When the UK Parliament started its summer recess recently, campaigners breathed a collective sigh of relief and dared to hope for a few quiet weeks in which to progress neglected projects, catch up on reading or go on holiday.
And then they remembered the political party conference season is only weeks away.
Tempting as it is to disappear to the beach when recess begins, it’s worth spending time over the summer working out how to make the most of party conference season. If you have to spend days (or weeks!) locked inside a conference centre subsisting on cheap wine and canapés you may as well make it count, right?
In the thirteen years I’ve been attending party conferences I’ve learned a few things about how to make them work for you.
Some people – if they think about why they are going at all – say they go to conferences to ‘network’. What exactly does that mean? There’s little point in doing the rounds of fringe meetings and receptions if you haven’t thought through in advance what your message is, who needs to hear it and how you’re going to find them.
So before you do anything else, decide if you want to promote a specific campaign, raise the profile of your issue or charity, or do something else? Pick activities to achieve your goal and don’t bother doing other things – just because everyone else seems to be holding a fringe meeting doesn’t mean it’s the right activity for you.
Fringe meetings can of course help to raise the profile of your issue and your charity. They can also be expensive and time-consuming and competition for audience is increasingly fierce. Think carefully about the format of your meeting. A large audience may be attracted by a Cabinet minister speaker but this is not always the best measure of success. Some of the most effective fringe events I’ve been to have been discussions between junior ministers/spokespeople and a small invited audience. Your event should be an opportunity to talk to those you want to influence, not an exercise in how many party members you can provide with a free lunch.
Every year people ask me if they should bother paying for an exhibition stand. My answer is that they are certainly an option but usually only for those charities that are very well-resourced (or lucky enough to bag a freebie). If you are going to shell out for a stand, make it creative and welcoming. Interactive elements tend to attract delegates and staff must be well-briefed to engage delegates in talking about your issue. A sparse-looking stand strewn with a few leaflets staffed by dour people isn’t worth the effort or expense!
It is possible to gain from party conferences without blowing your annual campaigning budget on stands and fringe meetings.
Buy some day passes – one for you and one for your chief executive – and circulate to meet people and promote your issue or campaign. Comb the fringe guide and decide which events the people you want to influence are likely to be at. Approach those you want to talk to. Finally, never leave a fringe meeting without asking a question – it’s a guaranteed way of being heard.