Organizing Great District Conferences: Lessons Learned

by Quentin Wodon

April-May is a busy time for many Rotary districts as this is often the period during which districts organize their annual conference. How can districts organize great conferences combining learning and fun at an affordable cost for participants? A few months ago, I ran a series of three posts on preparing and evaluating great conferences. The posts were based on a detailed evaluation of the conferences organized by my district over the last three years. The evaluation is available here. Given that we are entering conference season in full swing, let me summarize in this post some of the key points I made in the three-part series on this topic a few months ago (the links to the series are Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

What Feedback Did Conference Participants Give?

In my district, our evaluations suggested that participants were often fairly happy with most aspects of the conferences. But they also had suggestions. When asked what types of sessions they would like to see more off in future conferences, they suggested having more sessions on successful projects and debates/discussions on Rotary and its future. In terms of the types of speakers, participants would like more motivational and entertaining speakers, as well as more speakers from the business world versus nonprofits. Participants would also like less time spent on award ceremonies.

Participants would like the conferences to be shorter (two days). Shorter conferences would also help reduce the cost of attending the conference, which is often a complaint. This in turn may make it easier to attract more Rotarians to these events, including some of the younger Rotarians for whom cost may be a more serious issue. As to whether it is better to have one or more districts present at a conference, feedback was split between the two options – some participants prefer to have only their own districts, while others like the opportunity to meet members from other districts. Virtually all participants like opportunities for discussions with Interactors and Rotaractors, and would like more such opportunities.

While some of the feedback received in your district may be different, it seems to me that quite a bit of what we learned in my district about what was great and what could be improved in district conferences is likely to apply in many other districts as well.

Is It Difficult to Evaluate Conferences?

It is not. Evaluating district conferences in a serious way is feasible at virtually no cost, as illustrated by the work we did in our district. The surveys for the evaluation were administered through the web and by sending an email to participants a few days after the conferences took place. Using web surveys reduced the time needed to tabulate data, and ensures that there is no waste of information, say from legibility issues often encountered with printed surveys. Participation rates can be strong, so that the surveys are representative statistically. You can even monitor changes in the evaluation of conferences over time – as we did – by fielding similar surveys year after year.

Our latest survey for 2014 survey had a total of 24 questions, some with multiple sub-questions. The questionnaires were designed to take about 15’ to complete, so that substantial information can be captured without taxing too much the time of respondents. Two emails (one initial email and one reminder email) were sent to participants to ask them to fill the survey – this was enough to generate fairly good response rates.

In terms of the structure of the questionnaire, a first set of questions were asked to respondents about their profile (age, gender, Rotary status, length of membership, club affiliation, past attendance at district conferences, attendance rate at club meetings, positions of leadership in the organization, etc.). A second set of questions were asked for participants to evaluate all of the conference sessions to which they participated one by one, as well as their general appreciation of the conference along a number of characteristics and some of their preferences for future sessions. Finally, a last set of questions were open-ended to elicit qualitative feedback on the conferences. The questionnaire of the 2014 evaluation is available in the report on the evaluation.

If your district is one of many that are organizing their conference in the last quarter of the Rotary year, good luck! And if you would like help with evaluating your conference, please let me know by sending me an email through the Contact Me page of the blog.

6 thoughts on “Organizing Great District Conferences: Lessons Learned

  1. Our District (6330) has reduced the length of the District Conference for this year to 2 days in line with your findings.

    From my perspective, if I look at attendees it is typically the same people year after year and we are in our District failing to attract newer members.

    One thought I have had is to reduce the frequency and perhaps move to a bi- annual conference. I am aware this is not in line with current practice but would be interested in your thoughts.

    Similarly I would be in favour of merging and re-designing the Annual Assembly and PETS into one integrated event to reduce travel on the basis that many of the attendees are the same and much of the content is similar. Again I would be interested in your thoughts.
    Tony Sheard
    Organization: Rotary Club of Southampton and Asst Governor Area1 District 6330

    • Tony – interesting ideas.

      On the merge of the Annual Assembly and the PETS (President-Elect Training Seminar for those who might not know the acronym), this makes sense to me – less effort, more participants, and what is discussed at PETS is also of interested to others participating in the Annual Assembly.

      On the idea of bi-annual conference, it depends… If the same participants come every year, yes a bi-annual event would make sense. But if we succeed in attracting younger members, it could be a loss. Also, with bi-annual events, if a Rotarian misses one event, that could lead to a gap of four years from one conference to the next, which is a bit long. So I might lean towards keeping annual events which also helps DGs make their mark, but trying to keep those events shorter (maximum two days, with enough in one single day so that those who have less time can get the most of the event in just one day), and trying to make these events as successful and interesting as they can be.

  2. I share your idea for combining Assembly and Pets,this seems sensible to me.Not sure about bi-annual conference,I feel a 2 day conference as close to home as possible with entertainment is the way forward.Maybe teaming with an adjacent district?

    • Gary – on teaming up with other districts, I am a big fan. Opinions were actually mixed in the surveys we ran between single or multi-district conferences, with a slight preference for multi-district events. But personally I believe that with two districts, conferences still remain manageable in terms of their size, and you meet interesting Rotarians you would not otherwise have met. Combining forces can also – if well planned – reduce the organizational burden in terms of the time needed to put the events together – the workload is shared in a larger pool. And it can lead to some savings.

  3. Great post Quentin. District 7620 is moving to what is essentially a one day Conference. The 2014-2015 Conference in Frederick Md. kicks off on a Friday evening with a picnic and a pub crawl/hospitality suites. All Conference business, breakouts, and other speakers will be on Saturday with the Conference adjourning on Saturday evening. Interestingly, the Conference is being hosted at a local college so Conference organizers don’t have to deal with guaranteed room commitments at hotels which hugely reduces financial risk to the District. Finally, it’s notable that RI still requires District Governors to hold a District Conference and to host an RI rep at the Conference. The 2015-2016 Conference in my year will be a one day Conference as well. Perhaps the key is to get everyone…not just the DG….engaged with the benefits of attending. If our members believe there is value in attending, AND we put on a good show, perhaps our attendance will soar in the future.

    • Ken – Yes, and that’s great. In a way our conference in D7620 is still two days – with golf, a service project, a picnic, and then the famed hospitality suites on Friday night that some Rotarians would not want to miss! But as you rightly point out, most of the stuff is on Saturday. And we used to have 3 days or even 4 days conferences before, so this is great progress. The way the complex issue of hotel rooms was avoided this year is also very good. This was feasible in part because the conference is organized in an area with many clubs that is also central for the district, at least to some extent, thus reducing the need for overnight stay (I am mentioning this for those not in the know who may read the comments on the post). But I fully agree with you that this is the way to go, including to increase attendance, especially from new and younger Rotarians. Well done, and great that you are planning your 2016 conference along those lines as well.

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