In the past couple of years, the number of international conferences being hosted in the MENA region has increased steadily, especially in the UAE. These conferences cover everything from female empowerment to entrepreneurship, development, sustainability and much more. While these platforms offer a wonderful opportunity for decision-makers and thought leaders to connect with people with similar interests across different industries, I believe there is still more that needs to be done by conference planners to ensure that these events are effective and provide a long-lasting impact.
That being said, the responsibility of optimizing these conferences should not only fall to the planners themselves, because each sponsor, speaker and attendee also play an important role in ensuring that they add value in their own way. But before we can ask these stakeholders to provide more value in their respective roles, we need to ensure that we optimize these platforms first. Having been both a participant and speaker in various conferences in the UAE, I would like to share what I believe conference planners can do to improve these events in this exclusive Soukie Speaks writing series:
1. Set Clear Outcomes
Problem #1: “Post-Conference Amnesia”
Many of the conferences hosted in the MENA region attract some of the world’s best and brightest in various fields to shed light on the biggest problems facing our people and governments. During these conferences, everyone becomes an instant activist who is riveted by the topic, whatever it may be, and feels like they are capable of changing the world. However, once the conference ends, every goes back to life as normal and all of the inspiring conversations and innovative solutions return to the realm of intangible idealism. An unfortunate reality that raises an important question. How can we, as organizers and participants, maintain the momentum of these conferences once they are over? Simple. We have to set S.M.A.R.T (sustainable, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) objectives for each conference that is hosted.
So what would this look like? For a women’s entrepreneurship conference, a S.M.A.R.T goal could be to use the conference as a platform to connect 50 recent female graduates with 50 mid-career female mentors. For a sustainable development conference, the goal could be to use the networks, skills and finances of conference participants to fund two sustainability projects in every Arab nation for one year. For a youth conference, the goal could be to invite sponsors, SMEs, the private and the public sector to create 100 paid internships for Arab high school students in 10 schools for one year. The possibilities are endless, but we have to organize the experts, knowledge and passion at these conference to ensure that these efforts are tangible, sustainable and long-lasting.
2. Diversify Speakers and Participants
Problem #2: “Conference Demographic Incompatibility”
I have attended countless conferences over the past 2 years and I have frequently encountered one of two discrepancies. Either the speaker’s personal or work experience did not fit the topic they were invited to speak about or the audience who would benefit the most from the conference were not represented in the crowd. These discrepancies are grave and they must be addressed, if we hope to promote effective policy-making in the region. After all, how can we talk about the future of Arab youth if we do not have any youth represented in the crowd, workshops or panels at a conference? If we are going to create comprehensive cultural, socio-economic and political policies, we need to invite the relevant stakeholders to join the conversation, so they can provide their crucial input. That being said, even when opportunities are made available to the relevant stakeholders, many are still unable to attend, because they are prohibitively expensive or hosted at inconvenient times.
More conferences in the region need to diversify their speaker and participant profiles to include both current and future decision-makers. Furthermore, if we hope to promote more robust public policy-making and development in the MENA region, we also have to invite people from every demographic to the discussion table, so they can help decision makers make more holistic public policies. In addition to that, conference planners also need to look at the timing and pricing of these events to ensure that they are promoting inclusive participation practices. In this respect, the leadership of the UAE has set an excellent precedent by establishing the Ministry of Youth, which aims to “represent the aspirations and affairs of the youth before the Government.” Using the restructuring of the UAE’s ministries as an inspiration, we need to start incorporating more women, youth and entrepreneurs in all policy-creation processes, so we can promote community building and shared accountability for the fulfillment of public policies. Whether it is in a conference or a government setting, both decision-makers and stakeholders need to work together to create more platforms for shared brainstorming and public policy discussions.