The chance to showcase a policy, play an active role in discussions or simply raise a profile should not be missed. But activity should not be overplanned – there needs to be room for chance.
The conferences still play a critical role in political life.
While some skipped the Lib Dems in Glasgow last year they are not going to make the same mistake again. With the chances of another hung Parliament looking likely, the Lib Dems need to be treated as seriously as Labour and the Conservatives.
There is a school of thought that suggests that leaving any engagement to the time of the party conferences is too late.
It may not be ideal to wait until conference season to put new thoughts and ideas up for discussion but the reality is that policies will continue to develop until the time of the publication of party manifestos.
With the possible exception of the Lib Dems, and even this can be questioned during their time in the Coalition, the idea that the party conferences are the main arbiters of party policy is far from accurate.
However, party conference activity is often timetabled down to the minute – especially where fringe meetings and events are concerned. It is right to make the most of these, and essential given the financial costs involved and the need to make best use of senior executives’ time.
What is often lacking at conference though is the flex-time, the time to take advantage of the things that can happen by chance.
Highly choreographed set-piece events are all well and good but often more can be achieved through chance encounters and conversations.
Here are five things you can do to make the most of the party conferences:
1) Build in some down time – don’t pack days from dawn till dusk. Factor in time for work but also allow for the unexpected to happen. If the timetable is too full then opportunities can be missed
2) Walk the floor – be prepared to walk about the conference areas, exhibitions stands and spot those who you want to bump into. This is not quite the lobbyist equivalent of stalking, more ‘strategic networking’. Similarly, attending other people’s fringe events to contribute but also engage with people should be the norm.
3) Hang around the coffee shops and bars – this is where a lot of people congregate so there is no need to attend mob-handed. It is perfectly acceptable to pop in, have a look around and see who is around.
4) Have a plan of action for the chance encounters – if you start engaging, even if only for a few minutes, you need to know in advance what you want to say, what request you are making and agree the follow-up.
5) Talk to people – lots of people – you never know who you might be talking to. It is not just about MPs and Ministers, all sorts of people attend, some of whom are more recognisable or have a higher profile than others.
Party conferences should not solely be about attending fringe meetings and pre-arranged get togethers.
More than ever it’s important to monitor what is taking place on social media too. Is there potential follow-up or a coffee that can be organised with a new contact on the back of a tweet? You will know this and be able to react if you have some time available.
In sum – do everything you can to leave Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow without regretting missed public affairs opportunities.
Dr. Stuart Thomson is a public affairs consultant for Bircham Dyson Bell and the co-author of ‘Public Affairs in Practice’, a practical guide for running public affairs campaigns. Stuart tweets as @redpolitics