussion include the ever-popular subjects of talent management and effective leadership.
But, says Harman, it isn't a one-size-fits-all programme. Instead, delegates can cherry-pick things that are relevant to their particular sector or speciality. There are a range of attractions to suit all learning needs, from showcases and free masterclasses to networking spaces and online discussions. "It's an opportunity for delegates to design their own programme depending on what they are facing on both a personal level and on a business level," she adds.
However, despite the wealth of activities planned for delegates, the event has apparently struggled to attract the large numbers of attendees in recent years. Jon Ingham, an HR consultant attending this year's event, believes this is down to the availability of options for HR practitioners to bring themselves up to date with the latest thinking without having to take time out of the office.
"In the past, the CIPD conference was a much more influential and important part of the practitioner's annual programme. Now, there are other ways of getting that information such as one-to-one business meetings and events," he explains. This includes the growing trend in webinars and webcasts, coupled with the fact that other institutes like the Human Capital Institute host all their content online.
Mike Morrison, Trainer and Consultant
Yet, Ingham is one of those who enjoys the event and intends to take full advantage of the opportunities on offer. "Without travelling abroad, it's very difficult to get the same level of world-class input that the CIPD Conference provides," he adds.
Other complaints over the years have included the accessibility of the Harrogate venue, which for many London-centric organisations can prove a costly logistical exercise. However, this is something that will be ironed out in 2009 as the event moves to the altogether more commuter-friendly venue, Manchester Central, and will be held in November rather than September.
Something for nothing
While many old hands will be familiar with the conference, it's the free exhibition which runs in conjunction that attracts many newcomers. Having undergone something of a revamp in recent years, gone are the fringe events whereby unofficial institutions held their own networking sessions around the main venue. Instead, they have been replaced by a number of new showcases run by the organisers themselves.
"I miss the fringe and I do think it was a mistake to can it," says Ingham. "It made the whole thing a bigger event. You could go along to them after the conference closed and have a bit more of a chat over a glass of wine. It has reduced its impact and while they have exhibition showcases, if you are at the conference, you can't attend them."
Another big initiative this year is the My Event online networking tool – a user-friendly means of organising your time and catching up with acquaintances from the comfort of your PC. It is already proving popular. One attendee who has been quick to log on is Mike Morrison, an independent consultant and trainer. "It's similar to Facebook and really effective," he says. "Not only can you arrange to meet up with people, discuss other events you have been to and make appointments, there are different groups based around each session."
In keeping with the spirit of Web 2.0, Morrison is also writing a live blog from the event, the aim of which is to share some of the key learnings and provides a space for impartial discussion during and after the conference.
Nina Harman, CIPD
He also advises newcomers to ensure they get the most out of the experience by outlining some learning goals. "You can be overwhelmed or underwhelmed as you don't know what you are looking for," says Morrison. "It becomes expensive because you don't get the value out of it. But if you come away with an idea that saves your organisation £10, £20 or £100K, it's cheap."
It's not all work, work, work
Whatever criticisms are levelled at the event, and however many web-based networking meetings crop up throughout the year, there is no denying the power of face-to-face events. Harman herself enjoys this aspect the most. "It's the whole experience," she reflects. "Just walking around the show hall and into the sessions or keynotes, and seeing the overall spectacle of it – you can't beat the buzz of the exhibition," she says.
Ingham agrees. "While I don't go to Harrogate that often, I do see it as an opportunity to spend a couple of days with peers, catching up with old acquaintances, and meeting new people. It is the only time in the year that we can see what everyone else is up to."
Whatever you hope to get out of your experiences at Harrogate, whether you are returning after a break or are new to HR, it's probably the best time to go as 2009 looks set to be the start of whole new era.
Before signing up to the conference, visit the exhibition to help gauge the size of the event.
Strategise – know what you want to see and do. Ask yourself what you are getting out of the session/masterclass/keynote.
Make sure you plan in advance everything you want to see and do. This avoids timetable clashes.
Register with My Event to save valuable time and make time management a breeze.
Consider exhibiting. This provides a completely different experience and can also garner new business.
Don't forget to network. Special networking tables for industry sectors will be provided during the breaks to make it even easier.