Building An Agenda

Building An Agenda

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the planning process we engage in to establish the agenda for conference events (“Vive la Différence,” April 18). As we begin the early stages for setting the agenda for the 2012 Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference, we have already begun to face the challenge of selecting the topics that will form the basis of the panels at that event.

As you can imagine, there is always a bit of crystal ball gazing as we try to see almost a year into the future to try to determine the industry issues that will be hot around the time of TPM. (Needless to say, although TPM is the largest general audience international transportation and trade event put on by the JOC, we follow very similar planning processes for other JOC conference events.)

Our next step will be to meet during the first half of August to set out the outline of the agenda. Over the past few years, we’ve shifted the location of these meetings to add some regional flavor to our process. So we’ve met in Southern California and in Portland, Ore. Last year, we met in Chicago, which also allowed us to start planning this week’s Inland Port Logistics Conference. This August, we’re moving to the Southeast, meeting in Charleston, S.C.

In a broad sense, the selection of panel topics is the easier of the two separate but closely connected components of conference agenda planning. On the one hand, some parts of the program are more or less fixed and have become standards. For example, starting off TPM with economic data, trade statistics and the latest forecasts for the coming year is an annual feature, and post-event surveys indicate that attendees approve of this format.

On the other hand, deciding last year to schedule two consecutive panels on the chassis issue at TPM 2011 was a bit of a departure, and we weren’t sure it would work until it was clear the issue wasn’t going away. But it did work, first because the issue is complex and important and second, because we were able to secure excellent speakers.

It is this second element — speaker recruitment — that is the more difficult of the two conference-planning elements. Here again, there is more to the issue than meets the eye. While we work hard to set the best programming agenda, with the most important, industry-critical, even controversial subject matter, the panels will fall flat if we’re unable to select, recruit and secure confirmation from speakers able to present their ideas and opinions in a clear, concise and time-specific (read limited) fashion.

A major issue is one of numbers. Based on the current TPM format of an opening morning keynote address, followed by two panels before lunch and four afternoon panels (two breakout tracks), plus a similar line-up for Day 2, we’re looking at a total of 12 to 14 panels, with two to four speakers each. Add to this several moderators outside the JOC editors and reporters, and we’re faced with the recruiting 30 to 50 speakers for the event.

In fact, not counting JOC staff, the 2011 TPM involved 46 “recruited” speakers. Another key element with speaker recruitment is an agreed concept of not repeating any speaker at the same event in two consecutive years.

We are fortunate to be in an industry with a large population of highly experienced, knowledgeable and professional individuals who are typically outgoing, often charismatic, opinionated and expert speakers willing to express their ideas. The problem is that in an increasingly large number of examples, their companies don’t share their experts’ interest in expressing these opinions.

This is understandable for purposes of protecting any type of intellectual property, or proprietary methods or practices, or trade secrets, or contractual or confidential matters. But in my experience, as a speaker and as a speaker recruiter, no one ever has asked for a speaker to divulge any such information.

We well understand the need for corporate security and compliance with policy about proprietary matters, but there is a collective need for our own industry experts to be able to speak at these events and to share their knowledge, ideas, experience and wisdom with their colleagues, and yes, even competitors. It makes our industry better and makes them and their companies better at the same time.

We hope you’ll be able to join us when we make our requests. See you soon at a JOC conference.

Barry Horowitz is the principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232, or at