Organizing conferences in Ukraine: What you need to know

Being an event organizer and PR consultant to both foreign and domestic companies, Maryna Skrypnyk has a unique perspective and a wealth of practical experience in organizing various events and conferences in Ukraine and abroad, such as TIFF-2012, International Investment Business Forums, social projects in support of Youth Canada, and many others. So we seized the opportunity to ask her about some important aspects of organizing conferences in Ukraine, including some of the pros and cons and her secret tips. In addition, Maryna shares her favourite venues for conferences and her views on the overall state of the Ukrainian event market.

“When I moved to Canada in 2011 (to study event management and work in the field), the event industry didn’t really exist yet in Ukraine. Such activities were not nearly as popular then as they are now. My mother wondered: ”What do you need this specialty for? What are you going to do with it? How much better it would be to go into law!
When I returned to Ukraine five years later, I saw a completely different picture. Nowadays, events are popular, and not just children’s holiday celebrations and weddings, but as an instrument of communication.
By creating opportunities for discussion, we are attracting many new players and representatives of international business to Ukraine, giving them an opportunity to study our market and better understand its prospects and opportunities. And this is an excellent trend, I believe.”
Maryna Skrypnyk

Event organizer and PR consultant for Ukrainian and foreign companies (Canada, the USA, the European countries), Communications Advisor to the Deputy Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine for European Integration, PR Expert for Civil Society and Verhovna Rada, EU technical assistance project AASISTS

1What is the advantage of conducting conferences? Is this something we need?

In modern society, we are always in a hurry and never have enough time to communicate. Holding сonferences helps to compensate for that lack of communication. They’re an ideal platform for negotiations, one which the West has embraced for a long time now. When organizing a conference, remember that people come not only to listen to the speakers but also to communicate among themselves during lunch and coffee breaks, so giving them good opportunities to do that is a priority for a successful event organizer.

2What are the main differences between Ukraine and Canada, or abroad in general, in how conferences are organized?

The conference itself is pretty standard everywhere, but there are some differences in the organizational approach. Foreigners, first of all, should take into account the differences in mentality and clearly understand that their usual style of operating doesn’t work in Ukraine. Overall, Ukrainian conferences are more chaotic, active, and unpredictable, but more interesting as a result!

  • The first difference involves time constraints on preparation. In Europe and Canada, where event preparation takes more time and the process is strictly structured, companies and organizers tend to adhere to the original plan. In Ukraine, we don’t follow such a structured approach. We work in a more chaotic way; we often go against the rules, changing plans to suit the circumstances. But this tendency makes us more flexible, and it takes less time in Ukraine to plan and organize a conference. (For example, a conference involving 300-400 people can be organized within two months.) We are not afraid to experiment and take risks. If you think that it’s too late to change something — not in Ukraine!
  • Take into account that Ukrainians often ignore deadlines. Time management exists in Ukraine, of course, but we are not used to being as structured as the Europeans. Don’t be afraid of this point, as we will do our work properly, though not always according to the plan. So don’t worry about those shifts in deadlines, just do take that possibility into account.
  • Moreover, Ukrainians do not stick to the concept of weekly reports, and do not see a need to have wide agreement on every item. Generally, foreigners are more organized but at the same time linger over every decision longer. It is obligatory abroad that every point is agreed upon a hundred times with all divisions, starting from the marketing department on out to the time-schedule of cleaning lady. Also, if you are interested in ensuring the presence of certain speakers from Ukraine, consider that some of them might only confirm their participation at the very last moment. In Ukraine, people have less standardized schedules compared with many European countries. In Canada, for example, where work typically starts at 9 a.m. and finishes on the stroke of 5 p.m., people certainly know their work schedule, while Ukrainians are not able to plan too far ahead.
  • Sometimes we put less urgent work on the back burner until the last moment. For example, if the event company is responsible for organizing several conferences at the same time, even if you came to an agreement about your event a year in advance, the company may well devote its attention to the more urgent, “burning” projects. I personally have faced that dilemma a good many times. That’s why it’s essential to ask in advance what plans and projects the company has in its purview and ask about the real deadlines.
  • Speaking of the budget: While in Europe and Canada the budget is pre-signed, often a year before the event is to take place, not all Ukrainian companies are so prudent. I contend that there is some advantage in this. If you urgently need to connect with a company as a partner, it is possible to do so at the last moment.
  • One last thing that should be highlighted: While more attention is paid to content abroad, in our country the great emphasis should be on publicity. If you want your conference to be successful in Ukraine, invite state agents and bureaucrats!
  • 3What are the advantages and disadvantages of organizing conferences in Ukraine?

    I have already mentioned some advantages, such as flexibility, getting everything done at railway speed, and an opportunity to attract partners at any stage of the event. We can do everything very quickly. Yes, not always on time, but we are hard-working and always do our best! There are several more points I would like to highlight here:
    • The position of Ukraine in both economic and geopolitical terms is attractive for new players.
      First of all, the current political situation of the country sometimes works in our favor. Ukraine is perceived by other countries with a degree of sympathy and support. Reforms are being actively implemented, and new business structures and startups are developing in Ukraine. This is an advantageous time not only for Ukraine but also for foreigners focused on doing business in the Ukrainian market. The easiest way to gain knowledge from experts, better understand the industry, and better communicate your own message to the largest possible target audience is to hold a conference. In addition, the central geographical location of Ukraine is a huge plus.
    • We really offer a turnkey service.
      If you contract with an agency or company organizer to plan your conference, they’ll handle everything from all fine points of organizing the event to the promotional campaign. The only thing the client needs to work with the planners on (besides financial matters) is the involvement of speakers.
    • We are unconventional.
      In Ukraine, you’re less likely to hear the word “standard,” in contrast to many foreign countries, where following “standard” patterns are seen as an assurance of safety. Ukrainians are very creative, willing to take risks, unafraid to experiment. They always ask the client: "What would you like?"
    • As to the cost,
      it depends on the scale of the event and the commission charged by the event organizer. A full-day conference at a five-star hotel, plus the planning company’s commission, would cost somewhere around UAH 700,000–800,000. Commissions are agreed upon individually, but if the company is handling both content and speakers, it is typically about UAH 450,000 (EUR 15,000).
    • Among the disadvantages to holding conferences in Ukraine are:
      the above-mentioned issues with deadlines and a risk of cost overruns, which are more likely to occur in Ukraine than abroad. (In Ukraine, while the key costs are all accounted for and calculated in advance, "trifles" can be added to the bill along the way.) Unfortunately, not all companies communicate properly with the client.

    4What useful tips would you give to foreigners who are considering Kiev as a prospective location for a conference? What should be kept in mind? Where should they start?

    In general, it is better to be clear and vocal about your expectations beforehand. Some details that foreigners assume are a matter of course can be perceived quite differently in Ukraine.

  • Find a company that is primarily engaged in planning events similar to yours or can work with a local partner. Most of the planning process requires somebody on site, and if you’re abroad it will be difficult for you to provide oversight directly. It’s important to choose an excellent company that can provide services according to your desired format. If you are going to hold a business conference, look for a company experienced with such gatherings, not an event agency that primarily organizes celebrations. There are very few companies experienced in planning large-scale conferences; among the top ones are Arena CS and Adam Smith Conferences.
  • Pay attention as to whom your partner company is “partnering” and working with. It is better if it actively works with medium and large businesses and the public sector. State support tends to attract more attention from media and raises the profile of the event. Ask your chosen company to try to attract state agents and bureaucrats to your event.
  • When choosing the conference venue, pay attention to logistics: How will guests move, enter, exit; where are the emergency doors; how will catering be provided? Note, the organizer doesn’t typically deal with parking, but this should also be taken into account if you care for the comfort of the guests.
  • Monitor the process. If you would like to be informed about which stage the project is in at any given time, how your money is being spent, where the project is getting bogged down, and what is planned for the next week, it’s better to specify all that in detail, in advance.
  • Conclude the contract. Alas, everything in Ukraine is done on a wing and a prayer, rather than on paper. To avoid misunderstandings, it is better to write down all the requirements and expectations clearly in the contract. Believe me, I observed a good many cases when the client wanted to see one result but got the opposite, only because, in his company, everything is done according to certain principles, while in Ukraine, it’s done the opposite way. It’s not necessarily someone’s fault, but rather the result of not communicating clearly and explicitly what’s expected and desired. I strongly advise written agreements.
  • 5What would you say are the Top 5 locations for conferences (in Kiev or Ukraine generally) and what are the competitive advantages of each? Which locations are waning or growing in popularity, and why?

    Congress-exhibition center Parkovy is number 1 for me, as it is modernized, the halls are large and convenient, and it really looks like a conference hall! People who come there realize that it’s a place where you can talk about business, and not just stare at mirrors and shining chandeliers. Moreover, there is a wonderful view from the balcony. I like the Fairmont Grand Hotel, as it has just one big hall, and people don’t get lost. There is enough space, but not so many zones; this is very important, especially at coffee breaks. The Intercontinental Hotel is nice and cozy. However, the halls connect several corridors, so that guests often scatter into various corners and it’s difficult to drive everyone back into the hall when the panel begins.
    Speaking of other cities, there is the Menorah cultural and business center in Dnipro. It has well-equipped rooms that can accommodate from 70 to 1,300 people. All the major conferences are held at the Bristol hotel in Odessa. It has a comfortable and spacious hall and is convenient for guests, as they rarely come to Odessa for just one day. It accommodates up to 300 people.

    In general, you can also consider some country complexes that have conference rooms, for example the Bartolomeo complex in Dnipro; it’s a hotel-restaurant. In Kiev, there is the Pushcha-Voditsa complex, which has a cozy location near the forest, without any fuss.
    Conference halls at hotels remain very popular because there aren’t many locations suited to large-scale events. I’m not counting here the exhibition centers, which are created for exhibitions. Such events are held in business centers or more modernized hotels abroad. I think that our hotels will soon take a back seat to other venues. They are beautiful and cozy, but that atmosphere distracts from the main theme — business. They’re a perfect fit for weddings and less formal events.