Anatomy of a Conference

By any measure, last Saturday’s Latin American Conference was a resounding success. Over six hundred participants arrived from twenty-five universities, more than fifty companies, and all over the United States and Latin America. And as Co-Chair Jos‚ Antonio Morán (OC) joked about the conference buzz and level of enthusiasm, “This is the first time I see all Latinos on time.” For a conference that lasted from registration at eight in the morning to a closing reception ending at seven in the evening, maintaining that energy and smooth operation was indeed an accomplishment.

But the success of the conference was never assured. Although this was the ninth conference of its type held at Harvard Business School, it had fallen on hard times. A few years ago it failed to launch, and successive efforts to revive it puttered out. Co-chair Arturo Weiss Pick (OA) explained, “Last year a Latin American conference was planned and canceled. We started to feel discontent that Latin America was losing exposure here at HBS and in the business world. It felt like we had only two or three cases about it and they were all focused on crisis.”

Over the summer, Weiss Pick and Morán began to send out feelers to friends, family, and alumni to gauge their level of interest in a Latin America conference. They faced four challenges: credibility, time constraints, lack of resources, and an unfavorable policy environment.

First of all, the disruption in the conference’s history meant that they needed to rebuild its credibility. Second, all the best dates for conferences had already been taken by the time they approached the Student Association in the summer. January 20 fell on the first Saturday after HBS’ winter break; with few students available to help during winter break, this date effectively accelerated the planning and organization timetable. January 20 also lies during the KSG break, so planners could not count on any participation from some students who would most like to attend. To be sure, what little time they had would be severely inhibited by the hectic schedule at HBS, especially the Fall recruiting season. Third, although they could not admit it to anyone, the lack of history posed a significant challenge. They had no funding sources, previous learnings to lean upon, or established contacts with companies and speakers. They had to start from scratch. Lastly, they felt frustrated by Harvard’s policy of discouraging student organizations from paying speakers or subsidizing travel. They were not sure if business leaders from Latin America could afford to spend the time and money to visit Boston without an incentive or subsidy.

Two developments provided early momentum. For one, Morán had worked as an associate in the private equity fund Discovery Americas under Pedro Aspe, the former finance minister of Mexico, and Aspe was receptive to Morán’s invitation to be a keynote speaker. Around the same time, Lehman Brothers agreed to become a corporate sponsor and thus provided early stage financing. Seeing what had worked with Lehman, Weiss Pick and Morán went into overdrive with their strategy: to overcome credibility barriers, they advertised their invitation list, and to overcome any other objections, they made a sincere appeal based on their motivation to help out Latin America and the HBS Latino academic community. Morán: “We started cascading. We made lists of people that knew people. We blanketed Latin America with invitations for high-profile individuals.” The second breakthrough came when Eduardo Gras (OB) reached out to Daniel Servitje, CEO of Grupo Bimbo, and he agreed to become the second keynote speaker. Soon, with several high-profile speakers confirmed to attend, they were benefiting from what they term the “spillover effect.” By the time December rolled around, they were starting to receive requests to speak, not the other way around, and were forced by space constraints to respectfully decline them.

Once most of the speakers were confirmed and the sponsorships secured (Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, McKinsey & Co, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Avianca, and Copa), they started a marketing campaign to attract attendees. They began by sending out invitations to the Harvard community, then greater Boston, and finally 35 universities and hundreds of companies. A key sponsor, Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, also invited its corporate partners. Former organizers of the conference advised Weiss Pick and Morán that in the past, the conference attracted 200 people; shooting for 300 would be “very aggressive.” They targeted 400. As word spread, they expanded the capacity of the conference twice, eventually capping it at 600. As conference attendees could attest during the lunch session, any more people and the Williams and Meredith rooms would have burst at the seams.
According to Morán, organizing a conference “is like creating a company that lasts one day. You have operations, finance, marketing and strategy.” For Weiss Pick and Morán, though, the most important aspect was human resources. They echoed each other in saying, “The key to our success was the team we worked with.” While Gras took charge of bringing in keynote speakers, Jorge Roberts (OH) coordinated the seven panel teams, each of which was responsible for attracting both panelists and professor moderators. Panel organizers included Tracy Mathews (OI), Ferrán Ayala (NE), Alejandro Rocha (NG), Alan Vainrub (NI), Cynthia do Nascimiento (NG), Tomaz Moura (NB), Katherine Bahamonde (OF), Ilka Vazquez (OC), Sandra Santos (OD) and McComma Grayson (OH). Deborah Dana (NB) and section-mate Annette Rodriguez ran a public-relations campaign that resulted in 10 news organizations and several equity analysts covering the conference. Rodolfo Chung (OC), Karla Gravis (NC) and Joshua Wais built the website, including the registration interface. And lastly, Aaron Cohen (NJ) and Leslie Feinzaig (OF) ran the operations of the conference itself.

Weiss Pick and Morán could hardly be more pleased with the way the conference turned out. Continuing with his earlier analogy of the conference as a company, Morán reflected, “The product that it’s selling is Latin American seeds. We planted these seeds in the people who came to HBS and they will grow in them and encourage them to do business, create jobs and fight poverty in Latin America.”