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Feedback: how hosting benefits destinations

The Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy has commissioned a report on the legacy of international research conferences, since adapted for the JMIC Case Study Program. Rob Spalding pulls out the key findings…

Hosting scientific research conferences can change the fortunes of a city – but at a price.

A specially commissioned Danish report on the legacy of conferences has it that the reputation the host destination earns for itself by hosting a world-class gathering leads to recruitment of top researchers, education of PhD students and income for the university: benefits which last far longer than the residue of the conference itself.

But it does take time and does cost resources.

Conferences, like peer-reviewed publishing and education, are shared across disciplines and nations. Active researchers present their recent findings to their peers, receive immediate feedback and build a community around an intellectual interest.

To discover whether there was a lasting legacy from such events these days, the Danish Council commissioned one of their leading national consulting agencies – the IRIS Group – to carry out a study. Six international research conferences held between 2012 and 2016 in six different cities were targeted and analysed as one case study focusing on the academic benefits and barriers of hosting conferences.

Some advantages were obvious. Individual researchers benefit in terms of increased visibility and networking. The host institution and wider research environment benefit by easier access to recruitment, involvement of advanced students and younger researchers, as well as increased visibility.

 

Rod Cameron

 

“The Joint Meetings Industry Council recognises the challenges associated with quantifying specific economic, academic and professional outcomes of conferences in detail,” said Rod Cameron, executive director of JMIC. “But it believes that good representative examples can be used to demonstrate the principles in ways that governmental and community audiences can understand and apply to other such events.

“These include things like knowledge transfer, innovation enhancement, professional advancement and elevation of reputation and visibility in sectors of particular policy importance to the destination along with the creation of exposure for local research and institutions and the creation of better networks for local professionals. The fact that these kinds of benefits are difficult to measure with precision doesn’t negate their value, and most people understand and can accept that”.

He added:

The benefits of hosting have not so much diminished, as changed, no question. Nobody has to wait around for a year to get the latest in research, anymore. It is all available online pretty much instantaneously. However, what we hear is the context that conferences provide is more important than ever before, as are the networking and interactions needed to essentially ‘validate’ the info gathered in the relative isolation that individuals work in so much of the time these days.”

 

From the perspective of delegate spend, conferences are generally viewed as being worth the cost of hosting them. According to VisitDenmark, the daily expenditure for an international research delegate in Denmark is approximately 3,100 DKK (491 USD, making it the segment within tourism that spends most.

Conference delegates stay longer – and do more. In particular, at life science conferences delegates tend to stay on before and after the programme to spend time in the local research environment, visit hospitals and meet PhD students.

The most important factor for advancement in a research career may well be high impact research, but organising a large international research conference will be remembered in the research environment for a long time to come and hosting an international research conference can potentially open doors for progression within scientific societies.

For the host destination, the programme matters. It is a great advantage if it includes sessions on areas in which the host university specialises. The host of the ESMO congress in Copenhagen in 2016 actively used the congress to showcase Denmark’s research strength within cancer research and treatment with help from a strategic communication agency.

Conferences differ depending on whether they are organised by the host institution or the scientific society. Large medical conferences are often funded, organised, and executed by powerful societies with relatively few resources needed from the host institution.

However, it seems the study throws up more questions than it answers. For a start, it seems unclear how the benefits of hosting relate to each other, e.g. how do visibility and career advancement depend on each other or how does visibility influence invitations to speak? These are obviously not mutually exclusive categories and it would be fruitful for further studies to explore these interdependencies as well as their relationship to other key concepts such as networking.

Furthermore, the case study highlights several barriers inhibiting the realisation of these benefits, among which the most important are time and resources. Some barriers can be overcome by collaborating with the meeting industry actors, including PCOs.

The study offers thorough descriptions of the experienced academic benefits arising in various cases. A next step for research in this area could be to explore under what circumstances the benefits outweigh the barriers.

Case study characteristics:

Size of meetings: Varying from 458 to 20,522 delegates.

Geographical locations: Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Aalborg and Odense.

Scientific interest: Fields included engineering, health, economics and biology.

Methodological approach: Primary data: semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders. Secondary data: literature review.