18th Commonwealth Forestry Conference 2010 : Edinburgh, 28 June - 2 July 2010
AJ - Alan Johnston / JT - Jonathan Taylor
AJ -What was your experience and where did the Bureau help you?
JT - For myself and my colleagues, it was such a steep learning curve. To have the Bureau readily available and so readily accessible was a huge advantage.
AJ - Conferences are terribly important for the city in terms of profile of the individual industries and the great thing about Edinburgh is the amount of expertise there is in such a wide range of different fields. What persuaded the committee to choose Edinburgh as a destination for the 2010 conference?
JT - We undertook a scoping study. London was discounted due to cost and logistics. We looked at Oxford, Cardiff and Edinburgh - they all came up equally favourably but Edinburgh came through very strongly on what the city could offer - the access, the type and range of accommodation, where the conference centre was situated and the fact that we are based here made things easier to manage.
We knew with Edinburgh we had a destination city but for us having a good venue that was representative of this great destination was just as important to us. This conference doesn't happen that often, once every 4/5 years, and Forestry does not attract big money - we had to work with that. We know that people are attracted by what a city has to offer.
AJ - You want a city to be attractive but you also don't want to lose delegates with them wandering off - how did you strike that balance?
JT - We made sure that we captured people at key points during the programme
AJ - I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the current experience of creating a conference and in particular the difficult bits - where could you have done with more help? One thing I saw in the notes that fascinated me was that the last time the conference was in the UK was in the 1970's! What persuaded people to come back to the UK?
JT - Yes - 1974. The background to the conference, which used to be called the "Empire Forestry Conference", was that the Head of the Forest Services used to steam off round the world to update each other. Thankfully we have moved onto the modern era.
What the conference has turned into is a forum to meet under a shared language and to share common experiences. And although you have a very diverse country spread in the Commonwealth - from temperate areas up to the North of Canada to tropical island states - and people with very different backgrounds - what you tend to find is you have a lot of common approaches and by sharing that experience you are enabling people to get a common understanding and the conference has evolved to meet those requirements.
We were also aware of the level of demand of people these days and therefore you have got to make the conference relevant. In the past the conference happened and you were expected to attend. That doesn't happen anymore and so that was something we had to be quite careful about - the challenge is actually saying, why is this relevant for people to attend - it is not just a case of presenting a paper - what are the audience and the presenter going to get out of this experience?
AJ - I think that must apply to all conferences but surely it must have been an even bigger issue for you given the diverse range of territories that your delegates were coming from and the relative financial inequity between those territories so was there any funding support, or is that an issue nowadays?
JT - We had very little funding support. When we decided to bring the conference to the UK, we realised pretty quickly that we were going to have support a lot of assisted places. And it is something that has happened before and we had experience of it. And we have good contacts with the Department for International Development and their international equivalents around the Commonwealth.
Fairly early on we approached the different departments and organizations asked are you willing to support us with assisted places. We were lucky that we secured funding -not as much as we hoped from overseas countries but that again comes back to where people see the priorities in tough economic times and as is often the case, overseas events go first.
AJ - but having a conference in a location which has already a reputation in the subject must make it more attractive to get approval
JT -We knew that we had to demonstrate added value to the delegates. We knew that we had enough confidence in the city - we know it would take care of itself and appeal as destination. We also knew the conference centre offered enough flexibility for whatever people wanted; side events were easily accommodated by the EICC and any applications were easily handled and we could offer people meetings in the conference margins - we knew we could accommodate it and we had that flexibility.
AJ - in the end I think you had more than 400 delegates - was that where your expectations were?
JT - we were pleased with the final numbers - we would have preferred more but it is incredibly difficult to plan.
We really were in the dark for a long time and in the initial scoping process we wrote out to various heads of forest services and organizations to ask them if they were sending people and we expected to get around the 600 mark. And then the bottom fell out of the financial market and the world changed.
We did seriously consider if we could continue but we decided that the reputational damage and the investment that we had already made meant we carried on and in the end we had just over 400 delegates from 40 different countries. We also found that many of those who attended had trained in Edinburgh or Aberdeen and came back to renew old links. One even took a trip up to Bruntsfield to see the flat he lived I as a student!
We did have quite a lot of people follow online - we joined up with a Dutch University - one of their post grads came over and effectively did a blog of the sessions for people to follow short summaries of live updates - a sort of mixture between Twitter and a newsletter - and we had an extra 300-400 following us online.
AJ - a great use of modern technology. Was there any facility or did you consider any facility for online delegates to contribute or ask questions?
JT - We did and it's hard. The technology is very expensive, the difficulty of time zones, remote people coming in, have we got the full question etc - it was one of things we thought of but it was just too impractical.
AJ - Did you find delegates were less willing to sign up until late on?
JT - It was definitely a challenge, deciding what to set your early bird rates at, for how long, and whether to extend. The rates needed to be set at a realistic level and we set prices which we felt were reasonable - they included dinner, a reception at the Castle and a field trip. Even so a large chunk of our delegates still booked within the last month prior to the conference.
AJ - Stressful for you and for the venue, but a short lead time is becoming more common and something we need to adapt to. What about the legacy that the conference has left behind?
JT - Putting on a good conference invigorated the Commonwealth Forestry Conferences' future, its role and the value of the event. There had been criticism in the past of where the conference where held and what value it was adding.
We were pleased that a Professional Foresters Network came together as a result of the conference to provide a support group for those wanting to achieve professional chartered status, and how to set up professional institutions etc - it is a source of information for, particularly, developing countries. In addition a number of the organisations that we had partnered with during the conference programme - including The University of Edinburgh, the Commonwealth Forestry Association and some other NGO's were able to establish new links with research organisations around the Commonwealth.
AJ - (Agrees) When I was involved with the UK Society of Biology a group was formed to rationalise standards across countries - it is harder to do the further away the country.
JT - Sometimes it can be as simple as providing information and materials - especially for some developing countries.
AJ - Any advice you would pass onto others considering hosting a conference?
JT - Planning - you cannot foresee all of the problems that you may encounter but if you have an early understanding of what your focus is for the conference - its key objectives, shape, style and approach - once that is sorted, the rest just follows. Also getting the full "live" price is important to set your registration rates ie the cost of all the elements as early as possible - we found that difficult.
I would absolutely recommend a PCO - I found this service to be invaluable.
AJ - Anything that could have been better, or where the ECB could have provided additional support?
JT - No, not really. The support was very good. ECB came up with things we had not thought about. They provided marketing leaflets for us to promote the conference at the World Forestry Conference in Argentina which took place prior to ours. This generated a good response and little things, such as sponsoring a bottle of whisky to give away on the stand - something we did not think of, simple, but very effective.
What would be useful would be some guidance as to how to approach potential sponsors. We approached them initially in a fairly blunt fashion and so some general pointers as to where to start and how would have been useful. We learned that sponsors need to be contacted well in advance - they set their budgets far in advance and so need plenty warning.
AJ - How should we encourage other potential Ambassadors and make them aware that there is support out there in the form of ECB?
JT - I chatted to a few people at work following our experience and explained just how "do'able" it is.
AJ - yes we need to get the younger generation to tale up the mantle - it looks good on your CV especially if you have secured big speakers.
JT - Yes we did pull in a lot of favours to get speakers and took the line with them that said you will be on a big platform for your issue and you will look good!
AJ - And it's great that the Bureau support is there. I received great support from the Bureau for just a small conference for 25 delegates. It's important that others realise that it does not have to be the large numbers - ECB provide support for smaller meetings too.
JT - I think that is the way that it is going to be - smaller meetings focused on value for money where organisations can collaborate and support each other.
AJ - So did your delegates have a good time?
JT - Absolutely! Online feedback returned very few complaints and the success was measured by the large number that stayed on for holidays.
AJ - Did many delegates bring partners and families with them?
JT - Yes. ECB provided support with online information, providing links for delegates to easily access what there is to see and do, and also guidance towards other useful websites. We found that people liked to do their own thing as long as they have the initial steer as to where to look.
We picked a great time of year, late June/early July - good time for the academic timetable and the weather was great!
• Delegates - 400 plus additional 300-400 online
• Type - Commonwealth from 40 countries
• Duration - 5 days
• Venues - EICC and Edinburgh Castle
• Economic benefit - £774,000
Websites for further information: