What was it like? Well, it was the same as other excellent conferences ­ only different. A gathering of 170 researchers isn't rare, but for them to come from 25 countries most certainly is. But then this was a special event. It was the first-ever joint AQR/QRCA International Conference, time to gain reassurance from the discovery that some things researchers do the same the world over, but also exciting to find out that others we do very differently. As for the event, all conferences are a nightmare to organise, but this hit new levels of complexity. It only came about because of the determination of the organising team ­ and its quality bears testament to their considerable talent.

Structural differences

It was the same in that every gathering of qual researchers is friendly ­ but its great difference was the way in which it was structured, ensuring that no one was left out.

This owed much to mealtimes, with lunch tables given a discussion topic to break the ice and evenings featuring 'dine-arounds'.

So, what were the researchers like? Well, they were the same ­ only different. 'The same' in the sense that we all seem to face similar issues: bad press, worries about professional respondents, the Net. Then there are the common misunderstanding and disputes with overseas clients and researchers on international projects.

Differences arise in the sense that most of the US researchers seem to provide a rather different service, 'moderating plus feedback', rather than detailed analysis, debriefs etc. Different, too, are the degrees of maturity of the various marketplaces and client expectations. Overall, however, the similarities were more noticeable than the differences. And that is more than ample justification for such an event.

Dynamic Tension

Not that we spent all the time eating and talking to each other. The papers were pretty damn good too. One of the key themes was the dynamic tension between global and local, changes and convergences, and the need for qual to help clients really understand what's happening on the ground, while recognising global themes.

In a similar vein, the importance and continued relevance of cultural and national stereotypes within the 'global village' echoed the underlying theme of things being different but still the same.

The conference also featured a theme familiar to anyone who has been to an AQR event in the past year or so: the importance of understanding consumers in context and cultural/sub-cultural analysis ­ via ethnographic, observation and experiential techniques. This gave us the unique opportunity to discover that this is an international qualitative trend, not just a UK phenomenon.

And then there was the Internet, which no one can ignore. I, though, found it somewhat depressing to hear people using this very different medium to do the same old stuff. Eight people for 11/2 hours in a room ­ it just happens to be a virtual room.

Interesting opportunities

The more interesting opportunities seem to lie in the potential to do truly different things that capitalise on the 'real time' potential of the hardware. These include blending qual and quant ­ using the hardware to do 'real time' quant surveys and instant analysis ­ and augmenting it with simultaneous qual insight. It can also free us from the constraints of physical space and time, enabling us to do things when and where we like.

Just don't make the mistake of judging by the limitations of current technologies ­ things are about to get very different on that front. Interesting to note that, to date, qual researchers across the globe seem to have had remarkably similar experiences from Internet research.

The sessions on qual and the marketing mix provided evidence and a useful reminder that despite being derided as old hat and criticised in the press, those same old-fashioned groups can really add some old-fashioned value ­ and directly improve our clients' bottom line. No need for anything different there.

As for the papers, delegates voted Wendy Gordon's paper on neuro-psychology as the best. So even here things are the same, only different.

Challenging paper

Once again it's Wendy who has challenged us and introduced us to different ways of approaching and thinking about qualitative research. This time she's done us proud by studying all the key material on this new and important branch of science ­ summarising it ­ and setting us on the path of discovering how we can use it to improve our work.

The bottom line is that, though this conference tested our abilities to stage it, the result proved well worth it. Stagnation can set in if we avoid risk taking and challenges. One thing that Paris proved is that neither AQR nor the QRCA have a problem in this area.