Preparing and Evaluating Great Conferences: Part 3 – Lessons Learned

by Quentin Wodon

In the first post of this series, a simple argument was made for the importance of evaluating annual conferences – whether for Rotary districts or other organizations. Major investments are made in those conferences in terms of time and money. They are highlights of the life of their organizations, and essential to build friendships and teamwork among members. In the second post, summary results from the evaluation of the latest annual conference of Rotary district 7620 were provided to show how simple evaluations can provide valuable insights. In this last post,  more information is shared on how the evaluations for the last three conferences of the district were designed, and what some of the recommendations of participants were for future conferences.

Rotarians pack meals for the homeless at a district conference session
Rotarians pack meals for the homeless at a district conference session

Design of the evaluations

The questionnaire of the surveys implemented among conference participants were administered through the web (Survey Monkey) a few days after each conference. Using web surveys reduces the time needed to tabulate data, and ensures that there is no waste of information – for example from qualitative feedback – due to legibility issues often encountered with printed surveys.

In 2014, a total of 100 Rotarians responded to the survey, generating a response rate of about 40 percent, which is fairly good for a web survey and is likely to provide a good level of representativeness. Response rates for the two previous surveys for 2012 and 2013 were good as well. However, it may be that Rotarians who respond are those who tend to be more involved in the activities of their clubs and districts.

The conference evaluation surveys have been implemented for three years. Very similar questionnaires were fielded in the three years to maximize comparability. In 2013 and 2014 however, additional questions were added versus 2012 to better capture preferences from participants for future conferences.

The 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 could be captured without taking too much time for 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 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 asked 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 Evaluating Rotary District Conferences: Lessons from District 7620).

Suggestions from Respondents

Key results from the evaluation of the 2014 survey were already provided in the second post in this series. But it may be useful to summarize some of the feedback received for future conferences. As mentioned earlier, while the results are strictly speaking valid only for Rotary district 7620, they probably have broader relevance for other districts and service organizations.

When asked what types of sessions they would like to see more of in future conferences, participants 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. Having at least one session devoted to a service project – like packing meals for people who are homeless in the picture above, is highly appreciated.

Participants would like the conferences to be shorter (at two and a half days, the 2014 conference was shorter than the 2012 and 2013 conferences, but even shorter conferences would be better). Shorter conferences would also help reduce the cost of attending the conference. 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, the feedback was split between the two options – some participants prefer to have only their own district, while others like the opportunity to meet members from other districts. Virtually all participants like opportunities for discussions with Interactors (high school members of Interact clubs) and Rotaractors (young professionals in Rotaract clubs).


Evaluating district conferences in a serious way is feasible at virtually no cost, as illustrated in the case of Rotary district 7620 in this series of three posts. The results suggest that most participants are highly satisfied with the events. The hotels are often great, as is the organization. Yet areas for improvement include the need to hold the cost of the conferences down and to organize the conferences in such a way that more learning on the future of Rotary and successful service projects can take place. Many of these recommendations have been observed for three years in a row in the evaluations of the conferences implemented by district 7620. The good news is that by learning from these evaluations, the district has been able to further increase satisfaction rates with the conferences.

Next year’s district conference promises to be a bit different from the past three – with more of an emphasis on being financially friendly to new members. The goal, as in previous years, will be to have as many new members in the district attend as possible. But the conference committee is exploring – among other ideas – the possibility of relying on the hospitality of Frederick Rotarians to open their homes for an overnight stay for attendees. With about 400 Rotarians in four clubs living in the Frederick area where the conference will take place, this could be very successful.


Preparing and Evaluating Great Conferences: Part 2 – A Case Study

by Quentin Wodon

For the past three years, Rotary district 7620 has conducted evaluations of its annual district conferences using web surveys. As mentioned in the first post in this series, conducting such evaluations is important. Millions of hours and tens of millions of dollars are invested every year by Rotarians in attending district conferences, yet these conferences are rarely evaluated thoroughly.

This post shows how such evaluations can be useful by summarizing results for the (highly successful) 2014 conference (the report for all three conferences combined is entitled Evaluating Rotary District Conferences: Lessons from District 7620). The third post will provide lessons learned on what Rotarians would like to see in future conferences. While the analysis is specific to district 7620, it probably has broader relevance as well.

The "See Something Say Something" theater performance was the highest rated session at the conference
The “See Something Say Something” theater performance was the highest rated session at the conference

Success of the Conference

The evaluations of the previous two conferences of the district (in 2012 and 2013) suggested that while participants enjoyed these conferences, they could have been shorter and less expensive with more engaging speakers and more learning opportunities. Conferences should also be fun.

Did the district succeed in organizing a great conference in 2014? To a large extent, the answer is yes. The conference was shorter, and had lots of fun, but its cost for participants remained relatively high. The conference was better attended than in previous years. Most participants were seasoned Rotarians, but many Interactors and Rotaractors participated as well, thanks in part to an Interact Leadership Conference organized as a smaller sub-conference within the main conference.

Almost 60 percent of participants rated the conference as better than previous conferences, which is a major achievement (in the previous two years most respondents rated the conference as on par with previous conferences). A total of 100 Interactors, Rotaractors, and Rotarians responded to the web-based evaluation survey for the conference, which makes its results reliable.

Evaluation by Category and Session

Data on satisfaction rates with the facilities and various aspects of the conference were obtained and are shown in the Figure below. Most of the ratings look great with large shares of respondents rating various aspects as very good or good. The hotel rooms as well as the conference and hotel facilities and the convenience of the location ranked at the top. The organization of the conference and the opportunities for fellowship were also well rated. Even the category on learning about Rotary was well rated, but as in previous years only one in five participants said that they had learned a lot of new information that is likely to be useful to them as Rotarians. Apart from the issue with the quality of the food served by the hotel, the cost of the conference was the category with the lowest ratings. This is in fact an issue that has been identified for three years in a row.

Selected Results from the 2014 D-7620 Conference Evaluation
Selected Results from the 2014 D-7620 Conference Evaluation

The evaluation provided feedback on all conference sessions. For 26 sessions the sample size was large enough to tabulate responses (a minimum of 10 respondents per session was required to assess a session individually). The conference was focused on youth (on Friday and Saturday) and Wounded Warriors (for the Sunday brunch). Nine of the 26 sessions got 60 or more “very good” ratings.

By and large these were the sessions on youth, including the traditional Four Way Test competition for high school students, a See Something Say Something theater performance on bullying by Interactors from North Carolina, a speech by Jack Andraka – the winner of the prestigious Intel high school competition, and a speech by Teresa Scanlan – a recent Miss America and founder of an orphanage in Haiti. Also highly rated were the Interact Leadership Conference and the Mother’s Day brunch with wounded warriors on Sunday. Hospitality suites as always also fared very well.

What Worked, What Could be Improved

For those who did not attend this specific conference, all this may seem a bit abstract. But these data and results are provided to make the point that by evaluating conferences through simple web surveys, you can know exactly which sessions were great, and which ones not so great. This obviously can be useful for preparing future conferences. In addition, for the 2014 conference, it was clear that the focus on youth and wounded warriors was a hit, something to keep in mind.

The evaluation – including feedback from open-ended qualitative questions included in the web survey, also suggested areas for improvement, together with data on preferences regarding the type of speakers to invite, the length and cost of these conferences, and some of their other features. All of this will be discussed in the third and last post on this topic.

Note: Part of the analysis in this post is updated from a section in a book published by the author entitled Membership in Service Clubs: Rotary’s Experience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Preparing and Evaluating Great Conferences: Part 1 – The Need

Note: This post is the first in a series of three on preparing and evaluating conferences. Part 1 is about the need to evaluate, part 2 about a case study doing so, and part 3 on some of the lessons learned.

by Quentin Wodon

Many organizations, including firms, NGOs, professional associations, as well as service clubs, organize annual conferences. These conferences are essential not only for running the business of the organization, but also for building team work among the members of the organization. It is not clear however whether these annual conferences are evaluated properly.

Past RI President Bill Boyd at the D-7620 2014 conference
Past RI President Bill Boyd at the D-7620 2014 conference

In the case of Rotary, a global service club organization founded in 1905 which has today 1.2 million members, a global annual convention is organized typically in June of each year. But what may matter more are the conferences organized by each of the 530 or so districts in the world. These district conferences are annual events to which Rotarians from the district are invited to participate. They represent the main event where Rotarians from different clubs belonging to a common geographic area can meet each other and exchange their experiences.

It is important for an organization such as Rotary International to pay attention to district conferences not only because they are essential events in the life of clubs and districts, but also because the resources invested in the conferences are substantial, in terms of both time and money. Right now is the time when many Rotary districts are actively preparing their next annual conference, since these events are typically held in April or May before the end of the Rotary year.

This first post in a series of three on preparing and evaluating great conferences provides quick and dirty “back of the envelope” calculations of the potential investments made in district conferences every year. Because this investment is rather large, the conferences should be evaluated seriously.

Investments in Time

Consider first the allocation of time. To provide a very rough estimate of the time that may be invested every year in preparing and attending district conferences, data from the last three conferences organized by District 7620 can be used. The first conference was organized by district 7620 jointly with district 7630 in 2012. Together the two districts cover the states of Maryland and Delaware, as well as the District of Columbia (that is, the capital city Washington, DC). For the second conference, district 7610 in Northern Virginia joined in as well. The third conference was organized solely by district 7620.

The total attendance at the three conferences combined was estimated at about 1,050 Rotarians and guests. If one considers that activities at the conference go on for up to ten hours per day, and if we assume that participants on average spend 2.5 days attending the conferences (including travel time), with 1050 participants this would represent an investment in time of 26,250 hours. Together, the two districts that organized the joint conference in 2012 have about 4,000 Rotarians, and when the three districts are included for the 2013 conference, membership is above 6,000. For district 7620 in 2014, the membership was at about 2,350. Over the three years, this represents a potential attendance at the conference of close to 12,400 Rotarians. Therefore the amount of time allocated on average for the two conferences was then approximately 2.12 hours per Rotarian per year.

Multiplying this estimate by the number of Rotarians in the world yields an allocation of about 2.54 million hours per year for Rotary worldwide just for Rotarians to attend district conferences. This estimate may well be on the low side given that the attendance rate at the two conferences evaluated in this report, at about 8.5 percent on average for the three years using the approach just outlined, may be lower than is typical in other districts.

In addition, one should include the time spent by district leadership teams and conference committee members as well as district executive secretaries in preparing the conferences. It is not unrealistic to suggest that for any given district at least 30 Rotarians will volunteer time to help prepare various aspects of the conferences, including preparing their own presentations. Some of these Rotarians will spend a very large amount of time on the conferences, especially if they are part of the core organizing committee, while others will spend less time.

Just for the sake of the argument, consider an average of 25 hours spent by each of the 30 Rotarians for preparing various aspects of the conference (this is probably a rather low estimate). With some 530 Rotary districts worldwide, this would generate another 400,000 volunteer hours for preparation. Thus, possibly three million hours are allocated to district conferences every year by Rotarians, and this may well be a conservative estimate. The bottom line is that clearly a large amount of time is allocated to prepare and attend these conferences, so that making these conferences a success does matter for all those involved.

Financial Investments

Consider next the question of cost. Most of the costs of district conferences are borne by participants who pay their hotel bill as well as a fee for attending the conference to cover meals and other costs. A typical fee in the United States to attend a district conference will run at a few hundred dollars including meals and hotel rooms.

District conferences tend to be organized in major hotels or resorts, at least in the United States, so that even when special rates are obtained, room fees will typically be in the $100 to $150 per night. Some Rotarians stay for three or more nights, others for only one or two nights, and some just come for a day. Guests are likely to have additional expenses both at the site of the conference and to get to the conference site.

Assume, again for the sake of the argument, that on average the total cost of the conference per attendee is of the order $600 – it will often be  higher for those staying three nights, but it will be lower for those coming just for one day without staying any night in the hotel or resort. Even based on the somewhat low attendance rate of about 8.5 percent mentioned above for the three conferences considered here, with 1.2 million Rotarians worldwide, this would generate a cost of $61 million per year.

This might be too high because the cost of district conferences may be lower in other countries than it is in the United States. But on the other hand, this does not include special costs for the attendance of high level Rotary officials (whether those are paid for by districts or Rotary International) and other invited speakers. This estimate does not include the cost at Rotary headquarters to oversee and monitor district conferences and it also does not include the cost of the annual Rotary convention that typically welcomes more than 20,000 Rotarians from all over the world each year and could in a way be considered as a super district conference.

This cost estimate also does not factor in the opportunity cost of the time allocated by Rotarians to prepare and attend the conferences (that opportunity cost could be very high if estimated as is normal practice at the wage rate of those involved). Overall, the costs of district conferences are likely to be substantial, and could be higher than those indicated here depending on conference participation rates.


Major investments in time and money are made every year by Rotarians to prepare and attend district conferences. These conferences are the highlight of the Rotary year in each district. They should be evaluated well. The second post in this series will show how this can be done professionally at very low cost with a case study, and the third post will discuss lessons from the evaluation of the last three conferences of district 7620.

Note: Part of this blog post is adapted from a section in a book published by the author entitled Membership in Service Clubs: Rotary’s Experience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).