Conferences for Dummies
September 7, 2007 3:08 AM   Subscribe

How do you organize a conference?

I've heard that the first thing you need to do is to work out a venue. Then what? How do you work out the programming? Do you contact people you're interested first, see who's available, and then schedule the programming around them, or do you just schedule everything first and then see if they're feasible? What hidden costs are there that may not be totally obvious (security, food, first aid, transport, advertising, insurance, materials, licenses...)? Do you write up a proposal first, and then ask for advice, or vice versa? How long before do you start planning? What resources are good?

There doesn't seem to be a Conferences for Dummies book, and for some reason my uni Events & Festivals class doesn't seem to give me enough information. I've downloaded guide after guide but it still feels like I'm missing something - essentially how do I get past the idea stage into action. Where else can I go?
posted by divabat to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Is it one of a series, or a one-off? If it's the former, then the previous organizers will, I'm sure, be happy to help. The one golden rule I would observe when organizing a conference is to de-couple the venue and the accommodation; if you're running the conference in a hotel, offer delegates the opportunity to stay there (with a negotiated discount), but make sure that they, ultimately, have to book their accommodation separately. If you make the mistake of saying to the hotel "I want 100 delegates, room, food and conference facilities" and only 80 show up, then you still have to pay for the rooms.
posted by gene_machine at 3:44 AM on September 7, 2007

The first thing to do is to have an idea of the constituency at which your conference will be aimed. Guesstimate the answers to some questions:

How many people are you looking to have attend? (Will obviously be dependent on nature of conference, specialist, etc).

What is the usual price for attending a conference in the area of interest? This figure may indicate what people are used to paying/are prepared to pay, which may well limit your options.

What other conferences are available along similar lines? I.e. will you be competing for attendees?

What facilities do you want at a conference? There's no point getting in touch with a venue until you know roughly what you want.

When is the best time to run the conference? When are no-go times? (For example, summer tends to be better for academics, early October not so much.) Are there times when desired speakers will be harder to get? Are there events outside the conference which would influence the best date for the conference? (This might not be relevant at all in some fields.)

Are the majority of the likely attendees going to be centrally located around some limited geographical area? Will they travel far to attend the conference? For example, in my field things tend to centre around London and SW England, so conferences get held their usually.

Thinking about previous conferences run recently in the same field can go a long way to addressing some of these questions. As gene_machine says, if you're running one in a regular series then lots of this info can come from previous organisers (plus you can get a list of contact details for potential attendees).
posted by biffa at 3:51 AM on September 7, 2007

When I worked on a small conference, we
a. picked a date (and venue) that didn't clash with other events that participants were likely to want to go to (it was pretty easy - had to be a student free day for school teachers)
b. sent out requests for expressions of interest to academics in the field with a deadline
c. created a program based on the (approved) abstracts received and advertised our butts off
d. organised catering and giveaways etc.

For most of your questions, it depends. It depends who's funding it (we charged, and we paid our guest speakers, but our overarching department stiffed some of our speakers which was really embarrassing).

If you have a particular type of conference in mind, ask again next week with that topic. I'm sure some answers will really depend on the field.
posted by b33j at 4:34 AM on September 7, 2007

Good advice above.

I'm assuming this is for academics and that papers will be presented at the conference. My experience is mostly in CompSci conferences, with both local and international delegates.

0. Don't try to do this on your own unless the conference is for about 20 people. The work will snow you under. Get together a team of people. In particular, a well connected publicity chair and program committee chair are pretty much essential.

1. Organize funding of some sort. See what funds are available. Everything after this point depends on your budget

2. Pick a venue. Depends on numbers, but some hotels will like the extra occupancy at an off-peak time of the year. If your budget is limited, then see if you can make do with a small meeting room on campus.

3. If there is a CFP (Call For Papers) required, set up the dates once your venue has firmed up. Allow plenty of time for referees to get back to you with their feedback. Appoint a program committee of experts. If you want a system recommendation, I've used EasyChair a couple of times. It's decent.

4. Let the publicity chair loose with the dates. Most neighbouring campuses will publish a notice; and you can compile a checklist of people to email with the conference CFP.

5. (Optional) - get in touch with someone from a publisher if you want the proceedings published. If not, organizing a CD version and doing a couple of hundred copies is a cheap option. In my experience, a previous reference opens lots of doors at a publishers, so scout out someone who has gotten proceedings published before.

6. Setup a website. Offer a deal for accommodation for delegates as mentioned above, but also give a few alternatives for late bookings/starving students on a budget etc.

7. Organize a timetable. Invite keynote speakers

8. Kick off conference.

I've left out lots of details, but those were the main brushstroke details that I can recall.
posted by geminus at 4:53 AM on September 7, 2007

when my partner did this she worked with not just a committee of other academics, but also a company whose job is to organise conferences. since this is chile it's pointless giving you their name, but i am sure similar companies must exist in your country.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:26 AM on September 7, 2007

0. Don't try to do this on your own unless the conference is for about 20 people. The work will snow you under. Get together a team of people. In particular, a well connected publicity chair and program committee chair are pretty much essential.

This is pretty much it. How important is this to you? You don't want to be making beginner's mistakes if this is a big deal. Conferences are usually run by a staff. If your budget allows, look into hiring a conference manager to run the show: just doing the non-content-related logistics is a full-time job.
posted by bonaldi at 6:55 AM on September 7, 2007

If you make the mistake of saying to the hotel "I want 100 delegates, room, food and conference facilities" and only 80 show up, then you still have to pay for the rooms.
Not necessarily true. When I used to help organize medium-sized gatherings like this (80-125 people), most hotels would include in their cost proposal how much leeway you had (I forget what the technical term was), but I think it was usually around 20% with final numbers due two or three weeks before the event. That is, if we're expecting 100 people, we'd reserve for 100, but if two weeks prior to the event, only 85 had registered, we'd send the list of 85 (and only get billed for 85), and the hotel would "release" the other 15 rooms for general consumption. At that point it was first come, first served -- if we had a late enrollee and the hotel still had a room, then great, its ours; otherwise we had to find room at a nearby hotel for the numbnuts who couldn't decide by the deadline. This is obviously something that should be clearly communicated to potential attendees (e.g., registration deadline, space available, blah blah).
posted by Doofus Magoo at 6:59 AM on September 7, 2007

Do you contact people you're interested first, see who's available, and then schedule the programming around them, or do you just schedule everything first and then see if they're feasible?

I think this has to be a mix. You'll get people that can commit early, and then you have to use them as your "draws" to promote the event so that attendees want to register. And you want at least the broad strokes of your programming themes/topics sketched in, or else you can't really plan. But there will always be some sessions that come together at the last minute based on availability of speakers, logistics changes, etc. CYA, and have a few local people in mind who can pinch-hit if someone cancels.

What hidden costs are there that may not be totally obvious (security, food, first aid, transport, advertising, insurance, materials, licenses...)?

Event insurance, service charges and gratuities to the hotel/venue, transportation (if you are in a city where there is not good public/taxi transport, you will need to help out), A/V services (in my experience, the venue will usually subcontract this and you pay separately -- and out the nose. This includes wireless internet in your meeting spaces.).

The most affordable way to handle conference food is to get sponsors to pay for it. The second most affordable way is for the conference to provide the cheapest meal (a continental breakfast) and then encourage attendees to go out for lunch / dinner. Consider conference volunteers who arrange to make reservations for groups at local restaurants, and who will coordinate meeting up to go out for meals.

I think it's unusual for a conference to need to provide security or first aid until you are looking at 500+ people. The venues you use will usually have this already covered if it's necessary. Still, a little first-aid kit kept by someone on the host committee, and maybe info on area hospitals/casualty/doctors to provide if needed, should suffice.

How long before do you start planning?

I believe anything less than a year for a conference of 50+ attendees, and you'll be always playing catch-up. If you've got a strong supporting host organization, a big city with lots to do and see, and a decent budget, though, you can make up for lost time.

Talk to the convention & visitors bureau (CVB) or local equivalent. In the U.S. at least, this will be your city's tourism board, and assisting city orgs with conferences and events -- for free -- is their whole raison d'ĂȘtre. In my experience they can provide support ranging from a dedicated account rep to help with your event, to area brochures and maps for your guests, to putting you in contact with private companies who will offer you gifts to give away and discounts on services.

The one objective truth about conference planning, for me, is that there are never enough volunteers. Recruit volunteers early in the process, reward them throughout, and recognize them in front of attendees at the event for all their hard work. Volunteers who have crucial roles should be monitored for burnout or availability changes. Encourage lots of communication. Appoint a volunteer coordinator if you can.
posted by pineapple at 6:59 AM on September 7, 2007

From personal experience, a few things to think about/watch out for:

Up front be very aware of your budget, what that budget will pay for and what it will not (and whether anything can come out of another budget to provide flexibility - i.e. internal attendees might be able to tap a general travel budget to free up travel funds).

Also, what are your deliverables - i.e. what are you/your organization promising to deliver with this conference (certain number of attendees/presenters? Some specific follow-up from attendees?) If you don't have these established push to set goals, a conference can become an incredibly open-ended commitment.

Presenters may flake out, so whatever flexibility you can build in there is useful. This might include a particular friend of the organization who could come prepared with backup material, having someone in the organization prepare an emergency presentation, or planning an alternative Q&A or roundtable sort of session. I once had to prepare a presentation literally overnight due to a presenter begging off at the last minute. Then because my hastily prepped talk stepped on some of my boss' discussion points I got dressed down afterward for "stealing his thunder." That was fun.

Make sure you nail down presenters travel expectations.

Consider handicap access in sites. Actually look at it if at all possible. Some of what gets called access is a joke.

Do you have your potential attendees recorded in a way to facilitate contact for invitation? Make sure you start testing that sooner rather than later. The general rule is that, if you lack experience with this group, it is going to take considerably more than you expect to get the target number of attendees.
posted by nanojath at 12:41 PM on September 7, 2007

A lot depends on the size of the conference, how long the conference will go for, and the style of the conference. Those are things you'll want to think about first, because they'll inform the rest of what you do.

As one of the posters said above, unless you're running it for 20 people or less, you'll want a team. Roughly, you'll want a Chair, a Treasurer, a Secretary, Logistics, and Programme members on your team - plus some generalists who help out where they're needed. This core team should preferably be people who will see a lot of each other generally, to facillitate meetings and channels of communication. It's not impossible to do it with people who don't normally see each other often, but it is more challenging.

To run a conference, you'll need the following things:
- advertising
- sponsorship
- venue
- food and drink
- handouts (programmes, swag, badges, etc)
- equipment (av, etc)
- volunteers to direct people
- signage
- public liability insurance
- a website/email list
- a registration process
- high stress tolerance

You'll want the people on the ground on the day dressed distinctively, so they're easy to identify for attendees. Oh, that's the other thing: if you're running it, you won't be attending it. You will miss the conference due to the thousand little things that go wrong during the day.

You should really think about having a planning horizon of at least a year; currently, I'm involved in planning a conference due to be held in january 2009, and we started planning (approaching venues, some sponsors, and the like) in March this year. This is for a 1000 person conference held yearly, so we have some issues of scale which probably don't apply in this instance. A much smaller conference (around 200) is being held in November in Brisbane, and planning for that began seriously in January; being a yearly conference, however, it was relatively simple to get off the ground.

Very importantly, you need to rough out the 'look' of your conference (in terms of programme/venue/style/theme) and budget as soon as possible. Also check relevant requirements for events - public liability insurance is a big one. Check to see if you can get government grants - the 'Smart State' program may be applicable, depending on the conference, for example.

I've rambled enough here; if you want more info, my email is in my profile.
posted by ysabet at 8:06 AM on September 8, 2007

« Older How can unauthorized access be used without evil?   |   After gallbladder surgery, will I ever be able to... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.