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Is the CIPD annual conference and exhibition worth the effort? By Annie Hayes

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Billed as the premier people management event of the year, the annual CIPD event this October is a surely unmissable occasion, even if only to indulge in the array of tempting freebies, from pots of honey to free shots of flavoured oxygen. Annie Hayes asked members whether the pilgrimage to Harrogate is worth the trip.


Access to high profile speakers:
There are over 50 sessions to choose from this year with numerous inspirational speakers, including Cathy O'Dowd, the first woman to climb Everest from both south and north sides, Adrian Moorhouse, Olympic Gold Medallist and Managing Director of Lane4, to Costas Markides, Professor of Strategic and International Management and holder of the Robert P Bauman Chair in Strategic Leadership, London Business School.

Sandy Boyle, HR Director of regional law firm Mills and Reeve, believes that the list of speakers on offer is one of the prime reasons for attending:

"I make a point of going to the conference if at all possible. It is one of the leading management conferences in Europe and attracts some of the best speakers and thought leaders in the areas of leadership, strategy, HRM, change and organisational development. I have heard the likes of Handy, Porter, Hamel, Markides, Ulrich, Nohria to name but a few."

However, not all HR Zone members are as impressed. HR consultant Quentin Colborn says that too many speakers are, at best, average:

"I think it is overpriced for what you get, if people were charged by seminar it would be interesting to see what happened. My recollection is that there are a few excellent keynote addresses and a number that were simply okay. Money would probably be better spent going to hear the keynote speakers for longer at other functions. My best recollection is of an employment law master class with Greville Janner – I still quote some of the things he said. But that was the speaker, not just the event. He was equally effective at a one day seminar."

" I think it is overpriced for what you get, if people were charged by seminar it would be interesting to see what happened. My recollection is that there are a few excellent keynote addresses and a number that were simply okay."

Quentin Colborn, HR consultant.

Speakers aside, the conference offers much more than keynotes and master classes. Indeed the CIPD put a lot of effort into creating networking opportunities. Delegates can meet and greet at the free lunch held on both Tuesday 24 and Wednesday 25 October or relax and swap notes over an afternoon aperitif, attend the theatre, test the old brain cells at a pub quiz, join members at a gala dinner or even sweat it out on the running track in a 3k fun run.

Networking/Business:
Keith Luxon, Director of Human Resources for Three Valley Waters, isn't convinced, however, that the networking opportunities are pitched at the right levels:

"I have been for the past couple of years but am not going this year. My purpose in going previously was primarily to network with senior colleagues from a wide range of industries and to listen to the keynote speakers. The keynotes are usually excellent and offer a fresh and thought provoking take on some of the major issues we as a profession face. I think it is almost worth investing the time just to be challenged in this way once a year! The problem is of course to take that challenge back to the workplace and do things differently.

"The networking opportunities are harder to find, at least of the right quality, you really have to work hard to get to the right events and meet the right people. If you are prepared to put the effort in before and during the conference then you can meet some interesting people. But at a senior level there are better more focused networking events."

"The networking opportunities are harder to find, at least of the right quality, you really have to work hard to get to the right events and meet the right people. If you are prepared to put the effort in before and during the conference then you can meet some interesting people. But at a senior level there are better more focused networking events."

Keith Luxon, Director of Human Resources for Three Valley Waters.

Colborn agrees, arguing that as an independent contractor the opportunities simply aren't there to do business. But for those whose visit is less dependent on doing deals, the networking proves more attractive. Chris Burrows, E-HR Manager at Coventry City Council, says the seminars give practitioners the opportunity to hear about what he terms as 'cutting' edge developments whilst at the same time offering opportunities to "network with fellow professionals from all sectors".

Meeting Suppliers:
Over 300 of the industry's top suppliers will be on hand at the exhibition this year. Serious HR buyers will be particularly interested in the opportunity to probe vendors. Iain Young, interim HR Manager says that if you are genuinely seeking information then the exhibition is well worth it.

"With regards to the exhibition I go every couple of years to get an update to find out what is on the market place. I can prove that the exhibitions can have a positive effect. A couple of years ago I attended the CIPD HR software exhibition. I was looking for a training and administration system for use by mobile staff. Something that did not appear to exist at that time. From my conversation his organisation developed a solution that worked from the employee's mobile phone."

Consultant Mike Morrison agrees: "Spending time going round the exhibition during the main conference sessions is great – the suppliers are more relaxed, you can build great contacts and has been mentioned you can see what the current 'trends' appear to be."

But freely handing around your business card can prove less fruitful if you're not really interested in pursing any third party partnerships:

Luxon comments: "On the downside the exhibition is less useful. Whilst you can see lots of exhibitors in a small timescale unless you are very disciplined you will be plagued by semi cold calls for months to come. I am sure some people must do business at these things it's just the I have never met anyone who has. The number of "freebies" you see scattered around the rubbish bins of Harrogate is amazing."

Many agree; it seems that the caricature drawings and flower-shaped highlighter pen sets are not reason enough to go. Colborn says: "Freebies are normally great – I probably still have a few pens, pencils and mouse mats gained there. In fact my coffee coaster is a small jigsaw given by Black Horse relocation – I wonder if they are still in business? Worth going all that way for freebies? Never!"

The supplier's aren't totally convinced of the return on investment either. Karen Drury says as a vendor to the HR market she feels the same way about following up with people as Luxon does about cold-calls. "We ask if we can call, we do so, and people are a) rude b) they forgot they ever met you c) dishonest – they don't say they don't need your services and as a result, the whole sorry experience continues."

An escape:
For some a chance to escape the office and have a bit of a jolly in a lovely spa town is all that is needed to persuade them to make the trip. Sadly, though, Young believes that for many it doesn't extend much beyond this:

"From my experience half the people at the CIPD Conference are there on a jolly and speaking to people they seem to be mainly funded by local or public authorities. Having worked for a number of years for private sector companies the cost of attendance for one person is more that the budget I have for the whole of my department."

Luxon agrees: "My other concern would be that it appears that some people use the event as a bit of a reward or jolly along the lines of you have worked hard go and spend a couple of days in Harrogate. Whilst in itself this may be great for the individual I think it means that some people approach the conference in a different mind set. I have overheard many people saying they have 'done' the conference in an hour or so and are going shopping!"

"Spending time going round the exhibition during the main conference sessions is great – the suppliers are more relaxed, you can build great contacts and has been mentioned you can see what the current 'trends' appear to be."

Mike Morrison, consultant

However, not everyone treats it in quite the same vein. Boyle reflects on the time out to find space from a busy working schedule and says it provides an invaluable opportunity to learn, reflect and share experiences with others.

The CIPD's annual conference and exhibition may not be for everyone, indeed many might see it as a waste of money and time but for the large majority there are opportunities to be had from reflecting on latest thinking, gleaning new ideas and testing new products and as an exhibition and conference it offers all of this in one location and at one time which surely is a benefit.

We'd like to hear your views so please share your experiences and tell us what you hope to get from this year's event by posting your comments in the box below.

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