• Conferences/Workshops/Retreats

    Conferences, workshops, and retreats are special meetings to inform people and solicit input on specific policy issues, plans, or projects. In size and importance, they range from a subset of a larger meeting to a large multi-day event.


  • What are conferences, workshops, and retreats?
    A conference is a highly-structured program of presentations and discussions. Conferences usually have an overall theme, with multiple related sessions throughout the day. They can have presentations or panel discussions followed by questions. Top officials or panels of recognized experts help boost interest in attendance. Conferences often have plenary sessions attended by all participants, followed by breakout sessions on various elements. Conferences are as short as half a day or as long as three days. The Kansas and Pennsylvania DOTs held all-day conferences on their long-range statewide transportation plans. Workshops dealt with specific issues of the plans.

    A workshop is a task-oriented meeting organized around a particular topic or activity. Typically, it involves a relatively small group (20–40) and addresses aspects of a narrowly-defined topic. Workshops are usually one to three hours in duration for small groups to work on specific agenda. Because they are relatively short and task-focused, workshops can be part of a larger meeting, conference, or retreat. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission includes workshops at the beginning of every meeting to provide information and discussion on specific topics to be handled later in the meeting.

    Retreats are workshops held in non-traditional settings without distractions. A retreat is especially useful to work on personal conflict resolution and communication. Participants give their undivided attention to specific issues without interruptions for phone calls or everyday distractions. Like workshops, retreats are typically task-oriented and work on focused topics. Because of the complexity of an issue or topic, a retreat may require one full day and sometimes longer.

    Conferences, workshops, and retreats have several common characteristics. They:

    • Are special events, publicized separately from other events;

    • Highlight specific aspects of issues;

    • Are applied in either planning or project development;

    • Set the stage for plans or projects;

    • Showcase and refine specific aspects of plans or projects;

    • Provide focus and direction to participants; and

    • Often require advance registration or are invitational.

    Why are they useful?
    Conferences, workshops, and retreats are useful at any stage of a process. As special meetings, they are used early to set the stage for formulating plans or projects. They are used mid-process to showcase and refine specific aspects of plans or projects, resolve conflicts, and work toward consensus. Near the end of a process, they demonstrate findings and conclusions of the work effort. The Albany, New York, MPO scheduled conferences at the beginning, mid-point, and end of development of its long-range plan.

    Special meetings allow people to better understand a project or plan. They help individuals see the viewpoint of others. They give a "snapshot" of community concerns and reactions to proposals. The Portland, Oregon, Metro conducted mode and alignment workshops that generated good ideas from community residents. Participants worked on maps to illustrate their concerns and place proposed alignment options.

    Special meetings offer a way to zero in on specific issues and concerns. They deal with a single topic and its ramifications, or focus on notable impacts of concern to individuals or groups. They provide an opportunity for detailed discussion on a wide variety of elements of a plan or a project. The Massachusetts Highway Department sponsored a series of conferences on the future of Route 128, Boston’s beltway. One metropolitan-level conference included presentations by experts from around the country, while the other two focused on State and local concerns.

    Do they have special uses?
    A conference helps "kick off" a planning process or project development. Agency or elected officials add credibility to a process by being on the program to discuss their hopes for the project.

    A conference provides a forum to discuss statutes and regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a public conference called "The Right Route: Pollution Prevention and Transportation Planning in New England." National leaders from EPA and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) first addressed plenary sessions dealing with the implications of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA,) the Energy Policy Act, and the Clean Air Act. Workshops were scheduled for late morning and afternoon to deal with issues and develop a list of potential outcomes to be reviewed by a panel of regional policy leaders at the closing plenary session.

    Conferences are used to celebrate the successful completion of a process. Local residents and agency staff come together to review and evaluate a process and its product. Local officials and participants may officially bring closure to a successful process. Celebratory events reinforce the value of an inclusive planning process and give agencies an informal way to thank community members for their time and effort.

    Workshops are particularly useful for smaller groups of people who want to participate intensively. A small number of participants gives each a way of being heard and registering thoughts and opinions. Small groups allow a greater appreciation of others’ views through opportunities for more extensive interaction. Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, used workshops to ascertain local concerns and demonstrate how the concerns might be met, largely through urban design solutions.

    Workshops and retreats are inherently participatory and encourage a "working together" atmosphere. The informality encourages discussion and give-and-take. By focusing on narrow topics, workshops allow time for every participant to express a viewpoint. They are easily integrated into a larger participatory process. The North Dakota Consensus Council, a public-private partnership, sponsors forums on issues ranging from education to local government services. Facilitators elicit diverse views, using consensus-building techniques to resolve conflicts and find common ground. (See Facilitation)

    Workshops and retreats make it easier to participate without "going on the record." Typically, participants can speak out without being quoted at a later time. Questions are asked to glean information. Participants raise and discuss points without formal attribution, and the "trial balloons" that are a positive feature of negotiation are floated. The Rochester, New York, Telephone Corporation held workshops to solicit concerns and views about potential deregulation of the telecommunications industry in that city.

    Retreats are used to develop details of a transportation program. The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) held a two-day retreat with 40 representatives of transportation users, operators, customers, and groups to "tell us what the public involvement process should be." The University of Georgia’s Institute of Community and Area Development was retained to organize, conduct, and facilitate the meeting, resulting in short-term recommendations that have been implemented by GDOT.

    Retreats can "clear the air" on contentious issues, bringing disputants together to hear all sides of an issue and work out differences. They can work on thorny problems and look for elements of agreement. With a neutral facilitator, retreats provide an off-the-record means of stating and working on issues between opponents. The process of addressing difficult issues helps loosen adversarial relationships and creates the possibility for compromise and consensus.

    Who participates? And how?
    Special meetings target specific stakeholders for presentations and discussions. Conferences, workshops, and retreats help deal with specific local concerns. They help garner suggestions and support by explaining a proposal thoroughly. The State of Washington’s Western Area Power Administration used workshops to develop and select strategies of its plan for future power needs using customer preference exercises.

    Conferences, workshops, and retreats can be tailored to subsets of groups or constituencies who do not normally participate. The level of impact on specific portions of a community may warrant establishing specific meetings for them. Over time, it may be appropriate to add workshop sessions to incorporate local concerns into planning or project development. Costa Mesa, California, organizations sponsored "living room dialogues" among small groups to air feelings and issues about day laborers gathering in a park and shopping center while waiting to be hired. Discussions resulted in establishment of a hiring center for day workers and a new human rights commission.

    Conferences are customarily open to the public. Workshop and retreat participants come from the entire community or by invitation. Special efforts are needed to assure that all potential stakeholders are aware of the event. Invitations can be extended to business leaders and active members of civic clubs or organizations, along with agencies and interest groups. Inviting elected officials to special meetings is always appropriate. Certain conferences are attended by invitation only. The Minnesota Metropolitan Council invited key players in business, government, and education to a conference on regional economic strategies as part of a plan to build council identity.

    Knowledgeable people should be part of each special meeting. For conferences, experts in specific fields serve as speakers or presenters of information. For workshops and retreats, resource people are essential for providing information and answering questions. Agency people ordinarily act as individuals in the meetings, unless specialized questions are asked. For breakout sessions, workshops, and retreats, a trained facilitator acts in the neutral, central role of leading the meeting and keeping it on course.

    Workshops and retreats can target specific groups. The Edison Electric Institute held a two-day retreat to improve communication between industry and consumer groups. A group of 20 to 24 people were invited, chosen by their demonstrated ability to effectively present a position for their groups. Time was allowed for socialization to encourage personal relationships and dialogue among the participants.

    During a special meeting, participants ask questions and add their points of view to the discussion. They challenge agency reasoning on projects or plans. They discuss alternative uses of resources.

    Agencies hold meetings in local areas convenient for participants. Planning for the Central Valley water project in California included public workshops at disparate locations held every four or five months over a three-year period. The project involved four rounds of meetings throughout the valley.

    Participants need preparatory information prior to a meeting. An agency sends information to potential participants in advance to let them choose whether or not to attend a special meeting. (See Mailing Lists) A conference agenda or brochure displays topics, speakers, and opportunities for participation in discussion. A telephone number or agency contact helps participants find further information.

    How do agencies use conferences, workshops, and retreats?
    Special meetings send a message of agency commitment to public involvement and enhance agency credibility in a process of planning or project development. A conference held in Atlanta, Georgia, helped define new interagency approaches to fostering public participation of people affected by transportation investments. The conference was jointly sponsored by the Federal Highway, Transit, and Rail Administrations and the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

    They give plans and projects a high profile and attract interest. By focusing events and presentations on a single proposal, an agency attracts many participants, including the media, to an event where they can be guided toward presentations or discussions that interest them.

    Conferences give in-depth information about a project or plan. The complexity of a planning effort or project development can be portrayed at a conference where detailed information can be obtained. A conference includes sub-meetings and presentations on a variety of topics. A conference program has several topics presented at the same hour in separate rooms, allowing participants to choose among them.

    Special meetings provide input to a plan or project. Agencies obtain new ideas in response to their proposals. Participants have an opportunity to offer suggestions for policy changes or for alterations in the details of a project. Special meetings provide an opportunity for participants to debate the issues with one another.

    Who leads them?
    A conference may require specialized organization and leadership. The scope of a conference, involving many presentations and break-out sessions, may be challenging for existing staff to manage. An agency conference manager may be needed. Consultant staff may be required to manage the event.

    A conference can be co-sponsored by more than one agency, thus broadening the range of concerns and attracting new participants. The Missouri Highway and Transportation Department has had successes with co-sponsored conferences.

    Conferences with few speakers may be managed by a small staff. Organizing date, place, time, and speakers is manageable if the event is uncomplicated.

    A workshop is led by an agency staffer or community volunteer, if the size of the group is manageable. A large workshop requires special skills to moderate the event and keep it on target. An agency project manager may attend a workshop but usually should not lead the session if issues are highly controversial, since that may compromise the objectivity of the process. Workshops may be led by citizens themselves. The Puget Sound Regional Transit Project has financially supported citizen-initiated workshops. This alleviates the issue of government control and promotes community leadership.

    Retreats require a neutral moderator. Agency staff members may be able to lead the session, but are seen as biased if they are involved in the process or project. A neutral moderator should remain unbiased in soliciting ideas and comments from all participants and should direct the proceedings toward the goals of the retreat. (See Facilitation)


    What are the costs?
    Initial costs include renting meeting space and breakout rooms, if necessary. Conferences require staff for entrance and registration areas and preparation of individual rooms for specific presentations. They include arranging for speakers or presentations, including costs for hotels and food if out-of-town speakers are used. Costs frequently include refreshments for participants. For a full-day conference, it is wise to arrange for lunch for the speakers and the participants.

    A few conference costs are offset by registration fees. The fee ordinarily covers only the costs of printing and refreshments. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a community organization, charged $15 for a conference to inform people about transportation issues, the importance of public involvement, and new opportunities for involvement. The conference included skills workshops dealing with gaining media exposure, influencing decision-makers, and building a coalition. The Albany, New York MPO charged small fees to cover meals for its conferences, but provided scholarships for low-income participants.

    Workshops are less costly than conferences. A workshop usually requires only a room and a staff person to manage materials, welcome participants, and document the process. Fees for a workshop or retreat are usually not appropriate, because they can discourage people from attending.

    A retreat requires a room and a facilitator. The facilitator must be neutral and not a proponent of an agency’s agenda. Like a workshop, a retreat requires only a room and a staff person to serve the needs of both the facilitator and the participants. (See Facilitation)

    Finding rooms in publicly-owned sites helps keep costs down. Colleges or universities provide good locations for conferences, workshops, or retreats. These sites are usually neutral locations where participants feel welcome. Supplementary funding sources may be available. The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, MPO received financial support from a local foundation to pay for all costs of a weekend retreat for a blue-ribbon panel reviewing the long-range plan.

    How are they organized?
    All special meetings are coordinated with the community, which provides input on what issues to cover and who from the community should be involved. Publicity is funneled through neighborhood channels. The community may suggest a place and date for the special meeting. (See Key Person Interviews; Civic Advisory Committees; Public Opinion Surveys)

    Conferences require a rigid structure and agenda for speakers, presentations, and break-out groups. Preparation for a conference requires a good deal of staff work to organize the content and publicize the event to the community.

    Agency staff organize a conference, if resources are available. Agencies should be aware that the resources are significant. Specialized consultants may be necessary as conference assistants.

    Workshops and retreats have a flexible structure. They can be organized more casually than a conference and are flexible in selection of date, place, and format. However, they require leadership to assure that they accomplish the assigned task or goal. Both workshops and retreats need an agenda, noting the time available for discussion of agenda elements, and information on what the agency intends to do with the information from the meeting.

    How are they used with other techniques?
    Brainstorming is an integral element of conferences, workshops, or retreats and a useful way to quickly involve many participants in the process. (See Brainstorming)

    Visioning is advanced by workshops and retreats. A special meeting can focus on establishing a vision for the future. With an allotted time period to explore varied aspects, the special meeting is well-adapted to this use. Oregon DOT used workshops on issues and visions at six locations along the Pacific Coast in developing a draft master plan. (See Visioning)

    Facilitation is an important element of special meetings, especially workshops and retreats. Participants need a facilitator’s guidance on timing, focus, and reporting the events of a workshop or retreat. (See Facilitation)

    Small group techniques are used in workshops to open a meeting and gain participants’ interest. They can then be used to set goals for the meeting and to guide the process. (See Small Groups)

    Special meetings supplement regular meetings. Conferences, workshops, and retreats are high points of an overall program of public participation and cannot by themselves constitute a public participation program.

    Are they flexible?
    Workshops are used in a variety of ways—as a break-out of a conference or retreat or as special events on their own, to involve people in discussions and resolution of thorny issues. In Washington State, Seattle’s Puget Sound Regional Council offered a series of community workshops at several points throughout its planning processes.

    Conferences and retreats can include workshops on the agenda. Large special meetings can have break-out sessions for concurrent workshops focusing on specific issues.

    Special meetings are held on any appropriate days and at convenient times. The timing of a special meeting is largely up to an agency, guided by community needs or requests.

    The level of effort for a special meeting is flexible. A special meeting can be devised to meet community needs within the resources available to an agency. Conferences require the greatest output of resources, while workshops may expend few agency resources.

    What are the drawbacks?
    Special meetings require substantial publicity. Agencies need to be prepared to expend resources to make the community aware of the meetings. All special meetings require extensive preparation by staff. Resources can be quickly expended during the preparation period.

    Conferences are often expensive and may be viewed as exclusionary. Arrangements for space and speakers can be significant. Publicity must be extensive to attract media and community attention.

    A retreat requires a skilled facilitator.

    A workshop is ineffective if leadership is unable to keep it on track. It is not automatically a positive event, unless effort is expended to assure that staff or experienced personnel are present to guide its progress.

    For further information:
    Chesapeake Bay Foundation
    (410) 268-8816

    Environmental Justice Resource Center, Clark Atlanta University
    (404) 880-6911

    Kansas Department of Transportation
    (785) 296-2252

    Minnesota Metropolitan Council (Minneapolis/St. Paul)
    (612) 291-6423

    North Dakota Consensus Council
    (701) 224-0588

    Rochester Telephone Company
    (574) 223-2191

    University of Georgia Institute of Community and Area Development
    (706) 542-1108

 Technique Ratings

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 Technique Information

Large Meetings
Project/Study Scale
Local/Sub-regional, Regional, Corridor, Statewide, Multistate
Public Engagement Goals
Collaborate, Consult, Inform, Involve
3 - 12 months, > 12 months

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