Taking care of business managers
Sharon Abbott, the President of the School Business Managers’ Association Queensland (SBMAQ), shares her approach for staging conventions that are too cool for school.
“A Business Manager is responsible for everything at a school that doesn’t involve teaching and learning,” Sharon explains. “They’re responsible for managing things like HR, finance, IT, management of student data including student enrolments, and infrastructure programs, including maintenance of buildings and the school grounds and new building projects.
“It’s a very broad role – and in most schools, there’s only one Business Manager, so it can also be quite a lonely role. That’s why opportunities to network and engage with other Business Managers are so important.”
There are approximately 1,259 public schools in Qld and SBMAQ represents 1,079 members. As President of the Association, Sharon’s role is to provide her members with opportunities to undertake professional development, provide feedback on Education Queensland policies and procedures, and network with their peers – which includes the annual SBMAQ State Conference.
Taking place over three full days, as well as one half-day introductory meet-and-greet opportunity, the event features a packed program filled with keynote addresses from education ministers, leaders in the education sector and inspirational speakers from all walks of life.
The program also features a variety of masterclasses, breakout sessions, opportunities to meet and mingle with sponsors, and an ever-popular gala dinner that includes the annual Business Manager Awards.
As good as gold
This year’s SBMAQ State Conference was held at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre (GCCEC) in August. It’s a venue delegates have come to know very well over the 21 years the event has been running.
“We’ve held the conference on the Gold Coast most years, and we’re already locked in to host it again there in 2023 and 2024,” Sharon says.
Of course, the Gold Coast is a popular destination for interstate and international travellers – but even for an event like the SBMAQ State Conference, where the delegates all come from within Queensland, the Gold Coast is a popular destination.
“Obviously the beaches are very attractive for delegates,” Sharon says. “Even just walking along the shoreline is a beautiful experience. Many delegates take advantage of the shoreline for their morning walk before the conference starts. Often our accommodation has views of the beach or views of the river and the mountains, and that’s something most delegates don’t get at home.
“So the Gold Coast is beautiful, and that’s a great selling point for delegates, but the reality is that it’s a very full program and we’re inside most of the time – so the venue is what’s really important, because that’s where we’re going to be spending the majority of our time.”
Sharon says that while the conference has occasionally been held at other venues over the years, the sheer size of the event makes GCCEC the most practical option. SBMAQ is held over all four of GCCEC’s halls, as well as several meeting rooms that are used as breakout spaces.
“We have been to other venues, but they’re just too small for us, because we have such a large trade display,” she says. “This event needs to be held in a Convention Centre – and when you compare GCCEC to the other Convention Centres in Queensland, there’s no comparison, in terms of value for money.”
As well as organising the event itself, Sharon arranges for all of the delegates to stay in the same hotel complex, which she says adds value to the conference experience.
“There’s enough accommodation at The Star and The Dorsett [both hotels located within The Star Gold Coast’s entertainment and leisure precinct, adjacent to GCCEC] for everyone to stay in the same complex, which does make for a better experience,” she says.
“Accommodation is important, and the main reason we choose to organise accommodation for our delegates instead of encouraging them to book their own is it brings everybody together. They can all walk across to the Convention Centre in the morning, and they might meet back there to continue their networking opportunities at one of the cafes or bars before they get ready for dinner. Then they might go there together after dinner.
“The big change I’ve noticed since COVID is that people just want to get together. They want to engage, and they want to socialise with their colleagues even more now than they did two or three years ago. So I think it’s important to give them as many opportunities as possible to do that.”
Sharon says it’s not unusual for delegates to add extra nights to their stay on the Gold Coast.
“Our conferences are normally scheduled with a weekend before or after on either side,” she says. “They choose to travel down on the weekend before or travel back the weekend after to enhance their conference experience.
“Whenever we hold this event on the Gold Coast, we have people who will extend their stay. We’ll have people stay over the weekend on the Gold Coast, because they’re travelling in from a remote region and they want to make the most of it.”
Because the event’s delegates all come from within Queensland, the SBMAQ State Conference was one of the few conferences to go ahead in-person as planned at the peak of the coronavirus shutdowns in 2020.
For the most part, Sharon says the event was business as usual, albeit with COVID Safe protocols observed – and with one major change that has now become a mainstay of the SBMAQ program.
“Before 2020, we always had a buffet, but because of COVID restrictions, we had to sit down for à la carte meals,” she remembers. “The GCCEC kitchen created these meals that were absolutely amazing… and even though the restrictions are gone now, we’re going to keep having sit-down lunches and dinners, because our delegates absolutely loved them.
“Because of the nature of our particular event, it’s also just a more efficient way to do things. They can sit down, have their lunch and then get right back into meeting sponsors at the trade display, instead of losing time standing in line for the buffet. It’s a win-win.”
A matter of trust
Ultimately, Sharon says the most important thing when planning a conference is to be able to trust the people you’re working with.
“My philosophy around organising conferences is we all have a role to play, and I don’t want to step on other people’s shoes,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been at SBMAQ for 15 years, and I’ve been running conferences for all of those years. And the biggest thing I’ve learned is you have to let people do their jobs.
“We give the people we work with our agenda, but then we let them go, because they’re the experts. That’s their core business. They know their role and their responsibility. That’s what I like about working with Dreamweavers, who provide our theming, entertainment and AV, and that’s what I like about working with GCCEC, too.
“We’ll give them the rundown, we’ll say, ‘Go make something fantastic’, and they absolutely do. They always hit the mark.”