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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Harvard Research on Impact of a Conference

I’ve been a subscriber to Harvard Business Review for many years now. It’s a great way to keep in touch with all the latest theories in the business world. The articles there are backed by meticulous research so you’re not reading half-baked, whimsical opinion pieces. The content has seriousness and substance and comes with the imprimatur of the world’s leading Business School.


Over the years Harvard has published many interesting articles on meetings but a recent on-line piece had me rigid with excitement, reading at the edge of my seat. The article is entitled “Do Women’s Networking Events Move the Needle on Equality?”, a hugely important topic, particularly within the MICE industry, where women constitute the vast majority of the workforce.


The article was written by author Shawn Achor and details research conducted by Achor and Michelle Gielan, best-selling author of Broadcasting Happiness, on the long term career and personal benefits for women of attending Conferences for Women across the United States.  The survey compares and contrasts the mid to long term impact of  the event on conference attendees and conference no-shows, that is, women who registered for the conference but, for whatever reason, didn’t attend.

Survey Results

In relation to promotion and career advancement, twice as many conference attendees were promoted within a year of their attendance than the no-shows. Regarding pay rises the results are even more dramatic with 3 times more conference attendees receiving pay rises within a year  than those who didn’t show up.

The conference attendees were polled too on how the conference impacted their overall outlook on work and life in general. 78% of conference attendees stated they were “more optimistic about the future” while almost 3/4 said they felt “more connected to others”.


Other research conducted by Achor shows how an optimistic outlook generates what he calls a “happiness advantage” that, in turn, improves all business and educational outcomes. Likewise in his book Big Potential, he highlights how the greatest predictor of success and happiness is social connection.

All of this is pretty astonishing. By attending a conference delegates were happier, more connected, more likely to be promoted and more likely to get a pay rise. And all backed up by Harvard-endorsed research!


Achor is careful to point out that not all conferences may produce these transformative effects:

I’m not sure every conference would have such a long-term positive impact. I have been to quite a few where either the conference is unengaging or the attendees are disengaged and on their phones. I think it’s safe to say there is an inverse relationship between the benefits you’ll get from a conference and the time you spend on your laptop or phone.

Conferences for Women is a movement that started 18 years ago by Laurie Dalton White, a former leader at Hill & Knowlton. The conferences aim “to help women further their careers, foster their leadership, channel their strengths and find relevant information for all stages of career and life”. Speakers at the conference have included CEOs, Nobel Peace Prize winners, actors, media personalities and bestselling authors. At last year’s event in Philadelphia Michelle Obama and Shona Rimes, the creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” were on the speaker roster.

What makes a kick-ass conference?

Right, so the conference on which the research was conducted was a kick-ass event with driven, enthusiastic delegates and brilliant, rock-star presenters (who probably give their time for free, “for the sisters”). Achor picks up on this point and comments:

… the key to a beneficial conference, based on my experience speaking at more than 900 conferences over the past 12 years, are (1) a sense of social connection felt by the attendees, (2) engaging sessions, (3) leaders who role model and exemplify the qualities that the conference is attempting to instill, (4) a memorable moment, and (5) a realistic assessment of the present with an optimistic look to the future.

Interestingly, the “T” word (for “T” = technology) doesn’t feature at all among Achor’s ingredients for a “beneficial” conference. He’s much more focused on Face2Face. However, he does provide us with a compelling set of filters to enhance our chances of creating a truly transformational event.

Applying Achor to SITE Global Forum

Achor’s list is particularly applicable in the Association sector where the social connection amongst delegates is more than just, say, shared gender (powerful as that is!). I thought about the recent SITE MPI Global Forum in Rome and wondered how it might score against Achor’s criteria.

So was there a sense of social connection felt by the delegates? Yes, I think there was. Could it have been better? Maybe. What about engaging sessions? Personally I thought the education was excellent. Could it have been better? Maybe. Did our leaders, the SITE Board, the Foundation Trustees, the legacy members of SITE, the Past Presidents “exemplify the qualities that the conference is attempting to instill”. God, I hope so (I belong in that group!). Could we have done it better? Definitely!


Was there “a memorable moment”. For me there were several the personal stories, the Gala dinner. Did we present a “realistic assessment of the present with an optimistic look to the future”? Yes, I think we did. So, overall, a good score but room, too, for improvement. Let’s focus now on what we can do in Bangkok, January 2019.


Achor and Gielen merit a massive thank you from all of us involved in the business of live events whether that’s staging meetings, crafting incentive travel experience or convening conferences. Achor and Gielen have released research that proves beyond all doubt that live events really do work both in career terms and in terms of overall quality of life.

Pádraic Gilligan is Chief Marketing Office at SITE. With his colleagues Patrick Delaney and Aoife McCrum he runs SoolNua, a specialist agency working with destinations, hotels and venues on strategy, marketing and training for the Business Events industry. 




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