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A Handbook for Leverage and Network Strategy for International Conferences

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada - The Illuminate Consulting Group, December 2010

Executive Summary

This handbook is intended for Canadian stakeholders engaged in international education – from educational institutions to governmental agencies to associations – who participate in, or are responsible for, their organization’s approach to and participation in important international education conferences¹.

The objective of the handbook is to provide these stakeholders with a guide to optimize their conference attendance strategy. The goal is to enable these stakeholders to improve their decision-making, presence, networking and ultimately impact.

The four key findings of this handbook are:

  1. Canada has notably improved its visibility at international education conferences since 2009 (much owing to Edu-Canada   efforts). At the same time, many competitors have increased their efforts as well, and some with considerably more resources than Canada. As a result, Canada has made decent progress overall, but only moderate progress relative to some.
  2. Conferences have morphed from a small, “nice to see you” circuit, to a full-blown battleground for attention, resources, and competitive advantage. Institutions which responded to this trend early have claimed strong footprints. Canadian institutions are still adjusting to this reality.
  3. Gaining influence and gathering important intelligence through conference attendance is not an accidental outcome, but rather one based on minute preparation and strategizing. In the past, most Canadian institutions have not pursued a professional conference attendance approach. It is apparent, however, that NAFSA 2011 in Vancouver has triggered an awakening.
  4. Challenges to creating systematic improvements in Canada’s conference footprint are rooted in the complex federal-provincial structure, pervasive under-funding, and the absence of a national international education marketing agency. Progress has been made with regards to the first issue, and the second and third issues have been positioned on the policy agenda for 2011.

This handbook is structured into four areas of analysis and perspectives:

  1. Chapter 1 offers an introduction and largely technical information on the handbook’s background, research methodology, as well as data gathering and analysis limitations.
  2. Chapter 2 briefly introduces changing conference parameters, ranging from attendee growth to increasing commercialization dynamics. It makes the case for treating conference attendance strategically, and highlights in a case study how a strong conference footprint can turn into tangible competition success. The chapter’s core message is: The international education conference world has changed notably, and in order to succeed attendees need to address this change.
  3. In Chapter 3, twelve major international education conferences and exhibitions are analyzed with a view on participants, speakers, chairs, and exhibitor populations; governance structures; cost; and the presence and representation of Canadian stakeholders.

    One finding is that Canada has a tendency to be underrepresented. At NAFSA, for example, Canada accounted for only half the share of speakers relative to its share of attendees (2010). Thus, one recommendation is to raise the number of Canadian participants and active contributors at key conferences.

    Another finding is that countries with which Canada competes have professionalized their conference attendance, often investing many times over the resources available to Canadian representatives. This has historically included Australia and the UK and more recently Germany, Korea, and Taiwan.

    While Canada’s presence has significantly improved since the launch of the “Education au/in Canada” brand and a concerted exhibition hall presence, the continued under-resourcing of these initiatives diminishes much of the recent gains. The recommendation is to increase funding to a competitive level.
  4. Chapter 4 offers a four-item planning and analysis toolkit. A Decision-Making Matrix constitutes the first tool which assists institutions with identifying the proper set of conferences to attend, a rationale for determining objectives, and methodology for selecting which staff member(s) to send. This Matrix was drawn up in reaction to the often ad hoc approach to conference attendance by Canadian institutions, which in turn yielded little leverage.

    The second tool is a conference planner which allows for a full planning cycle one year ahead of a given conference. This tool drives home the point that only timely actions will result in an optimal conference attendance result, whereas belated actions can turn quite costly.

    A third tool set offers detailed suggestions concerning mode of attendance, conference contributions, exhibition presences, event hosting, networking strategies, etc. Essentially, this tool set offers a pragmatic “do” and “don’t” list.

    The final tool set is a case study of how to minimize the cost of attending a conference. Contrary to a widely held belief, attending a conference, especially in North America, can be done for little money with the right amount of up-front planning and volunteering.

The handbook does not close with sweeping recommendations. Rather, it is intended to assist Canadian stakeholders by offering quantitative and qualitative analysis matched to specific, detailed recommendations and tools.

Research for this handbook included extensive quantitative analysis which has been largely cut form this version due to size constraints. The authors can make relevant data available if requested.

A Handbook for Leverage and Network Strategy for International Conferences  (PDF, 320 KB)*

A Handbook for Leverage and Network Strategy for International Conferences Appendix I (PDF, 463KB)*


¹Conferences covered in the report are: AIEA, AIEC, APAIE, CAIE, CONAHEC, EAIE, ENZ, Going Global, IEHE, NAFSA, QS APPLE, and QS MAPLE.
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Date Modified:
2013-01-25