All agricultural conferences must now be in regional areas. No excuses!

You think the ‘buy from the bush’ campaign is a good idea? Here’s an equally useful way to shift large amounts of money into the bush.

Agricultural conferences have traditionally been run in capital cities for sound reasons. Because back when ag conferences started to crank up:

  • Regional flights were less frequent and a lot more expensive in real terms
  • Roads were in poorer shape and vehicles less sophisticated
  • Landline telephones existed but teleconferencing did not, let alone videoconferencing, social media or the internet.
  • Farmers rarely travelled to capital cities due to the cost and time required and mostly, it just wasn’t the done thing.

So the annual ag conference was an opportunity for a break and to attend to a lot of in-person business plus shopping.

Many farmers and station owners now travel regularly and we have videoconferencing, internet banking and online shopping.

So why do agricultural conferences still exist, when most content can be found on Google if you dig hard enough?

Because you can’t beat meeting in person, despite all the advantages of modern technology. Staying home saves a lot of time and money as well as being better for the environment – so conferences presentations must:

  1. Include new information
  2. Provide social and business networking opportunities to meet new people and converse with people already known
  3. Be inspiring and entertaining (otherwise it’s like choking down a feed of just carrots & hard to stay focussed)

But why are agriculture conferences still held in capital cities rather than closer to where farmers live? For reasons that are now feeble.

Beef Australia, Rockhampton, Central Queensland; 2018. One of the venues used that seats many hundreds for dinner or lunch. Don’t wheel out the myth that there’s no regional towns that can cope with the numbers.

Regional depopulation is arguably Australian agriculture’s most serious issue today.

And depopulation is an increasingly downward spiral that accelerates during tough times such as the recent prolonged drought in western Queensland and NSW.  The towns/regions most in need of an injection of visitor income may not be large enough to host more than a thousand people attending a conference but there are innumerable towns sprinkled across regional Australia that do have the capacity to accommodate and feed hundreds of visitors. The turnover for most large conferences runs to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. The smaller the community the more likely it is that the local council will pull out all stops to assist, and locals roll out the welcome mat. Savings from much cheaper venue hire and accommodation costs for speakers could be used to help offset extra expenditure on airfares.

Just imagine how much good an extra few tens of thousands of dollars spent in a regional town could do! How much it could help youth employment and small businesses via the flow of the cash through the community. And what a morale boost for locals. It is absolutely shameful that Australian agricultural organisations continue to run conferences in capital cities instead of ensuring this money is instead invested in regional areas.

Here’s several 2020 agriculture/rural conferences that appear to be located in as inappropriate locations as it was possible to find:

  • The Australasian Vertebrate Pest Conference – Sofitel Melbourne, Collins Street (CBD – the most expensive end); May 2020. The most incongruous location imaginable for a feral pig conference, doubt there will be trophy heads displayed on the walls or any pigshooters in sight.
  • Australian Grains Industry Conference – Crown Promenade, Melbourne CBD; run by Grain Traders Australia but the blurb states that the gathering offers exposure to ‘grain and oilseed producers’, not just a range of others in the chain. July 2020. 850 attendees estimated, attendee estimates are always optimistic; and that’s a figure that would easily be accommodated in a regional venue anyway. Includes a golf day at one of Melbourne’s most prestigious golf courses – that in combination with the venue doesn’t do anything to dispel the view that grain traders are the classic middlemen getting fat on the labours of others. (Not my view, but this is a widely held perception.) Holding this in a regional location would be a sign that they’re prepared to give back to the communities their profit comes from.
  • Ag Tech Summit, Rydges World Square, Sydney CBD; March. With a very high pecking order of ag industry speakers. Adoption is the biggest issue in the ag tech world so holding an ag tech conference in one of the most expensive cities in the world, the city Australian farmers are least likely to want to visit, is ridiculous. To cap it off, the attendance ticket price is $1995 – plus GST. I cannot envisage a single hands-on farmer forking out for that.
  • The Australian Regional Development Conference – The Rex Hotel, Canberra; September. ‘From academics through to regional representatives, business owners and agricultural workers, our programs are diverse and inclusive. We provide a platform for all opinions, experiences and insights to be heard, in order to strengthen the success of our regional areas.’  Firstly, Canberra is great if you want academics and public servants to attend. But it’s the LAST place to run a conference if you’re setting out to be genuinely ‘inclusive’ and hear a diversity of first-hand experiences from regional residents from anywhere other than the immediate vicinity of the ACT. Visiting Canberra requires most regional Australians to take a second flight, mostly from Sydney or Melbourne, but you arrive at the nation’s capital city, not a regional town. It’s the last place most  ‘business owners, agricultural workers and regional representatives’ will want to pay to travel to. And the elephant in the room – the best way to help regional Australia? With the money that visitors bring and by bringing an event to their doorstep, so they have the time and money to attend and make their thoughts known.  Attendance is less than 300 people so there would be dozens and dozens of regional locations that could host this event.
  • The National Landcare Conference -International Convention Centre in Darling Harbour; November 2020. The heart of Sydney, not far as the crow flies from South Head, riddled with lantana, mother-of-millions and other weeds, last time I visited. An extremely bizarre choice of location which will do nothing to help counter the view that those involved in conservation are out of touch with those who manage most of Australia’s landmass – farmers.
  • Conservation Agriculture in 2030 – University of Sydney (run in conjunction with the Australian Farm Institute). June, 2020.  If the point of this conference is to spend valuable time touring Sydney University’s facilities and research plots and meet researchers in situ, for pithy conversations, then this location makes sense. HOWEVER if one of the main aims is to engage with hands-on land managers and actually foster the uptake of conservation measures rather than just researchers chatting about it amongst themselves, Sydney is the most unsuitable location they could have chosen. Just down the road at Orange, Dubbo or Wagga would be infinitely more productive.

And – the 2020 Evoke Ag conference.

Nearly 1,200 delegates apparently attended in 2019. Ticket prices vary but if 1,100 people paid $1,000 to attend then the total, just to attend, is more than a million dollars. If attendees only paid an average of $500 to attend it’s still more than half a million dollars spent with the organisers. This is of course gross not net however it’s a large amount and doesn’t include the money tipped in by the sponsors. The attendees would collectively spend tens of thousands of dollars just on accommodation, food and travel in Melbourne.  Money spent directly with local businesses. Would Melburnian businesses have noticed this cash injection? Of course not.

The Melbourne Exhibition Building is a cracking venue and I’m all for using historic buildings, to help fund their upkeep, rather than new buildings (which are often demolished & replaced after just a few decades, anyway). But if this conference must be held at the extreme end of the continent every year rather than moved to a different state why not hold it in Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo or better still, Shepparton? All have large enough venues, historic buildings, nearby accommodation and eateries.  They’re also surrounded by – surprise, surprise – people working in agriculture. And it’s just minutes to locations where practical demonstrations can be undertaken.

Are ag conferences held in capital cities because politicians and urban-based leaders won’t attend? No, because these are people who are funded by taxpayers or the large companies or organisations they work for and attending is a vital part of their job. (If it was a factor, it could be argued that their attendance is less essential than grassroots, anyway.)

The elephant in the room is that attendees at agricultural conferences held in Sydney and Melbourne are far more likely to be urban-based agribusiness people rather than hands-on farmers. In 2018 I attended two great examples of this – two agtech conferences held in Sydney’s CBD. There was a great range of speakers on interesting and useful topics. But were there many farmers in attendance? Almost none.  It was largely an echo chamber of venture-capital and grant seekers who didn’t operate closely enough with end users;  you could have fired a shotgun at close range and not hit a hands-on producer.

Sydney-Broken Hill flight, right over the Menindee Lakes in western NSW (returning from running a drone workshop in Innamincka). Why make the bush come to Sydney or Melbourne for conferences? Why not instead give urban residents a good reason to see more of inland Australia, and learn about the day-to-day life of regional residents?

The single biggest issue that ag innovation has is slow adoption by end users.

Uptake is so glacial that it risks the flow of venture capital and government investment. So choosing a capital city location for an ag tech conference is a massive error of judgement. The first thing you would do to increase adoption is undertake practical measures to raise farmer attendance – so they hear about innovation first hand, and so the innovators get to speak to end users to produce more feasible products.  The first thing you do towards that aim is hold the event in the most convenient and affordable location for farmers – a central regional location. With the side benefit of hands-on demonstrations, before or after the conference.

Without farmers – agribusinesses, agricultural organisations and ag research facilities cease to exist. So why are events not centred around what maximises attendance of as wide a diversity of hands-on farmers as possible, first and foremost? Is it because conference organisers are:

  • Wanting maximum razzle dazzle, an expensive ego trip?
  • Just lazy, choosing the easiest location?
  • Fear getting out amongst the ‘hoi polloi’ – real rural people and hands-on farmers? I suspect this really is a factor amongst the ag-related science and research community. The list of ag science conferences being held in Sydney & Melbourne is as long as your arm. It is as if they are hiding amongst the familiar. Uptake of already existing knowledge is what is most urgently required – not more new stuff that will sit on the shelf unused.
  • Oblivious to the depopulation of the bush and financial pain being felt by regional towns, which has the flow-on effect of making agricultural businesses more difficult to run sustainably?
  • Oblivious to the general belief in the farming community that ‘middlemen’ are profiteering and ag organisations and ag researchers are out of touch with primary producers?
  • Or simply unfamiliar with the potential waiting in rural Australian towns, because they’ve never lived outside large cities?

Amongst organisation members, there may also be more than a bit of an inferiority complex at work. ‘If we hold the conference in a high-profile 5 star venue then we’re showing city people we’re important and we have plenty of money’.  Choosing an expensive venue may also be done to impress sponsors. A good marketing person/conference organiser will explain to sponsors that it’s the quality of conference attendees that will give them results – but not every organiser is that savvy. And if conference organisers don’t have a thorough understanding of agricultural industry nuances then this 1,000 people is exactly the same as that 1,000 people – they have no way of discerning whether it’s a quality audience or mostly people just wanting a few day’s off at their employer’s expense.  If organisers don’t know, they can’t explain this difference to sponsors.

Sydney & Melbourne ag conferences are reinforcing negative rural stereotypes:

In 1996 I had an interesting conversation in a Coogee Beach takeaway shop. The elderly Greek proprietor told me ‘country people are just a pack of rich whingers. I see them on the TV complaining about the drought, but they are all driving new 4wheel drives’.  Has anyone stopped to think of the impression an expensive city CBD conference gives an urban-based public who have just been watching farmers calling for more drought assistance on television?

Pork Belly at a Broken Hill Hotel. More myth-busting – fantastic food is available in regional Australia. And bringing a contingent of conference customers to regional Australia helps the leading cafes and restaurants thrive and boosts the ability of local producers to supply restaurants direct; leaving a longer-term legacy for local residents.

The only good reasons for choosing an urban location (these are not excuses they are are reasons):

  • Research plots, greenhouses and anything else that is central to the conference that cannot possibly be moved.
  • If there is absolutely no reason for any hands-on farmers to attend. EG it’s an ag themed event but purely for researchers and scientists to have detailed high-end  scientific discussions, not end user related conversations.
  • It’s an ag politics conference and you know a wide range of politicians will attend if you hold the conference in Canberra during parliamentary sitting time (when pollies are in town).  (Note that I said a large number. Because ag ministers can be enticed to regional conferences when parliament isn’t sitting.) But – don’t expect farmers to come to a Canberra conference, except those who are there because they’re representing industry groups, or they’ve been invited as a speaker, or ag youth or others who have been fully funded. The rest will run screaming at the thought of attending an ag conference in the national capital.  Choose – what is the main aim of the conference?

And: ‘we’re running our conference in Melbourne/Sydney because we want to reach the public/consumers’.

Great idea! Although – does this mean that residents in regional towns and cities aren’t consumers, only Melbourne and Sydney residents? And has anyone thought through exactly how this ‘engagement with consumers’ in our 2 largest cities will eventuate?

Melbourne’s population is 4.9 million people and Sydney’s is 5.2 million. I’ve yet to see a conference of any kind successfully engage with the public in a city as large as Sydney or Melbourne. This isn’t to say it hasn’t been done or couldn’t be done… but I’ve yet to see it.  There are sometimes ideas floated such as ‘invite a local to the gala dinner’ but of course conference delegates just ask city residents they already know – friends and relatives. Not random strangers who have never met anyone from regional Australia! Why would anyone who didn’t have a specific interest in an industry, want to spend their evening at an industry dinner with a bunch of strangers?  Most people couldn’t run away screaming fast enough. Fancy a night out at the annual engineers conference dinner?  Why should anyone outside the industry be interested in an agricultural conference? Are any of the agricultural conference attendees interested in the careers of the millions of local residents? We all love our own children but it’s delusional to think that random strangers will be interested in them. The same principle applies to any other field of interest.

On the other hand – hold a large conference in a regional centre, and it’s very likely that at the very least, locals in service industries will ask conference attendees some questions when they are out and about. And express appreciation for the visit. Does this happen in a city of millions? No, attendees are just more anonymous visitors. IE if conference organisers really wanted to engage with consumers, they’d aim for towns or cities large enough that attendees would be noticed and where local journalists are far more likely to come and do a story on the event. And do a great job of the story, potentially getting it onto statewide news. And if ‘bridging the city/country divide’ is an aim, the last thing you’ll do is spend more money in Australia’s two largest cities as it just encourages them to grow larger – and more out of touch with the rest of Australia. Long-term you’re just helping the beasts to grow. Help regional centres become larger and more powerful instead.

Is it a conference or is it a marketing exercise? Keep the conference’s primary aims top of mind and keep conferences and marketing to consumers separate.

2015 AWiA conference, Alice Springs – field trip to learn about Central Australian land management research. Regional areas provide unique opportunities to access interesting places and people that are not available to tourists and smart regional conference promoters make the most of this USP and promote it well.  What life-long memorable experiences could your region provide a contingent of visitors?

Unclear aims is a common conference problem.

Find the problems that people have in the ag industry that your conference is for then and find good quality speakers who can talk about possible solutions or sideways steps.  And add in some quirky, unexpected speakers or topics.  If conference organisers aren’t taking risks with a bit of content or several speakers then it’s going to be a predictable affair. Yes sounds obvious, but so many of the larger Australian ag conferences are a stew of unoriginal content which includes a lot of same-old same-old and ag industry speakers who are on stage at every second bun fight. Particularly when it comes to rural women. It’s as if there’s a list of 8, and they just keep going through the wash.

Exactly what the aim is and who the target market is must be what every committee discusses in depth at the first meeting. And I don’t mean at the first-ever meeting – it must be discussed at the first meeting for an upcoming event, IE precise aims & audience must be revised annually. Is the theme a niche topic? Is the conference aimed at one particular agricultural industry eg wool, or sheep producers generally, or all livestock producers? Is it a locally-focussed event, statewide or of national interest – IE not parochial? Is it of international interest, IE it has enough unique and useful content to genuinely be worth visitors from other countries spending the time and money to attend (or are organisers dreaming)?

Too often conference organisers have adopted a ‘spray and pray’ approach (to borrow a photography term) – including everything possible in order to attract as many people as possible. Which invariably means prospective attendees are confused and can’t figure out who else is likely to attend, and insufficiently inspired as there’s too much content that isn’t of specific interest to them. This results in lower attendance numbers than if it had been a more clearly defined event.  Try to please everyone and you end up pleasing no-one.

Every conference location, timing, attendance cost must be thought about carefully. ‘Build it and they will come?’ No they may not, or at least those you most want to attend may not! Every conference theme and individual session must be examined in relation to the aims and exactly who would be enticed to sit down and listen, from the outset.

Exactly who is the target market (and realistically, how likely are they to attend)?

  • Politicians involved in agriculture (they have to attend some state/national ag conferences, so they will travel to events in regional areas if the timing suits. In fact they may be more likely to, if locals are prospective voters. They also know they’ll get more media coverage.)
  • Politicians from other fields (MPs are busy; most are unlikely to attend events even on their own doorstep unless there’s a very specific reason why they should EG many of their constituents are attending and they’re concerned about their re-election prospects)
  • Rural leaders with formal leadership positions (like ag politicians, they will travel to relevant events in regional areas if they are invited to speak; it’s part of their job and helps profile building and networking)
  • Rural leaders operating by example – the highest tier of operators; genuine early adopters and innovators and/or highly profitable. The people that others emulate. (They rarely attend conferences as they’re too busy putting ideas into action/making money – but can sometimes be lured to attend with the right speaking invitation and networking opportunities, or chance to bend government policy in the right direction. Good carrots required.)
  • General hands-on food & fibre producers – the majority involved in farming & livestock production – keen to catch up with friends and meet others they’ve encountered online at the same time as learning. Many will be encouraged to attend by value-adding, eg excellent workshops, interesting demonstration sites and pre/post tours.  Plus the opportunity to hear tips from the above group.
  • Bottom rung of operators – it’s a waste of time, energy and money chasing those who are actually most in need of attendance as most wouldn’t attend even if paid to, and certainly wouldn’t learn/adopt new practices if they did attend.  Unfortunately every industry has some operators with one foot out the back door. The best that can be hoped for is that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ IE that raising the operating level of the average producers will help lift the least efficient, most unproductive and environmentally unsustainable.
  • Agribusiness people – from advisors to commodity traders and retailers, plus goods and service suppliers (they’re most motivated by the prospect of getting more business – so will follow a good audience. ‘Good’ being relevant plus willing and able to pay – it’s not all about sheer attendance numbers. Tradeshow stand holders know that certain small events are more lucrative than some of the larger events.)
  • Consumers & other randoms – will consumers or anyone else not involved in agriculture, be interested in attending an ag conference? No. As discussed elsewhere, keep conferences & industry marketing separate so neither purpose is compromised.

And specialist audience targets or segments:

  • Rural women – usually more time-poor, cash-strapped and less likely to invest in self-education. The best way to use sponsor funding is to lift attendance diversity by offering scholarships to rural women living in more remote areas, who are faced with higher travel costs and more travel time; and fewer local events to attend. And women of all ages – it should not be presumed that older women have more disposable income than those who recently left school. In fact sometimes it is the reverse (but rarely openly discussed).
  • Students and those working but under 30 – ever since conferences were invented, not common at conferences – unless funded to attend, receiving a youth in ag award or working towards for a formal leadership position.  (Their absence isn’t some recent phenomenon, as some prefer to believe.)
  • Conservationists – one group that it would be great to have more of at agricultural conferences, to foster mutual understanding of common goals and forge productive collaborations (and reduce time, energy and money-wasting feuding).  Inviting leading conservation-focussed farmers and people in formal leadership positions would be one way to make this happen, along with mentioning the great goals that could be kicked by joining forces.

It’s vital that every conference committee discusses all of the above potential attendee segments in detail and figures out:

  • A pecking order of priorities, based on the ultimate aims of the conference. Who is it most important to appeal to?
  • Realistic estimates of achievement. Realistically, will they come? If not, then it’s better to tweak the conference details so that it appeals to the next most important group of attendees, that are likely to attend in significant numbers.

All very obvious, but given the mish-mash that is often served up by conference organisers it’s clearly not always done!  It’s a process I’ve had to work through diligently when running exhibition openings. Who do I most want to attend? Who is actually most likely to attend? How do I ensure it appeals to the ideal attendee, but doesn’t put off the majority who are most likely to come? Ultimately I most want my exhibitions to reach public opinion influencers (leveraging by reaching people involved in film, TV, literature, art and the media) and policy makers (those involved in governing). But also the segment of the public who are the last familiar with agriculture.  So I’ve deliberately prioritised high-profile venues accessible to the general public via convenience of location, welcoming atmosphere and long hours of opening. Whereas if I’d been chasing art industry accolades, I’d have exhibited only in high-profile art galleries.  For maximum self-promotion within the ag industry I’d have chased high-profile events (but preaching to the ‘already converted’ is a waste of time, from my point of view.)

A final note – the most mind-numbingly dull speakers I’ve ever encountered at events have been politicians, company CEOs and industry presidents. None up the top of the tree will risk their position by saying anything remotely original or controversial.  Many are so worried about stuffing up they read their speech word-for-word, a guaranteed way to vaporise enthusiasm.  This caution also applies to anyone very ambitiously ladder-climbing.  The one exception I’ve struck was the CEO of a tech company who told a spellbound audience his childhood story of fleeing the middle East while caring for two younger siblings – separated from their parents for months without any means of communication. He made an indelible impression regarding what an astonishing difference mobile phone communication would have made to all involved in this harrowing experience.

But, I know many people are drawn to the most well-known, ‘important’ speakers that conference organisers can find, so I can’t blame them for continuing on that path!

Conferences that include machinery displays:

One excuse given is that exhibitors don’t want to move their display machinery to a regional town.  Yes freight costs can be huge. But who are they wanting to show their products to? Suburban residents?  If the conference organisers run their event in a regional area surrounded by farmers for whom the event is entirely relevant, than why would exhibitors not be motivated to display machinery there? An alternative way of looking at it is – is it a conference, or is it a trade fair or field day? Is compromising the conference content and quality of attendees and the opportunity to support their towns or regional centres, worth it, to keep demanding exhibitors happy?  If the conference depends on tens of thousands of dollars from trade fair exhibitors and they won’t move from Sydney or Melbourne, remind the exhibitors who the event is actually being run for. Do they have any sense of corporate responsibility and care about their customers? Perhaps the conference expenditure needs reining in to more reasonable levels.  Others manage to run regional conferences so it is do-able – if ego-trips are ditched.

What is the conference USP?

Thoroughly research every conference already on the calendar plus others held over the preceding two years. Is the conference you are involved in planning just re-inventing the wheel? If you identify a valuable USP never give it away, feed it so it thrives and everybody knows about it! I was dismayed this year to learn that the only drone conference in the world that included a dedicated aerial photography/cinematography stream has now cut that theme, but kept all the other topics that every other drone conference on the planet includes. The photography/cinematography stream had exceedingly good presenters (knowledgeable, good at explaining and personable) and these sessions were well attended.  I’ve been to this US conference more than once and happily fronted up to hear again from some of the same presenters. The organisers of this drone conference have thrown away their USP for no apparent reason and turned a stand-out event worth travelling overseas for, into one that’s just like any other.

Niche market conferences – smaller, targetted, but with a higher standard of speakers (no sales pitches) and genuinely useful and unique content – are probably were the gold is, for the future.  And this is where choosing a value-adding regional location can really be worthwhile.

How many ag conference are held in Australia each year?

Too many, at times. One year there were no less than three food/tech related conferences held in Melbourne within weeks. Just a couple of months earlier there were two ag tech conferences in Sydney and one in Brisbane. At times there has also been an overabundance of rural women’s events – one year there were five ‘national’ rural women’s gatherings (mostly held in southern capitals). There would be so much to be gained if event organisers collaborated. And so much to be gained if more organisers could follow the lead of those who move their conference around to different locations.  So many organisers have a great deal of knowledge, but it seems it is rarely shared with organisers in other fields of agriculture. Perhaps we need more small, specialised conferences and just a few really large conferences.  Some events would be far more successful if run every second year. Beef Australia in Rockhampton is supremely successful, and it’s largely because the organisers are smart enough to stick to a biennial schedule, thus motivating large numbers from remote areas and other countries to make the effort to attend every time it runs.

This must never be forgotten: An ag-related gathering is worthwhile because of who the presenters are/what unique, inspiring and useful content they are offering, and who the attendees are.  Not shiny venues, sophisticated marketing campaigns and over-engineered booking systems. Golf days smack of 1970s boy’s club outings and over-the top gala dinners surely hark back to 1950s wool boom days. These things are all smoke and mirror distractions. Many farmers notice extravagant expenditure and are annoyed that the high attendance fee they paid was partly wasted on things that weren’t productive. And conferences are certainly not about getting as many people to attend as possible. In fact a conference with too many ‘day off at the bosses expense’ attendees have a much-diluted atmosphere of engaged enthusiasm which is detrimental to the experience for keen participants. A worthwhile, truly successful conference is all about quality people conversing, followed by actual outcomes. Otherwise, these days, we’d all stay home and learn from our computers, and spend the money we saved on boat trips down the Amazon.

Attending a regional event is a great way to try local produce, which can be found in unexpected places. Such as this quirky shop planted beside the road south of Port Augusta, South Australia (which I stumbled upon when attending the RICE anniversary gathering). Everything from camels milk to local seafood and handmade salamis. Consumers are becoming increasingly discerning and seeking more personal and unique experiences that are good value. That applies to ag conference attendees as well.

What do I mean by ‘regional’?

The vast majority of Australia’s population live in Sydney, Melbourne and coastal SE Qld – from the Sunshine coast south to Brisbane and the Gold Coast. So anywhere more than a rock’s throw from these locations. For this reason cities such as Toowoomba, Newcastle, Wollongong and Geelong would only be on a secondary option regional list, with centres further from the largest capital cities given preference. They’re the towns or regional cities that would most benefit from hosting an ag conference.

What size town or regional city should agricultural conferences be run in? Obviously it’s a matter of picking the horse to suit the course. Towns without a large enough venue to house every attendee in the same room are unlikely to have enough accommodation and one without the other isn’t feasible. But many conference organisers don’t realise what is available. For example, Cairns & Townsville have venues that fit 5,000 people and Mackay and Rockhampton have venues that fit 1,000 people. Options are obviously sparse in the NT as well as most of SA and WA, but there are still some choices outside the capital for conferences that aren’t that rare beast – a huge ag conference. The list is as long as both your arms for regional Australian towns in total, with venues that easily fit 3-500, the actual size of many Australian ag conferences. And even the smallest towns have airports although in much of Victoria you could drive straight to the door of a regional venue in less time than it would take you to go the airport, check-in, fly and catch a taxi.  And hiring cars is relatively as cheap as chips in Australia these days – cheaper than driving your own car.

I know many people on farms and stations across Australia who would not contemplate attending a conference in Sydney, Canberra or Melbourne.  Right or wrong, running an ag conference in one of our two largest and most expensive capital cities or the national capital is immediately interpreted by some as indicating that it’s ‘not a conference for people like me’.  Many conference organisers and ag industry leaders appear to either be oblivious to this alienation or don’t care about leaving these people out.

One of a multitude of historic buildings in Broken Hill. I’ve often attended regional ag events and noticed that some money has been spent on venue maintenance just prior to our arrival. Many historic buildings in regional areas are underutilised and it’s hard to justify upkeep. An influx of visitors and money helps keep historic buildings maintained and gives the local community a valuable morale boost.

How do I find a regional venue that is suitable for an ag conference?

  • First do the groundwork – who exactly is your prospective audience? Where’s a good spot to attract regional attendees, and/or run some pre & post conference demo or farm visits? What is a realistic attendance number range?
  • Ring local councils in the regions you’re considering and explain the essentials of what you’re looking for and why. If their town/s don’t have a venue with sufficient capacity ask for a recommendation. Most councils who have the capacity for conferences in their region have standard ‘conference information packs’ to send straight to any enquirers.
  • Or enquire via local government associations; for example the Local Government Association of Queensland and Regional Development Associations. The main RDA website has links to state RDA’s.
  • If you have no joy with the above, staff in the MPs office for the region you’re considering may well be helpful pointing you to the best source of information.
  • Google previous events held in the region you’re considering then contact the organisers for their views.
  • And perhaps the best potential source of helpful information – other rural/ag organisations who have a track record of running regional conferences. I’ve listed some below – if you know of any others please let me know and I’ll add them, as this will help other conference organisers and rural areas.

The LIVEXchange conference in Townsville, 2019. A joint venture between Livecorp & ALEC, the location is changed each year. They have gone to the dark side & held the conference in Melbourne & Canberra, but on other occasions it has been in Townsville and smaller capital cities – Darwin, Perth and Adelaide. Townsville is lucky to have hosted LIVEXchange twice. It makes great sense for all national organisations to vary the location of their conferences annually, but not many do so.

Thankfully there are some organisations showing how regional conferences can and should be done. Many of these depend heavily or even almost entirely on committees of volunteers – not paid conference organisers. Some examples:

  • Young Beef Producers Forum – held annually in Roma (Central Queensland), dating back more than a decade. And less than $200 to attend the 2 day conference and a meet-and-greet and a gala dinner – plus great speakers. Yes the YBPF has great sponsors but so do most other ag-related events.
  • The NTCA (Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association) alternates their annual conference between Darwin and Alice Springs, thus ensuring each end of the Northern Territory is accommodated for.
  • QRRRWN (Queensland Rural, Regional and Remote Women’s Network) holds their annual conference in different regional towns – from Charters Towers in the north to Roma and Emerald in Central Queensland, to Charleville and St George in the south.
  • The NSW Rural Women’s Gathering floats around the state each year, including host towns as remote as Broken Hill (more than 1,000km west of Sydney).
  • AWiA (Australian Women in Agriculture) was created in Victoria but in recent years has held conferences in a great diversity of regional towns such as Alice Springs, Ballina and Shepparton. And yes, attendees travel long distances to attend.
  • RAPAD (Remote Area Planning & Development Board) does an exemplary job of running one of the few annual, inland drone conferences in the world – at Barcaldine, more than 1,000km northwest of Brisbane. Attendees come from far and wide, including overseas, though there are not even daily flights in and out of Barcaldine.
  • And have a look at where the Australian Rangelands Society has held their biennial conferences –> from Broken Hill to Kununurra.
  • Many primary producer organisations run events outside capital cities (although many do still run their main conference in their state capital unfortunately). AgForce run events all over Queensland. Ag organisation events are often organised by staff living in the region so in some instances it may be best to contact them directly rather than ask head office staff.

This is not to suggest organising a conference in a regional area is easier than in a capital city. But look at the examples above. It can be done. And if the aim of running an agricultural conference is truly to help people involved in agriculture, improve environmental management and the viability of agribusinesses – than what better way to do that that inject some money into the local economy, so business and land management improvements can be afforded and mental health is improved.

Pooncarie Field Days, western NSW; 2019. Showing an extreme example of one of the benefits of holding events in regional areas – plenty of parking, and it’s free! Once all the minor costs are added up it’s apparent that capital city conferences are usually far more expensive for attendees than regional locations.  Unfortunately many don’t add up the total cost of attendance so underestimate what capital city conference attendance costs in total.

Field days and alternative venues:

In addition to purpose-built facilities, regional conferences are often held in a range of venues with win/win benefits for all. I’ve attended conferences in service club dining rooms, boarding school halls and agricultural college facilities. And marquees (yes they can be efficiently air-conditioned and hold thousands of people).  There’s also interesting alternative venues such as the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame.   Conference halls don’t have to be purpose-built. ‘Oh but we need good acoustics’. Is it a music performance or a conference, with ordinary speakers and microphones? My hearing isn’t too flash but I’ve never been unable to hear speakers in any of the huge diversity of venues I’ve sat in. I have however been to events that are trying to display presentations with $2 projectors, or in rooms that don’t have blackout curtains – but these are both issues that are easily sorted with advance planning and not a huge cost.

Large field days are also held successfully across regional Australia, from Mareeba to Gunnedah, Elmore, Carrick, the Yorke Peninsula and Dowerin and a multitude of other locations. Larger field days attract not just hundreds or thousands of visitors but tens of thousands. Rockhampton is a regional town but the biennial Beef Australia event attracts tens of thousands of people from across Australia plus more than 1,000 visitors from other countries.  Some of these sites have permanent facilities that can seat hundreds of people so may be a good option for conferences that require space for machinery displays – by default they’re located in good catchment areas for ag event attendees.

The above examples show that rural gatherings of hundreds or thousands of people can be very successfully run in rural and even remote areas.  If you know of other examples please let me know and I’ll add them to the list. Ideally conference organisers could share best-practice tips on how to successfully run sizeable ag conferences in regional areas.  Conference organisers exist in a competitive business space but if in very different fields of agriculture there’s no reason to not share tips on regional venues.

You’re running an ag conference that will attract visitors from overseas?

Feedback from international regional conference visitors is often that they’ve absolutely loved learning about a regional town and surroundings and meeting friendly locals. They say they can visit Sydney or Melbourne any time as a tourist – but attending an industry event in a regional area is a unique, authentic experience that they really value. It’s personal and they feel appreciated.  I’ve seen friendly locals drive overseas visitors around to show them the sights.  Smart conference organisers will market the unique opportunities that regional events entail.

IFAJ North Queensland tour prior to the NZ conference; 2015. Cairns has an excellent large conference venue, an international airport, and a multitude of pre and post agricultural tour options. Including aquaculture and the world’s largest range of tropical crops easily visited within a day.

The cost of attending Australian ag conferences, including regional flight costs:

It is sometimes said ‘oh but regional flights are too expensive, if we hold the conference in a regional area people won’t come’. If some locals who have never attended an ag conference before, don’t attend the conference you’re running right on their doorstep, then you either haven’t chosen a good location, your programme isn’t sufficiently relevant or useful, or it wasn’t advertised or explained clearly enough. One of the benefits of regional conferences is that locals within easy driving distance or a short flight away can attend.  If you choose your regional location well you’ll more than make up lost urban attendee numbers with local attendees.

Regarding overall costs. Do many attendees actually add up the full cost of attending a conference? I suspect not.  For many regional Australians their costs are the same as mine: to attend a 2-3 day conference within Australia usually ends up costing around $2-3,000. That covers return airfares, accommodation, meals and hire car costs or fares (train, bus, taxi). Plus the cost of the conference attendance, often around $1,000. Including travel time, all up it’s the best part of a week away from directly money-earning work – so it’s effectively waving goodbye to another $2,000 or more or whatever commercial value you want to place on your time. If I have to shell out a few hundred dollars more for an extra regional flight, is that going to be a deal breaker? Not it isn’t, because it’s already costing me a packet – and if comparing with the cost of a conference in Sydney, the expensive accommodation will cost about the same as the extra regional flight. And I’d feel infinitely better about attending with the side benefit of assisting a regional community, than squandering cash in Sydney or Melbourne where those I give it to don’t really give a toss.

If you’re running a conference in a regional area, don’t forget to spell the multiple benefits out very clearly when pitching it to prospective attendees – from cheaper accommodation to friendly residents and local sights.

And ultimately: there’s always far more event attendees than speakers. So it costs a lot less for 30 speakers to travel to a regional town such as Dubbo, than for hundreds of attendees to travel to Sydney. It costs the same amount for regional residents to fly to a capital city as it does for a capital city resident to fly to a regional area. And as accommodation in most regional areas is a lot cheaper, overall it will cost capital city residents less per head to attend a conference in a regional area than it costs regional residents to attend conferences in Sydney & Melbourne.

What are these views based on?

  1. Workshop attendance began for me in the 1980s but the first ag conference I remember attending was Beef Australia in 1992 (memorably, Ita Buttrose was one of the speakers). For self-education purposes I’ve attended quite a few conferences, forums and workshops over the years since – but very selectively and self-funded. In recent years I’ve only attended conferences when presenting a session. In 2018-9 I was invited to speak at conferences being run on 5 different continents (including Australia). There’s a lot to be learned from observing as an attendee and as a speaker. Often the smaller events are more useful and successful than the larger because they’re more personal and topics more specific. Too many aims means too many compromises.
  2. Running my second Twitter account, @agri_events, has taught me a huge amount about global ag events. From world-leading ag event innovation and best-practice management to unclear messaging, to too many conferences reinventing the wheel (no USP) and a lack of evolution. Plus – too much noise from sponsors at what is meant to be an event featuring objective ag industry discussions.  This is particularly a problem in the US and appears to be a growing issue in the UK, mainly due to chemical company funding. Thankfully not much of this (yet) in Australia or New Zealand although Coke sponsoring Australian agricultural shows is an ugly mismatch re branding. From observing ag events around the world in recent years it’s also obvious that professional standard management and outcomes aren’t related to event size, industry or budget. This Twitter account has grown into the largest agricultural event promoting Twitter account in the world, and is followed by many of the most notable agricultural organisations and government departments in a wide range of countries. It is mostly based on English-speaking accounts, but also some accounts from countries in South America and Africa as well as Europe, Asia and the Pacific region tweeting in national languages.
  3. I’ve also lived in Melbourne and Sydney as well as a variety of regional locations across 3 states, including some very remote areas; as well as having experience in a variety of ag industries; and having to ‘think like a customer’ in order to survive in business. The latter is often lacking in bulk producers of farm products (but not in direct sellers, eg farmers who sell via farmers markets).
  4. A few people have said ‘have you ever run a conference’?, aiming to discredit the views expressed here, rather than discussing the points made. I’ve been involved in assisting conference organisation but haven’t single-handedly run a conference. Nor have many other people done so single-handedly, and that doesn’t mean they can’t put forth useful views! I have for many years run events, mostly completely on my own or with only minimal assistance – risking tens of thousands of dollars of my own money. This is something that none of those asking has done, and there’s nothing that sharpens your event planning and marketing savvy than having your own hard-earned money at risk and nobody to delegate to or ask for advice!

Fiona Lake with other invited speakers plus attendees, at an aerial precision ag conference in Nanjing, China, 2019. A lot can be learned from observing the differences and similarities between agricultural events in other countries.

It’s all too hard:

All change is hard. Everybody avoids change. Be prepared to hear every excuse (‘reason’) listed above if you’re trying to move a Sydney or Melbourne conference to another location.

Like all change, there’s lots of whining early on. But eventually: ‘this is so much better. I’m so glad we changed it.’

Ag conferences are just like everything else in business – if they aren’t evolving they’re going backwards and will eventually become moribund.

If you think regional events can’t be done – look to organisations who are already doing it, for advice. Educate your sponsors. Do they really want what’s best for rural Australia and agricultural industries? Ask them to put their money and effort where their mouths are.

If you don’t think rural depopulation is an serious issue, then please go for a road trip inland and open your eyes.  It’s heartbreaking.

If you know depopulation is an issue but you think it is somebody else’s problem to fix, then you’re part of the problem. Change starts with you. Tell rural/ag organisations what your expectations are. Lobby conference organisers to run events in regional areas. They need to hear feedback and useful ideas, not silence! Encourage your local council to keep a list of the information conference organisers need (although they probably already have this on hand – I know Townsville City Council does). Help organisers find a suitable venue in your region or somewhere else that is a good fit, then help promote the event via word-of-mouth, and encourage people you know to attend.  None of this is particularly time consuming or arduous yet collectively it could have make a huge positive difference – win/win for all involved.

Encourage collaboration, increasing specialisation, and consider reducing frequency. Australia has too many ag-related conferences. We need fewer ag conferences and a higher standard: more diverse speakers with new information, a greater variety of attendees-not just the same old faces and interesting locations – not homogeneous, impersonal city conference venues.

If you believe that government departments should move out of our largest capital cities to regional areas, uprooting staff and their families to live in another area, but you think it’s unacceptable to ask people to visit regional areas just for a brief time to attend an ag conference – there’s a word for that: hypocrisy.

It’s appallingly disrespectful to just presume regional and remote residents should continue to spend money travelling to a capital city then more on accommodation and meals there, rather than bringing visitors to rural communities.  Continuing to run agricultural conferences in Sydney and Melbourne is patronising and clearly says to rural communities: you’re not up to the job of being hosts and/or your region isn’t interesting enough for us to take the trouble to visit.

It is astonishing that members of agricultural organisations appear not to have thought this through and ensured conference arrangements are modernised.  But it’s even more tragic that some rural residents still insist that continuing with the big capital city agricultural conference model of old, is acceptable in this day and age.

While this blog post is written from an Australian point of view (and I’ve often mentioned Queensland conference town possibilities, as that’s where I just happen to live), rural depopulation is a GLOBAL issue, it is not just a problem in Australia.  So the same principles apply to other countries.

Bottom line:

The excuses for holding agriculture-related conferences in Sydney or Melbourne no longer stack up against the benefits of holding gatherings in regional Australia.

The old model of the ‘bigger than Ben Hur’ conference and gala dinner in a 5 star CBD hotel at $1,000+ per ticket needs a complete rethink. It’s like a hangover from the 80’s white shoe brigade. Every ‘this is how it has to be/this is how we’ve always done it’ needs to be objectively scrutinised and assessed for ROI and real outcomes for those who matter most – people working at the coalface.  IE those who fundamentally bring about change by putting learnings into practice. Egos and empire building ambitions must be left at the door.

It’s obvious from feedback I’ve received privately regarding this blog post that the perception is thriving amongst many involved in ag that city conferences are ‘junkets’, ‘pointless talkfests’ for the ‘same old faces’ – a select clique. Rather than being aimed at real outcomes for hands-on farmers and livestock producers.

Look around at who isn’t attending any capital city conferences and ask them why.

Most people don’t like change of any kind and will come up with 5,000 excuses for why it shouldn’t happen. So preface any change from urban to regional conferences with a clear message regarding why the change has been made. Along the lines of: ‘we’ve decided to put our money where our mouths are and rather than taking money out of the bush we’re going to do something practical to assist regional Australia (suffering from drought, fires, flood and/or depopulation) – bring visitors. Please come too, because your presence will make a positive difference, including to local youth employment and local morale’.

A whole boatload of International Federation of Agriculture journalists on the pre-NZ conference tour, visiting the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns. The Atherton Tablelands is arguably the most interesting and varied agricultural region in Australia, so nearby Cairns is perfect for a farming-related conference. While on the boat to the reef, local cane growers told us about their sustainability and reef conservation activities

PS: This blog post was written on February 9th 2020 but has since had more information added, primarily in response to questions and comments received. And like many of my blog posts intended to be a reference that is useful for others, it will be updated occasionally.

In order to pass on what I’ve learned over 30+ years in business there are other blog posts relating to public speaking & agricultural events:

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