How Does a Conference Ombuds Add Value to a Conference?

Conferences should be interactive, informative, dynamic, and safe spaces where attendees can share and enhance their knowledge about a specific topic. In an increasingly global world, conferences have become bigger and busier, and conscious logistics and planning are necessary to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

Potential Conflicts at a Conference

The possibility of conflicts or issues arising increases when a lot of people are concentrated in one space. A conference can inadvertently create problems for participants, such as issues around accommodation, other people’s behaviors, comments, harassment, bullying, sexual misconduct, and lately, social media.

One example is the recent 2022 Bitcoin conference, where one conference attendee posted an unflattering picture of another attendee on Twitter. The post blew up, and hundreds of people harassed the woman in the picture. The woman later expressed that she could not find an appropriate channel where she could raise her concerns.

At conferences, the energy level of participants can be very high, and this energy can lead to inappropriate behavior. When conferences have a demographic imbalance, this risk of inappropriate behavior becomes greater. This can be the case at conferences where outnumbered women or ethnic minorities are present. Issues can arise during the conference, at a conference after party, or once the conference has ended through social media.

In these cases, participants need to find a channel through which they can raise their concerns and explore the resources available to them. The issue is that often the people who are responsible for addressing these concerns are also conference organizers or employees who are not independent or neutral. Therefore, internal staff are not always suited or trained to handle sensitive issues raised by participants.

The Role of a Conference Ombuds

Outsourced ombuds provide informal, independent, impartial, and confidential support to your members, attendees, leadership, and sponsors and address concerns before they escalate. Ombuds do this by helping people brainstorm ways to resolve problems, providing answers to their questions, sharing resources, listening to their feedback and reporting it to leadership while keeping their identity confidential.

After the conference, a Conference Ombuds provides the organization with a written report on trends and concerns raised during the conference. Reports are provided without revealing the identity of the people who reported the incidents or concerns. This is especially valuable for regularly occurring conferences because it helps leadership and management foresee future areas of improvement and how to implement change.

An Outsourced Ombuds also helps organizations learn about issues that they would not otherwise be made aware of. These insights enable organizations to improve the quality of future conferences. Therefore organizations avoid lawsuits, negative publicity, decrease in attendees, and lost revenue.

Benefits of an Outsourced Conference Ombuds

Some conferences have an internal system where they train staff members, event organizers, or consultants to address specific incidents. These internal systems have the potential to mitigate fallout from bad behavior; however, conference participants tend to be afraid to report an issue to someone who works as an employee or leader within the host organization. An Outsourced Ombuds is an independent, impartial, informal and confidential resource for conference participants. Therefore, people feel more confident in reporting issues to an Outsourced Conference Ombuds.

An Outsourced Conference Ombuds assists attendees by providing information about conference policies and guiding them through available resources. An Ombuds also assists people in generating options and coaches them in having difficult conversations. The goal of the Ombuds is to enhance relationships between people at a conference and improve communication within the organization.

A Conference Ombuds can be particularly valuable to organizations that hold frequent conferences. An Ombuds informs leadership of systemic problems and provides helpful recommendations. The Ombuds consults an organization on policy gaps, emerging trends, and patterns of problematic behavior while protecting participants’ identities.

The role of a Conference Ombuds is relatively new. If you are a conference organizer and have questions about how a Conference Ombuds can add value to your conference, please contact us at MWI to learn more.

Josh Hoch ombudselise ramos mediator

To discuss MWI’s Conference Ombuds Services, contact Josh Hoch, Ombuds & Director of Ombuds Services, at 617-895-4028 or jhoch@mwi.org. To schedule time for Josh to call you, click here. This blog article was written by Elise Ramos. Elise is a mediator and Ombuds Program Coordinator with MWI.