The Harrogate Pilgrimage: A Journey Worth Making? By Annie Hayes

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The CIPDThe all together more palatable September, term-time slot is one reason why many are attending this year's Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) annual conference. Annie Hayes finds out who is going and why.

Practitioner keynotes and inspirational speakers
There's no doubt that the glitz, glamour and fame that speakers in past conferences brought has made a huge contribution to the event's popularity. Joe Simpson, the mountaineer and author of the book and now film Touching the Void; Cathy O'Dowd, the first woman to climb Everest from both south and north sides; Sven-Goran Eriksson, who needs no introduction; and Adrian Moorhouse, olympic gold medallist and managing director of Lane4, are just some examples of the variety and level of speakers that have hit the conference circuit in years gone by.

This year is no let down either – highlights include an interview hosted by Jeremy Paxman, journalist, broadcaster and author, with management guru Gerry Robinson and Greg Dyke, former director general of the BBC.

Nina Harman, head of conferences and exhibitions for the CIPD remarks that what really excites her about this year's event is the chance for delegates to get involved: "Delegates can submit questions before the keynotes and master classes as well as asking questions on the day – we're aiming at a greater degree of audience interaction."

And with over 100 HR leaders speaking to glean business lessons from, you couldn't go wrong, or could you?

Karen Russell, people director for Kentucky Fried Chicken, says: "I went once and wasn't impressed. The things people talked about, they'd been doing for a long time. There was nothing cutting edge in my opinion and too much was covered; I find events that focus on one topic are more useful."

Not everyone agrees, however. Jon Ingham, author of Strategic Human Capital Management: Creating Value through People is right behind the event: "I'm a fan, and attend whenever I can. I don't know anywhere else that I could get to see the range of world-class speakers so cheaply."

Sandy Boyle, HR director of regional law firm Mills and Reeve, agrees and believes that the list of speakers on offer is one of the prime reasons for attending:

"I make a point of going to the conference if at all possible. It is one of the leading management conferences in Europe and attracts some of the best speakers and thought leaders in the areas of leadership, strategy, HRM, change and organisational development. I have heard the likes of Handy, Porter, Hamel, Markides, Ulrich, Nohria to name but a few."

The exhibition
Of course the master classes and keynotes is just one facet of the event – the exhibition is huge and showcases the talents of 300 leading suppliers in what the organiser's term "the largest people management exhibition".

Iain Young, former head of HR for Cofathec Heatsave, says that sourcing the right supplier is one reason why he might attend. But whilst accessing the high-flyers in the supplier market is an opportunity for some, others are concerned about the 'unwelcome attention'.

Keith Luxon, director of HR for Three Valley Waters, says about last year's event: "Whilst you can see lots of exhibitors in a small timescale, unless you are very disciplined you will be plagued by semi cold calls for months to come. I am sure some people must do business at these things, it's just the I have never met anyone who has. The number of 'freebies' you see scattered around the rubbish bins of Harrogate is amazing."

"We've grouped this year's exhibition into new 'HR needs' zones. It'll make it even easier to find the suppliers you want to meet."

Nina Harman, head of conferences and exhibitions, CIPD

Indeed, many environmental campaigners would be horrified at the number of wasteful freebies on offer that end up in landfill all too quickly, from caricature drawings to flower-shaped highlighter pens and squeezable stress-busting toys.

Roger Edwards, director of consulting and client relationships for Pilat HR Solutions, says that it can be tough for exhibitors also: "There was a stage in the event's history that if you weren't there as a supplier it was seen as a negative, but from past experience it is not always useful. A third appear to be graduates whilst a third are consultants, which isn't a huge return on investment for a supplier.”"

Harman defends the exhibition, as you might imagine, and says that there's lot more on offer this year to tantalise the taste buds: "We've grouped this year's annual exhibition into new 'HR needs' zones. It'll make it even easier to find the suppliers you want to meet."

Zones include employee benefits and rewards, recruitment and talent management and HR software. In each zone there is a showcase theatre with free mini 'stop and learn' update sessions running throughout the day.

Networking

Harman is also excited about the new networking opportunities available at this year's conference. Dedicated networking events are being held for sectors including the third sector, financial services, public sector and retail, as well as in HR specialist areas such as organisational development, international, recruitment and resourcing, strategy, managing change and reward.

These changes might go some way to pleasing those that have failed to be impressed by the opportunities for meeting others. Luxon, commenting last year, wasn't convinced, for example, that the networking opportunities were pitched at the right levels:

"There was a stage in the event's history that if you weren't there as a supplier it was seen as a negative, but from past experience it is not always useful. A third appear to be graduates whilst a third are consultants which isn’t a huge return on investment for a supplier."

Roger Edwards, director of consulting and client relationships, Pilat HR Solutions

"The networking opportunities are harder to find, at least of the right quality, you really have to work hard to get to the right events and meet the right people. If you are prepared to put the effort in before and during the conference then you can meet some interesting people. But at a senior level there are better, more focused networking events."

Young also believes that better networking opportunities are available via other events and for a cheaper price: "I think the conference is too expensive for most private organisations. If you look at the name badges of many of those who are attending the conference, a large majority seem to come from the councils or the public sector.

"When in many private organisations the training budget per employee is only a few hundred pounds how can I justify spending £1,263.13 to attend the CIPD conference? Especially when I can attend events such as The Human Resources Forum or The Human Resource Summit at no charge apart from my train fare and a few incidentals; and I am more likely to be meeting my peer group than at Harrogate."

Sadly money does play its part and for many, like Young, the cost is not acceptable. Member Brian Rogers said: "I have never been as I have been able to get what I want at other events at far less cost. I think HR practitioners in private business have already got a lot to do to convince boards/directors of their worth, and asking them to pay the high cost for the conference, which many would see as a 'jolly', only adds to the problem. For the same amount of money I could send two people on courses that would enable them to get their obligatory CPD training for a year!"

But many of the 5,000 or so that do attend are very happy with the opportunities on offer to exchange ideas, hear about the latest thinking and trends, and meet with suppliers and network.

The opportunity to visit a beautiful former spa town and get away from the office is reason enough for many to attend. Getting the most from the event is the secret, says Harman, who advises: "Spend some time planning on what you want to achieve and see at the event." Harman suggests pre-booking appointments with suppliers through the website.

And if a return on investment is putting the brakes on making the pilgrimage, then future attendees could do worse then heeding Harman’s planning tips – there can be no doubt that what the CIPD annual conference and exhibition does excel in is offering the opportunity to test new products, hear great speakers and catch up on latest thinking all in one location; and now in a earlier autumnal time-slot that will please working parents who no longer have the debate on whether the half-term trip is justifiable.

The conference is being held from 18-20 September 2007 in Harrogate, Yorkshire.

Are you attending this year's conference and if so what did you think of it? Alternatively have you decided against it? Add your comment below.

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