Follow-up: Why, to me, the Strategy Conference in Human Resources, organized by HR Club Romania 12th March, 2009, at J.W. Marriott, Bucharest had the best conference organization I’ve ever seen?

This blog post starts with the conclusion: to me, a conference I took part to two days ago had the best organization I’ve ever seen at a conference. Why? Find out below.

Warning: long post ahead.

How can I write about a careful planned event without giving all the details? Find out my solution, divided this way:
1. Why am I biased when I make this evaluation?
2. A personal case study: how was the conference for me?
3. Analysis of a conference in quite a few questions:

a. How were the speakers?
b. What speakers I like best?
c. How was networking (a personal case study)?
d. How was the timing of schedule?
e. How was the food?
f. How was the location?
g. How were the banners?
h. What have I learned?
i. How were the Marriott employees?
j. How was the web site of the conference?
k. How were the materials given at the conference?
l. How were the speakers thanked for?
m. How was the technical part?
n. How were the helping people of HR Club?
o. How was the timing of the conference as two days in the year?
p. How was the audience?
q. How was Corporate Social Responsibility?
r. How was the main organizer of the event, Carmen CUCUL?

Note: „HR” means „Human Resources”.

1. Why am I biased when I make this evaluation?
The reasons for me to be biased when making this evaluation include:
a. For quite a few years, I’ve been a colleague in LEADERS Romania with the current Executive Director of HR Club, Carmen CUCUL; Actually, when I first visited LEADERS Romania for the initial interview, Carmen CUCUL was just being interviewed by LEADERS’ CEO; And we were colleagues in LEADERS for quite a few years and worked on projects; For me, it was a fun experience
b. I was part of the HR Club Summer School of 2008 and made a few friends (from my part) with participants and organizers;
c. In the day of the evaluation I was in a very tiring state of mind: I’ve only slept 5 hours the night before and I felt a bit dizzy; While this may sound awkward, this might also have helped me notice things differently in a good way; I’m much more attentive to details in such states of mind;
d. I helped organizing the conference, so it was a little bit of personal involvement in there (how can I say about my work not being perfect? I actually can, but I may be biased when saying it was so nice).

2. A personal case study: how was the conference for me?
Exactly three weeks prior to the conference, I contact the one person I knew best in HR Club: Carmen CUCUL. My e-mail contained an offer (to help), and a request (to participate to the conference). Carmen CUCUL was very gallant, and allowed me to help them out.

Then a nice thing happens: HR Club gave 5 invitations to prior generations of graduates of HR Club Summer School. I’ve been a member of a Summer School in 2008. The value of the classes was high (very good speakers, great locations), while the cost for the participants was low (actually it was free for those to be admitted). And now, in a time of crisis, HR Club does a beautiful thing and invites 5 HR Club Summer School participants to join a great event for free. Now that’s a very good Corporate Social Responsibility and all done in silence (no advertisment for this).

Time passes. Three days prior to the conference, I send another email to get an update on how can I help. I’m informed by Alexandra Aignatoaie, Project Manager within HR Club, when and how I should come and help them out.

Time passes again. It’s 11th of March, the end of the first day of the seminars, and the evening prior to the conference. It’s 6 PM sharp and I’m at Marriott to help the girls (from HR Club and external people) organizing the room. Basically, I helped caring about two hundred bags from the middle of a large room to the margins. This took about one and a half hours. There were quite a few people (girls, actually) helping organizing the thing, and everyone was helping. At the end of the session (after leaving a bit earlier to go see a movie) I was informed I should be there tomorrow at 6:30 – 7:00 AM.

Due to some unexpected events in that evening (such as a movie with a friend and a discussion with a client of mine), by midnight I was still awake. The next day, at 5:20 AM I was up & running, and at 6:30 AM I was, once again, at Marriott.

Who do you expect was, in the day of the event, at 6:30 AM, at the Marriott hotel? All of the HR Club members involved in the project and a few outside people (more to come in a few dozens of minutes). I was really impressed of the effort required to be at the hotel both in the evening prior to the event and in the morning. For me, sleeping 5 hours that night meant sleeping 12 hours the next day. For the organizers, it was somehow natural.

I helped out the conference a bit more (you may notice the emphasis I put on my own work): arranging some banners, giving some not-asked-for-but-still-welcome pieces of advice. From about 8 AM to 8:30 AM I helped welcoming the guests, and then I went to buy some stuff for the organizers (I even negotiated the price and got 20% off). From 9 AM, when I was back from the city, until 9:30 AM I went outside the hotel to fix a personal thing, then all day I’ve been at the event. Now you know the conference background. Here comes the great stuff: Analysis of a conference via some questions.

3. Analysis of a conference in quite a few questions:
a. How were the speakers?
First of all, let me tell you how a typical conference goes: you get to see some speakers live.

There are two options with speakers at a conference: you either know them (you’ve seen them before) or you don’t (oh, goodies!, new faces). As you can imagine, it’s very good to have fresh people at a conference.

That’s a first classification. Another classification I make is regarding the type of speech they hold. Some speakers try to be fairly interesting, they prepare a speech, they do a bit of a research, while other speakers come and speak about their company (sometimes this thing is masked as a „Case study”, which is quite a beautiful name for blunt self-advertising).

Yet another classification from my part is the degree in which the person can keep you attentive. This is easy to be done by free speech, flexing the voice, involving the public, having great body language and other things that make great orators great. Oh yes, and making things funny and laughable does help a lot. How do organizers get into this picture? The organizers have either seen the speakers prior to the conference (this means there’s a high chance of the participants knowing the conference), or they haven’t seen them before (which means they may be poor speakers).

As you can imagine, the best type of speaker is that who you haven’t met before, a speaker that doesn’t speak about its company to try and „sell” it to you, and finally a person that can make you attentive while they speak (as said, laughing is great for this).

Now getting back to the HR Club’s Strategy Conference in Human Resources, I’ll tell you how they made a great success out of these requirements and how they can improve.

First of all, let’s have a look at the speakers in the panel:

  • Dr. Lisbeth CLAUS, Ph.D., SPHR, GPHR, Professor of Global HR, Willamette University, USA;
  • Anca Georgescu ALADGEM, Chief Human Resources Officer, Romtelecom;
  • Brent W. MATTSON, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Learning & Development Executive, Enterprise Learning & Talent Management, Bank of America;
  • Dave ULRICH, Partner and co-founder The RBL Group and Professor of Business – Ross School of Business, University of Michigan;
  • Radu PANAIT, HR Vice-President, Ursus Breweries Romania.

There are just two persons from Romania in that list. The conference had three parts:
a. First half in the morning (various speakers, half of them from Romania);
b. Second half in the morning and first half in the afternoon (Dave Ulrich);
c. Second half in the afternoon (one Romanian speaker and two foreign persons).

As you can imagine, I’ve only seen before this conference the moderator (Csaba GERGELY, president of HR Club). That’s it. All of the non-Romanian people were unknown even by name. So, the very first good thing about the HR Club organization was picking up people from other countries (sure way to make sure they are not known).

That was point one. Point two: Choosing people from other countries was also good for the self-promotion part. While the Willamette University, Bank of America, Ross School of Business, Willamette University may be well known in the US, speaking about them in Romania is quite futile. The speakers had no incentive to self-promote their companies and institutions, their target audience was really not interested. You genuinely had to speak about something else about your company (also, some of these companies and institutions may be well unheard of in Romania).

Another great trick? In the very first part of the day, when there were a few Romanians speaking, the moderator gave them the following task: answer to this question. There was no presentation involved, each speaker had to answer the questions. How can I, a Romanian speaker, promote my company when I have to answer a specific question? It’s quite tricky. Great solution by HR Club.

Yet another trick? In the first half of the morning they’ve brought the speakers to answer questions. In the second half of the afternoon, all of the US-based speakers held a presentation. They’ve used the speakers quite a lot, I can say. Since they’re already there, why not use the maximum potential? Good stuff!

The thing on which HR Club did poorly was picking boring speakers. How can you tell, prior to the conference, if the speaker is boring or not?

i. See him live (harder for those in the US, I’d say);
ii. Hear them talking on a subject on the phone for 5 minutes (it is disturbing to tell them in-their-face that they are being monitored for speaking fine, and if they don’t speak fine they won’t get picked, but it is one solution; you also can’t see body language on the phone);
iii. Find other people’s opinion on them (this might be people who attended their conferences and posted on a blog or forum, like I do it in here).

This is one point where HR Club didn’t do so well. Sure, this is only a one out of three requirement, and I must say that finding an unknown speaker, who won’t talk about his own company and won’t bore you. And repeat this procedure for all the speakers. Two out of three is fine enough.

b. What speakers I like best?
i. Dave ULRICH gave me the best insights. It made me think on different thing, and learned a few things. In the 12th of March 2009 I had two opportunities: either to attend a conference by LEADERS organization with Jim BAGNOLA, or to see the HR Club conference. In any given day, I’d go to see Jim BAGNOLA. Great speaker, best trainer I’ve ever seen (I’ll have a blog post on him sometimes in the following months I hope). He’s just perfect. On this blog I’ve also written about Nigel RISNER (I knew him at yet another HR Club conference; he was the last speaker of the day, not that many people in the room; You can see that for the 2009 event, HR Club put Dave ULRICH right in the middle – not the first, not the last; They do learn!). Nigel RISNER was speaker also, he and Jim BAGNOLA were great choices for a conference day. But the thing is, I prefer seeing a less-than-perfect speaker talking to me, rather than just see the perfect speaker again and again. Sure, in a normal day I’d go see Jim BAGNOLA and Nigel RISNER. But in that very special day of 12th of March, I’d love to see Dave ULRICH more than anyone else. David ULRICH knew all the tricks in the book. He knew he should listen, he knew he should make fun of things (even of himself), he was fast to reply, he used some basic tipically affirmations („that’s a great question”), he had good body language, he engaged the room, he put a lot of questions, he repeated thing, he made pauses after saying something to be remembered. This blog post is not about what he didn’t do good. Enough to say that although he knew all these things, the end result was not as good. But, at the end of the day, it was more useful for me to understand why he didn’t do good (and I won’t tell you that), than to see yet another perfect seminar by Jim BAGNOLA, or a provocative workshop with Nigel RISNER. I learned a lot of things from faults, more than from (previously seen) perfect behavior. And he had a good enaging spirit, kept me awake (very important) the whole day. Not bad, quite a good speaker all-in-all, with all his faults.

ii. Florin TALPES was another speaker at the conference. He was only present in the first half of the morning. Very smart, good answers, logical and lovely to hear. His strong point? Analytical skills. Great ideas to learn from him.

iii. But the speaker I liked most at this conference wasn’t present with his name in any of the speakers’ lists. He was serious, no joke when he held his speech. He had a less-than-one-minute speech, which he started with „I am not a HR person”. In that one minute, he made two affirmations which made my mouth drop:
a. (approximate understanding by me) We will launch a HR Software solution for the US market;
b. (approximate understanding by me) Within companies with a turnover of a range from millions to billions USD, we wish to hire CEOs and CFOs. All of these positions come with no special MBA required.

The affirmations (or at least how I understood) were made by Eric KISH (VP Retail The Rompetrol Group). It made me wish to include him on this blog with a dedicated blog post.

What have I learned from Eric KISH? In his one minute of speaking it made me understand that the MBA has some value (he said exactly the opposite thing, but, nevertheless, it made me wonder).

c. How was networking (a personal case study)?
When I came into the conference room at 9:30 the conference already begun. Most of the seats were taken. I waited for the speaker to end his presentation, and while presenting the next speaker I went at the very first table in the room. At that table I knew two persons, and I previously spoke with another. There were three other persons at the table. With two of them I had a talk by the end of the conference, and the other one suggested that I should speak for the whole group when requested so in some sort of a game.

When I was in the Summer School at HR Club, I had three colleagues in a mini-group, other than the whole group of participants. All of my colleagues in the mini group were there, plus another one from that promotion (my group was very engaged, it seems).

As you might expect, I talked with other people at the conference.

The best place for networking was a place I’d hate to be in any other circumstance: the smoking place. In Marriott hotel there was a special room dedicated to smoking. Good connections made in there, it’s easier to speak with a person in there.

The schedule for pauses was kept tightly, so there was plenty of room for networking.

d. How was the timing of schedule?
I’m sorry, but I didn’t quite monitor this. I was late from the beginning, and I didn’t quite care about the other points in the program. I can say that the schedule wasn’t followed to the last minute, but the time for breaks was followed, and everything else was thus fine by me.

Good learning experience meant I cared less about timing.

e. How was the food?
In general, at a conference you get to see this kind of food arranging: a wider or smaller group of foods, with a finite quantity. In the first 15-30 minutes of serving the food, the best foods are over, and the people coming late get to eat the remaining (not-so-good food).

Here comes a great solution from HR Club: there was a reasonable amount of variety of foods (pasta, veggies, potatoes, fish, chicken). All these 5 (or around so) foods were doubled: each side of the table contained these exact foods. You may think that the fish and chicken ended first and the problem was not solved. Well, not quite. The food was replaced by the Marriott personnel (I saw this myself), and 40 minutes after initial serving, you could still have the same food. The sweets and cookies were varied and at the same time a lot. Plenty of sweets to choose from, great quality.

All day the were: three types of ice tea, coffee (and of course accessories like milk and sugar), and three types of Pepsi-brand drinks (Mirinda, two types of Pepsi, 7UP), two kinds of water (whatever that may mean – still and carbonated).

In the first break of the day and in the very morning you could also have some three kinds of croissant (this is Marriott-specific and in my opinion it is the worst food for the whole day, I didn’t like it at all).

But all-in-all good food, good drinks, and not-really-that-bad croissants.

f. How was the location?
Well, it’s Marriott. I’ve worked for almost one and a half year at a company 5 minutes away from Marriott and I can say it’s quite easy to get there by any means (with the caution that the automobile and bus traffic in the morning can be a problem in Bucharest). But considering it’s a 15 minutes walk by foot from the subway (and my-oh-my, it’s passing right from a nearby park), it’s a fairly well chosen location.

The size of the conference room was enormous, not too many locations in Bucharest can accommodate more than 200 people. Go Marriott!

Oh, and the speakers’ positioning was great. The room was a rectangle. You had two options: putting the speakers at the middle of the very long or of the very short side of the rectangle. HR Club chose well. The speakers were placed at the middle of the long rectangle, I think it’s the best solution. Go HR Club, too!

g. How were the banners?
If I hadn’t help organized the event, I wouldn’t even have noticed this aspect. At one time, when I was outside the room I had nothing to do and I’ve read some things on a banner. I also saw, during the conference, the main banner of HR Club, with all the sponsors and partners. And the massage-giving team was hidden by a banner and a flower (I knew this from the morning). That was it. I never noticed any of the other banners.

I’d say that the banners were zero-obtursive to the participants at the conference: besides the main banner behind the speakers, during the conference my eyes were free to watch everything. Very warm and cool atmosphere. And while outside, I was generally too busy talking to people, rather to watch a banner.

h. What have I learned?
First of all, I learned, from a person giving me a delicate 10-15 minutes massage (even at the fingers), that I have no obvious back problem. That’s useful for you to know, wouldn’t you agree?

The conference also made me realize I have to make my SEO blog much faster.

I’ve also learned that a good question to help understand women is: „How are you feeling today?”. Ladies will feel they are understood.

For a more serious approach to what I’ve learned on HR strategy, see this (summarized, I promise!) blog post of mine: What have I learned at the Strategy Conference in Human Resources in the spring of 2009?.

i. How were the Marriott employees?
I had these four experiences:
a. After a night of a 5 hours sleep, in the morning, I saw a Marriott employee putting a sign on the door saying details about the conference; I was very intrigued (my mind always is after such a night) about how does this work; And my „be reasonable, act cool” pattern of thinking is very sound asleep, I opened the thing holding the paper; Naturally, the piece of paper with conference details fell on the floor and I tried to put it back; The Marriott employee saw this and, with a smile on her face, offered to help me; So, it went very Ok; That person always smiled that day and helped us out; Great employee!
b. I go to one waitress: „Where is the post office?”, I ask; „I don’t know”, she says; If you were expecting a follow-up to this, well, there wasn’t any; She just didn’t know; But, I might add, she could have helped me find out in other ways (asking, phoning, giving me directions); Well, she could;
c. I go to another waitress (I never learn): „Where is the post office?”, I ask (if you wonder how come, after working one and a half years in the area, I didn’t know where the Post office was, well, it’s memory issue, doubled by, you’re right!, lack of sleep); „Right across the street”, she says; „I know that there’s a Romtelecom office”, I insist, „is there a post office there too?”; „I don’t know, ask the doorman”; Now, if she didn’t know, why did she answer in the first place? I went there and there was no postal office, just Romtelecom;
d. I go to a helping young man from Marriott; „Can you help us put a sign at the entrance of Marriott, so that the people know where the conference is held?”, I ask; „Well, there’s a list of events in the lobby, and the rooms have clear signs”, he said in a not-that-happy voice; So much for help;

All-in-all I was amazed by the always smiling Marriott employee, a great person. But the overall attitude of Marriott persons was not great.

j. How was the web site of the conference?
You can see it right here:

Sure, my SEO eyes tell me at least the titles of the page should be unique, the black background is not a great choice for reading, the use of a subdomain doesn’t bring that much of a value to HR Club, a microsite or a subfolder was to be preferred, some speakers were not on schedule, after the conference ended there was no news on the web site, no follow-up, the conference specifies two days, but it’s actually a one-day conference preceded by a seminar, the emails on the contact page are not clickable, but it’s a decent website.

It shows all the required information, the sponsors’ banners have working links on them, the information is well structured, and the visual impact is good.

It’s a fairly decent web site.

k. How were the materials given at the conference?
Basically, I got two pens, two writing pads, a program schedule, an English book by the keynote speaker, and … ta-da! a working, great looking, women’s watch. My parents in Navodari couldn’t believe they such give free watches to conferences (my father was in Bucharest these days, he went home today).

Let’s just say that at the end of the day no one at my table left its bag with goodies at the table.

l. How were the speakers thanked for?
This is special. Besides Csaba GERGELY encouraging people to applaud whenever necessary, each speaker got a cute prize and a diploma. The women speakers got a very-well-picked-at-a-great-negotiated-price (so I’ve been told) bouquet of flowers.

I have yet to see such things at a conference. Sure, some speakers get paid (while others compensate by promoting their business), but this atmosphere was lovely and cute, in such a way that I’ve never seen speakers treated more nicely than at this conference.

m. How was the technical part?
The HR Club’s little helpers made the „get this microphone here” action very pleasant. There were two projectors, so you could see the presentation from both sides of the large conference room. There was a movie by HR Club that went smoothly, while the presentations went fine. All quiet on the technical front.

n. How were the helping people of HR Club?
At the reception desk there was literally an army of people welcoming guests. At most of the time, in the morning, there were 3 people who only gave the participants the instructions, one writing badges for people not on the list, and from time to time there were HR Club members checking things out and helping.

All day there was always someone at the reception desk and the microphones were flying during the conference.

Oh, a bonus: when the helping people asked people to join the conference, they were all smiling, put little pressure, and somehow they manage not to force things. It all went natural, I never felt that if I will be a bit late, this will be very bad. But since everyone went into the rooms, no real pushing was necessary. A very gentle way to handle the situation, I can say.

Regarding my personal experience as an organizer, the HR Club persons listened to all my surely-not-that-good advices. The helping people were smarter than that, and listened to none. This might also be due to my poorly way of explaining things.

o. How was the timing of the conference as two days in the year?
Well, they’ve put in the same day with a conference with Jim BAGNOLA, so it must have been bad. Kidding, an event like this is planned months ahead, you can’t tell what other events may be. As a positive side, in that evening there was a MBAs, graduate, and post-graduate education fair at the Intercontinental Hotel (if only HR Club announced the participants about this event). But if you were informed you had a pleasant option for the evening.

Coming back to the strategy conference, spring (alongside with autumn) is a typical period of time for conferences, it came right in a week after the Woman’s day on 8th of March, so bosses could have felt generous with women employees leaving for a day. (if they bring a watch in return)

p. How was the audience?
They laughed and they interacted pretty Ok. I must say I expected much more interactions, more questions, more vivid implications, but all-in-all it was a decent interaction for a typical group of persons. I had more expectations from a group of HR people, but that’s life.

q. How was Corporate Social Responsibility?
HR Club allowed five members of two HR Summer School to come at the conference. I couldn’t have done it any better.

r. How was the main organizer of the event, Carmen CUCUL?
Let’s say it’s 8 AM, and you’re already at Marriott way before 6:30 AM. You need to check the sound system. And check it. And still test it until everything is fine. At 8 AM people start arriving at the conference. And they come. And they come. And Carmen CUCUL has two options: letting people wait outside the room, in the lobby, or letting them in. And then she does a beautiful thing: she lets them out. The logic? „Instead of letting you in and making you hear bad sounds due to testing the equipment, we prefer to let you wait outside until we solve our problems”. Wonderful thinking, thanks for the tip. Good to know in the future.

In the morning she was worried, she checked things, but she still laughed at my try-to-be-funny-and-didn’t-quite-make-it jokes. At the conference she was always smiling, and helping.

And while I went in the very first row, she sat in the back, to check that everybody’s fine. And she never held a speech, although the main organizer.

Nice people in LEADERS and HR Club, wouldn’t you say?

Bottom line: I’ve never seen an event of similar proportions organized so well. Sure, there were faults, there were things to be done better, but the event organization was great. My congratulations, HR Club!

How do you feel about this blog post? Leave a blog comment below. I’m more than happy to reply.

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