Organizing a conference involves several phases:
- Creating an organizing structure – putting together the group of people who are going to organize and run the conference, and planning the ways they’ll work together.
- Planning the conference.
- Publicizing the conference and recruiting and registering participants.
- Running the conference.
- Evaluating the conference and the conference-organizing process.
Creating an organizing structure
1. Put together a team or committee that will be in charge: Most conferences benefit from having a group of people in charge. A group means that decisions are considered from more than one perspective, that there are a variety of ideas to draw from, and that there are more hands to do the work. Although this group generally doesn’t replace an individual coordinator (see below), the two work closely together (the coordinator often comes from, or is at least an automatic member of, the organizing group.) It should be made up of people who have the time, energy, ability, and desire to do the job.The organizing team or committee often comes from the board of the sponsoring organization. In the case of organizations that put on annual conferences, the organizing committee may be a standing committee of the board, and meet year round. It may also include the coordinator or committee chair of the previous conference. Where the conference is small, local, and a single event, the organizing team is more likely to be a group representative of several sectors of the community, or at least of the community the conference is aimed at (e.g., health and community workers). Conference committees are often split up into subcommittees, as suggested above, each handling specific parts of the conference; this arrangement generally makes for more efficiency, and keeps everyone from becoming overloaded with tasks.
2. Appoint a coordinator: While the organizing team plans the conference (usually in collaboration with the coordinator), the coordinator carries out the team’s decisions, and serves as the first line of communication with suppliers, participants, presenters, the site providers, exhibitors, and others outside the planning and oversight group. For many annual conferences, the coordinator is automatically the person in a particular job – the organization’s director or assistant director, for instance, or the chair of the Conference Committee. In other cases, it may be a volunteer, or a staff or board member who has experience or enthusiasm for the task. When there’s no one available from within, some organizations may hire an event planner.Whatever the circumstances, it’s almost always a good idea to have a single coordinator – or, in some circumstances, two co-coordinators – as the focal point for a conference. Being the coordinator doesn’t mean doing all the work, but rather being the one person who knows what’s going on with every area of the event’s planning and execution. This makes for a much more efficient operation, and also simplifies communication and accountability.
Planning the conference
The following steps will help you and your organizing committee to plan your conference:
1. Agree on the purpose of the conference: There are a large number of possible reasons for a conference, and many conferences combine two or more. Some of the most common are:
- Cheerleading (helping participants feel good about what they and the field do)
- Passing on information (new developments, issues to watch, regulations, etc.)
- Improving practice
- Highlighting an issue
- Decision-making and planning (e.g., setting the direction for an initiative or a field)
- Kicking off a new initiative or a new direction
2. Identify your target audience: To some extent, the target audience is dictated by the nature of both the conference and the sponsoring organization. But many conference organizers are interested in attracting more than just their “normal” participants. Some examples of groups from which conference attendees may be drawn:
- Members of or people interested in a certain profession or discipline
- People with a particular political agenda (pro-choice advocates, gun-control opponents)
- People involved in a specific community (or broader) issue
- People concerned with a specific population
- People from a specific population
- Public officials (may be at any or all levels)
- People from organizations funded by particular sources
- Members of the sponsoring organization
- People from a particular sector of the community
- Residents of a particular community
- The general public
3. Set a length and date for the conference: How long the conference will be depends on what needs to get done; what most potential participants can afford, in time and money; and what the sponsoring organization can afford, and has the capacity, to do. What an organization can do may depend on the availability of grants, support from a parent organization, donations, etc..
In the case of many national or international organizations, the annual conference is scheduled for several days as a matter of course, at least partially because most people have to travel long distances to get to it, and often piggyback vacations onto it. For a small local conference, where everyone will go home at night, length will probably depend more on how much time participants can afford to spend, how long the space is available, and what the program is.
The conference date should be set in order to avoid conflict with other events that affect the intended audience, or with the realities of their work. (You wouldn’t plan a school administrators’ conference for September, for instance, which is probably the busiest time of year for these folks.) The conference should also not conflict with events of national interest (e.g., a national election or the Super Bowl) or that would affect family obligations (standard public school vacations, or the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays).
4. Plan the format: Here’s the meat of the conference, as far as those attending are concerned. What’s actually going to happen? Your job here is not to plan the content of each session of the conference (presenters do that, although the committee may approve presentations), but to set the overall theme and structure.
An often-used general format for a large conference, and one that many smaller conferences follow as well, begins with a keynote address – a speech or presentation, usually by a well-known or inspirational speaker, that is meant to introduce the theme of the conference, kindle attendees’ enthusiasm, and/or make them think.
Following the keynote speaker, and for most of the rest of the conference, the day might be divided into as few as two to as many as six shorter sessions (and sometimes evening sessions as well), often with several choices for each session, where the real content of the conference is presented. Each day may include lunch as part of the conference fee (although some local conferences may be brown-bag, especially if they charge no fee), and some or all days may also include dinner. Meals may include a speaker, awards, or organizational business, or simply be social occasions.
Finally, many conferences end with a wrap-up or final speaker, in order to send people home thinking about the issue, and feeling that they had a coherent experience. This is hardly the only structure for a conference, only a typical one. We’ll mention others as the section goes on. So..
- Will you have one or more keynote speakers, or other full-conference activities? These might include plenary sessions (gatherings of all conference participants), films, music, demonstrations, a wrap-up session, etc..
- What other kinds of sessions will you have? Some possibilities:
- Lectures or similar presentations – informative sessions presenting practical or theoretical ideas or methods relevant to the work. These may include elements of other kinds of sessions, but essentially consist of subject matter flowing in one direction. A variant here is a poster session: posters with graphic and text explanations of a presenter’s work can be viewed independently by participants. At a scheduled time during the conference, each poster presenter gives a short talk on her poster and answers questions about it.
- Workshops – teaching of methods, techniques, or other skills or related activities (e.g., relaxation response as a way to relax during breaks from a stressful job).
- Important factual information – new regulations, political/advocacy issues, state of the field, etc..
- Threads or strands – a series of sessions that all relate to one topic (depression, working with Hispanic populations, advocacy, program administration, etc.).
- Interactive – hands-on sessions where participants are just that: participants in discussion, activities, simulations, role plays, etc..
- Show and tell – sessions where participants share what they’re doing in their work.
- Will you have several choices (“breakout groups”) for each session, or will they be limited to one or two strands? The key here is probably the actual size of the conference. Many types of presentations are ineffective if there are too many people involved.
- Will you offer professional development or continuing education credits for specific workshops, all workshops attended, or for the conference as a whole? Many professions require members to take a certain number of continuing education credits per year in order to maintain their certification or licensure. Conferences may provide some of those credits – how many depends on discussions with the licensing organization.
- Will there be exhibitors? Often, businesses that produce or sell materials relevant to the topic or the participants of a conference will pay a fee – and may contribute to the conference in some other way as well – in return for being allowed to set up displays and introduce (and sell) their wares to attendees. Typical examples are textbook and software companies at education-related conferences and drug companies at health conferences. Exhibitors are usually only interested in large conferences where they’re likely to be exposed to hundreds of conference-goers.
- Will there be field trips? These are visits to such places as clinics, community service programs, public housing projects, natural areas of environmental interest, etc.. Field trips may last a full day (or even more than one day in some cases), and take participants to observe and experience places and programs related to the purpose of the sponsoring group and/or the topic of the conference.
- Will there be organizational business transacted? Many conferences double as the sponsoring organization’s annual meeting, and include the election of board and officers, awards and honors ceremonies, yearly financial reports, and votes on such organizational matters as bylaw changes.
- Will there be entertainment scheduled? Some conferences include dinner dances or evening entertainment – live music or a film, for instance. Large conferences, especially those that change locations every year, often schedule trips to local events and attractions.
A question for the organizer of a small conference is whether to “break out” into several sessions, or simply to stay together for the whole time. The answer really depends on what you want to accomplish, as well as on the number of participants.
There are many possibilities. Even some relatively large conferences may keep everyone together, but schedule activities in which people form smaller groups to work on problems or discuss issues, then come back together to share their results or responses. Others may keep the group intact throughout the day so that everyone can hear or participate in the same presentations and activities. Small conferences may take advantage of the size of the group to program activities that would normally take place only in a break-out session. You can be as creative or as conventional as you want – a small conference may sacrifice variety, but gain from the types of activities it can offer and the amount of mixing among participants.
5. Address conference logistics: Logistics are the nuts and bolts of a conference that make it possible: where it will be, how you’ll find presenters, what it will cost, how you’ll get people from place to place, who’ll run the slide show, etc.. This is the part where the conference organizers earn their keep.
- Geographical location. This refers to the actual city or area where the conference will be held. For a conference that centers on a particular city or community, this decision boils down to one of space (see below). For an annual conference that changes location every year, or for a statewide or national (or international) conference, however, the choice is not so simple. You have to consider what people can afford, how far they may be willing to travel, and where they’re willing to go. There’s also the question of whether you’re seeking an exciting place to visit (Rome), or a place without anything that would distract from the work of the conference (a retreat center in rural Canada).
- Conference site. First, how much space do you need? A large conference with multiple break-out sessions will need a number of rooms that will accommodate groups of 10 to 40 or so, and some that will hold more. A conference that keeps all participants together can do with one large – or not-so-large, depending on the number of participants – hall or auditorium. Do you want rooms that are set up like most classrooms – everyone facing front for a lecture – or rooms that can be adapted to many styles of seating – circular, small groups, around a table, etc.? Do you need lots of open space for people to mill around? Do you need a room large enough for all participants to fit into at once? Do you want informal space where people can sit comfortably and talk? Do you want outdoor space as well? What about space for meals? Do you want to be in a hotel, where people can stay the night? Do you want to be in a space where you don’t have to worry about disturbing or being disturbed by anyone else? These and similar questions are the ones you should be asking to determine where you might want to hold your conference.
- Food. As explained above, if you hold your conference in a conference facility, it will probably take care of the catering. (In general, for a large formal conference, participants sign up and pay for the meals they want as part of their conference registration.) A conference in a hotel or conference center will usually provide continental breakfast and lunch each day of the conference, and may include one or more dinners (often a “banquet” or awards dinner). At another type of site, you might hire a caterer to provide food, or organizers and volunteers might prepare it themselves. An informal, one-day conference might be brown-bag (i.e., bring your own lunch) or provide a simple meal (pizza or sandwiches). Another possibility is a midmorning and/or midafternoon beverage and snack break. Bottled water or coffee is often available throughout the day. If a conference is grant-funded, meals and snacks may be free to participants.
- Lodging. If attendees, speakers, or presenters are coming from a distance, they may need a place to stay. Hotel-based conferences usually provide rooms at special rates (participants are virtually always expected to pay for their own hotel rooms), while lodging at retreat centers may be included in conference registration. Often, lodging is offered at several hotels. Participants at grassroots conferences might stay in local people’s homes, in hostels, or in vacant dorms for little or no charge, or might camp. Conference organizers often agree to pay lodging expenses or to provide a home stay for a keynote speaker and/or other “special guests.”
- Fees. If the conference is local, and has few or no expenses, then it might be free to participants, as might a conference that is funded by a grant or contract. Most large, multi-day conferences charge fees to cover costs, which include materials, mailings, space and equipment rental, catering, expenses and/or payments for keynote speakers and other presenters, copying and printing, etc.. Some conferences are money-makers, and charge fees that are large enough to pay for the conference and support the sponsoring organization as well. Members of a sponsoring organization and those who register before a certain date often get reduced rates. Fees may range from as little as $25 or $30 for a one-day local conference to several hundred dollars for a multi-day national event. Grassroots conferences may charge fees on a sliding scale, to encourage diverse participation, and seldom charge more than will cover the actual costs of the conference.
- Signage. You’ll need signs pointing the way to various conference rooms, exhibitors, meals, rest rooms, and other points of interest in the conference site, as well as to official conference tables or booths – for registration, information, advocacy, etc.. Those tables or booths will also need identifying signs, and there should be signs directing participants to each presentation. The signs might be supplemented by maps of the conference site posted in prominent places (especially at corridor intersections and gathering places). In addition, a conference bulletin board in a central location could be used to advise participants of time or room changes, emergency phone numbers, lost-and-found, etc.. It could also have space for “conference personals” (Hi, Brad – Arrived late last night, would love to see you. Lunch Friday? Call me. Jim)
- Identification. People will need signs, too. Conference staff, volunteers, technical assistants, and other “officials” should have name badges that stand out (a different color, perhaps) and that identify them as people to approach with questions. All participants should have badges that give their names and work affiliations, so that everyone knows who everyone else is. (Badges can be pre-printed or supplied as blanks that participants fill in themselves. In either case, they can go into the conference packet.)
- Safety and security. A hotel or other conference site will usually employ on-site security and people with emergency medical training. Even if this is the case, conference staff should have a first-aid kit with essentials: band-aids, aspirin, aspirin substitute, antacids, etc. At a local conference held at a community site, you’ll want to make sure that participants and presenters know whether and where they can safely store outer clothing and other personal effects, and you may also want to ensure that you have an EMT, nurse, or other medical professional or paraprofessional available in case of emergency.
6. Coordination and troubleshooting: As we discussed above, the coordinator should be the point person in dealing with the conference site, or with caterers, suppliers, presenters, entertainers, exhibitors, participants, and anyone else. It generally falls to him to negotiate with the hotel or other site, to discuss payment and any other benefits with exhibitors, and to handle participants’ problems, complaints, or special needs. He also generally works out the details of mutually acceptable contracts with sites and others.
Publicizing the conference, registering participants, and recruiting presenters
1. Publicity and recruitment: Some conferences draw entirely on members of the sponsoring organization, and so publicity may be limited to the sending of calls for presenters and of pre-conference registration materials to members; in some cases, this all may be taken care of by simply posting the information on a website. But for conferences that are single or first-in-a-series events, rather than part of an annual series, or for annual conferences that seek to attract a broad audience, publicity is often necessary. In addition to mailing to a list of interested people and posting conference information on the Internet, other strategies include:
- Print advertising, particularly in journals, newsletters, and other print media read by your intended audience or published by the sponsoring organization.
- Posters and/or other announcements sent to organizations and institutions concerned with the conference topic or theme.
- Stories, interviews, and/or press releases in the local, statewide, or national media.
- General communication to an e-mail list.
- Announcements sent to opinion leaders in the field or the community.
- Word of mouth (most effective, obviously, on the local level, but also effective in much larger circles, especially through the Internet.)
2. Pre-conference registration: It makes sense for almost any conference, no matter how small or informal, to have a pre-conference registration procedure for participants. That gives the organizers an estimate of how many people will attend (so they can provide the right amount of food and materials, and estimate the number and size of sessions and the amount of space they need), and it gives participants a solid date to plan for. If the conference is short – a day or less – and free, the registration may be a very simple “I will attend” return card, or even a phone call or e-mail.
In addition to the registration form, pre-conference materials should include as much information about the conference as is available: the schedule of workshops, if you have it firmed up; the keynote speaker(s); any special events, such as an awards dinner, annual meeting, or banquet; field trips; and entertainment or other social/fun events.
If the conference has a fee, participants are generally expected to send it in with their registration. Registration forms should be sent out early – several months before the conference. Registration forms are also usually posted to an organization or conference website, and participants can register for many conferences online. If possible, there should be some automated procedure for letting people know that their registration forms have been received. (Please see Tool # 1 for sample registration forms.)
3. Recruitment of presenters: Many conference presenters come from the same pool as conference participants – people in the field or members of the sponsoring organization. Calls for presenters, therefore, often go out to the same people as pre-conference registration information and, like pre-registration, can usually be done on line.
In addition, you may have particular people in mind, especially potential keynote speakers, whom you will contact personally, or make sure to send presenter information to. Anyone being offered something over and above what most presenters receive – expenses, an honorarium, an award – should be contacted personally.
Running the conference
Now that the groundwork is laid, the conference itself has to take place. For a large conference, that means taking care of logistics beforehand; handling registration each day in such a way that it’s not unpleasant for anyone; responding to participants’ and presenters’ problems and needs; and making sure that everyone provides feedback so that you can evaluate the conference later.
1. Logistics just before and during the conference: There are a number of scheduling and similar tasks that must be attended to in order to make things flow smoothly:
- Scheduling the right presenters for the right rooms at the right times.
- Scheduling sessions so that participants can follow topical threads (i.e., making sure that sessions on the same topic aren’t scheduled at the same time, or located so that getting from one to the next is difficult).
- Appointing a “host” for each session, who will introduce the presenter, make sure equipment is in place, keep track of time, hand out printed materials, and distribute and collect evaluation forms. The host should also put out and retrieve a sign-up sheet for continuing education credit, if the conference offers it.
- Working with the site to make sure that adequate space is available for meals, breaks, and other conference events.
- Placing exhibitors, coffee, handouts, and anything else in appropriate places (where they don’t contribute to blocking traffic, are accessible and easy to find, etc.).
- Finding the best places, in terms of traffic flow, visibility, and accessibility, for registration, information, and emergency services.
- Arranging for, or informing participants and presenters beforehand about, conference parking, or the lack thereof.
- Printing or copying material for participant packets, evaluation forms, etc..
- Recruiting and organizing volunteers to staff check-in and information tables, direct people to sessions, hand out important information, etc..
2. Conference registration/check-in: People who have pre-registered (the vast majority of participants) should have conference packets waiting for them. (See Tool #3 for contents of a typical conference packet.) Registration tables should be set up so that checking in and receiving packets is as quick and easy as possible – perhaps several lines set up alphabetically. There should always be someone at the registration station – the coordinator, or one of her assistants – who can answer just about any question.
There should also be a clear procedure for walk-in registrations – what to do with conference fees, when to stop accepting walk-ins (because the facility is at capacity, for instance, or you’ve reached the limit of extra meal preparation), letting walk-in participants know which presentations are full, etc..
3. Care and feeding of speakers and presenters: If there are keynote speakers or honored guests – politicians, celebrities, big names in the field – someone should be assigned to make sure that they have what they need, get to the right places at the right times, understand what’s expected of them, get meals, get introduced to people, etc.. At a small local conference, this is less important, since mixing will occur naturally. At a large conference, however, organizers should make sure that these folks – especially if they’ve made room in their schedules to be there, or have agreed not to charge a fee – have a good experience, and leave with a positive feeling about the conference and the sponsoring organization.
4. Crisis Management: The failure of one or more presenters – or, even worse, a keynote speaker that everyone’s been looking forward to hearing – to show up. A weather emergency that makes it impossible for most people to get to the conference. A computer error that leaves many participants without the hotel rooms they thought they’d reserved. Any of these and any number of other crises can arise in the course of a conference.
It’s impossible to have a contingency plan for everything that might happen, but it is possible to try, and to anticipate the most common problems – it’s not unusual at a large conference for at least one presenter to fail to appear, for instance – and to have a Plan B if they arise. It’s also crucial to know who’s going to deal with crises as they come up. It’s generally the coordinator, but she should have a backup as well.
Be sure you have a plan for medical emergencies (and a first-aid kit, with band-aids, aspirin, and other basic supplies) and for other possible extreme situations. Know where all the fire exits are, and develop a plan for getting people out of the building quickly and calmly. All conference staff should know exactly what to do in these situations. You should also be prepared to deal with participants or presenters who are angry or irrational – everyone on staff should know who will take on that job, and how to reach him quickly. (Conference staff, as well as site representatives, can use cell phones or walkie-talkies to communicate, and having such a communication network can lower the stress level immensely, especially in crisis situations.)
5. Evaluation Forms: In most cases, you will want to evaluate the conference (see below), so you need some way of finding out what people thought of it. At a small conference, it may be possible to end the day with one or more short group evaluation sessions, and to get the information directly from participants’ mouths. More common, however, is to hand out simple evaluation forms for each session, and one for the overall conference experience (see Tool #4 for sample evaluation forms.) These forms might also ask participants to identify committees or issues they would be interested in working on in future conferences. The “host” for each session is responsible for making sure that there is time at the end of the session for participants to fill out the evaluation forms, and for collecting them and depositing them at a central point.
6. Clean-up and packing of materials and equipment supplied by the organizers: At the end of the conference, there’s still work to do.
If the contract with the site doesn’t include clean-up in the site provider’s responsibilities (it will for a hotel or conference center), then the organizing team and volunteers have to make sure the place is clean before they leave. Even when clean-up isn’t an issue, organizers have to make sure that they have all forms and other stray materials, any equipment that they supplied themselves, and anything else that needs to go back to the sponsoring organization. It is also often necessary to establish a lost and found box, and to notify participants about lost items that now reside with the organizers, so that their owners can retrieve them.
7. Follow-Up: The other major piece of work still left at this point is to follow up on any loose ends. If a plenary (whole-conference) session ended with an agreement to do something, it needs to be initiated. Continuing education certificates have to be issued, if that wasn’t done during the conference itself. Anyone who helped with the conference, from keynote speakers to key presenters to site representatives to volunteers, should be formally thanked in writing. The coordinator and organizers have to settle up with the site or suppliers financially. (Payment for any extra meals, for instance, is generally left till after the conference, so that the actual number can be established.) Regardless of how great it might have been, the conference isn’t over until all the follow-up tasks are done.
In evaluating a conference, there are several areas that need to be examined.
1. Individual presentations: Was the presentation relevant to the topic of the conference? Was it clear and understandable to those attending? Did the method of presentation mirror the content, and did it add to or subtract from the effectiveness of the presentation? Did people enjoy and learn from it? Should the presenter be invited to another conference? You should be able to answer these questions if you’ve either interviewed participants or devised good evaluation forms and collected enough of them.
2. The overall experience: Once again, if you’ve done your work at the conference itself, either by getting direct spoken feedback or by devising good evaluation forms and collecting them from most participants, you should be able to answer the important questions: Did the conference provide a variety of experiences related to the topic? Did participants get what they hoped to, and what they needed? Were there enough opportunities for networking and socializing? Were the sessions generally interesting, helpful, and relevant? Did the conference seem well-organized? Did it flow smoothly? What did participants like best? What would they have done differently?
3. The site and its services (if you held the conference at a hotel, conference center, retreat center, or similar site): Here, the questions are for the coordinator and others who interacted directly with the site, as well as for participants. Was the site easy to deal with? Was the site liaison available and helpful? Did the site provide what it said it would? Did it go beyond the terms of the contract to help make the conference successful? How did it handle errors and problems? Was the food decent and reasonably healthful, and was it delivered on time? What other services did the site provide, and of what quality were they? What did the site provide as a matter of course at no extra charge (water? paper and pens? coffee?) Was the site easy to find and to get to? Were there enough conference rooms, and were they large enough for their purpose and comfortable (neither too warm nor too cold, furnished with reasonably comfortable chairs, tables where needed, etc.)? Was the cost reasonable, compared to other possibilities?
4. Performance of the coordinator, team, conference staff, and volunteers: This should not be a performance review (especially if this was a first or one-shot conference), but rather an examination of what went right, what should happen differently, and how good the systems were. A good bit of this part of the evaluation needs to be done by the people whose performance is being evaluated. Some of the important questions:
Were everyone’s assigned tasks clear and well-defined, so that people knew what was expected of them, and there was no overlap except where there needed to be? How well did everyone work together? Was there good communication among all the people involved? Did everyone know who to ask when they had a question? Did everyone know who was in charge of what? Were tasks accomplished in a reasonable amount of time? Did the coordinator know to whom to turn when she needed assistance?
5. The organizing process: There is much overlap between this and the previous part of the evaluation. Here, you need to examine:
- Whether there were enough people, both in the initial stages and during the conference, to do everything that needed to be done.
- Whether there was enough lead time.
- The planning process. Did it include enough input from everyone who should have been included? Did it have a structure that made planning relatively easy? Did it result in a plan that was easy to follow? Did it result in a successful conference?
- Whether the initial estimates – of numbers of participants, costs, etc. – were reasonably accurate.
- What went particularly well.
- What needs to be changed, and how.