How to Organise a Conference
The best conferences inspire delegates with engaging presentations and excellent networking opportunities and help generate a buzz around new ideas. Conferences need to be stimulating, interactive, and engaging on every level as well as satisfying stakeholders. They are also expected to be turned around quickly and be delivered on ever-tightening budgets. It goes without saying then that the process of conference planning is not an easy one and the role of conference organiser one not to be taken lightly. Our guide equips you with all of the information and advice you need to push forward and organise a successful conference.
Put Attendees First!
Before we get started with the ins and outs of conference planning, we think it’s worth stating – put attendees first. The delegate and their needs should guide every decision you make.
- Why do delegates attend conferences?
- Why are they going to attend your conference?
- What do they want to get out of it?
- How can you deliver this?
It’s important to put the attendee at the heart of your organising. Their time is precious and you need to ensure they get the most out of every minute they are at your conference.
You should already have an in-depth understanding of your target audience and what appeals to them – if not take the time to find out more about what they expect and what they want. Ultimately, they want to benefit from good relevant sessions and find value in every aspect of the conference.
Conferences have the potential to be really exciting events where delegates have the opportunity to discover, share and debate ideas around a theme. These ideas have the power to shape or redefine their industry. With passionate people come passionate ideas and a genuine buzz.
And it all begins with the topic or theme. You may have spotted a gap in the market or decided to take a fresh approach on an existing topic.
It’s not a question of defining your theme as much of this will be done elsewhere but ensuring that you can use this in marketing the event and run it through the event.
This will be tied very closely with your overall objectives and those of the stakeholders. But once you develop a theme, it will help tie everything together. Having a clearly defined theme will also make any marketing messages more effective.
Much of the stress you will experience when organising a conference will come from trying to deliver everything you’ve promised on a budget. Money is a big factor and you have to be thorough when it comes to every aspect of budgeting.
There are two decisions you need to make when finalising a budget will your conference be ran over one or two days and will it be all based in one auditorium or will you run it over two separate stages? Costs will increase depending on how you wish to set-up your conference.
The costs you can expect to encounter are as follows:
- Venue Hire
- Equipment hire
- Speakers costs e.g. hotel; transport; fees
- Entertainment costs
- Printing – these should be minimal
- Logistics and event running team
The money that you will receive will come from the sponsors and exhibitors (more on that later) and ticket sales. Now, if you are lucky enough to receive large contributions from sponsors without compromising the integrity of your conference, then you may be in a position to offer your main conference for free.
Otherwise, you will have to charge for tickets and the main question you will have, is how much? It is of course near impossible to name a figure but your budget should give you an indicator of how much money you need to recoup in order to approach breaking even. It is important to set your expectations based on how many people you think you can get to attend, the size of the venue and the fact that you will not sell out.
Regardless of how much you decide to charge, you should discount a limited number of tickets in an initial early bird run. This should be early on in the promotion of your conference before all speakers are announced.
Peter-Paul Koch, conference organiser and speaker, advises to avoid the temptation to set ticket prices too low and instead ‘price the tickets so that you break even when 60 to 75% of the venue capacity is taken.’
It’s also worth pointing out that every free ticket you giveaway is losing you money. A limited number need to go to sponsors, organisers, volunteers and the speakers. Beyond that you have to think very carefully about giving a freebie.
Sponsors and the money they may offer can be vitally important when it comes to staying on budget and not making a loss with your conference. With this in mind, you need to create a list of potential sponsors. When you pitch to them, be sure about what support you need, whether this is financial or a service, and what you are willing to offer in return for their money. This is likely to include widespread use of their logos, adding to the goodie bag, as well as a stand if you are having exhibitors.
Once your marketing messaging is consistent and persuasive, target those sponsors that will benefit from being involved. If you can cover the majority of costs with sponsorship then you give yourself the best chance to make a profit. One thing to be aware of is that more often than not sponsors will want to present at your event – if this is the case then ensure that their talk has value and is not promotional. There is nothing that undermines a conference more than promotional presentations that feel like sales pitch rather than a genuine session on a topic.
Jason Zook examines how to get sponsors in this podcast:
Are you going to have exhibitors at your conference? This can be an added revenue stream but it is important to choose those exhibitors that will add value for the delegates. You also need to ensure that the venue has a suitable space for exhibition stands at little to no extra cost. This space will determine how many exhibitors you can host. Once you know the space, you will need to design an exhibit layout.
Any potential exhibitors will want details on the demographic of attendees and your USPs. They are likely to have a number of questions to help them determine if exhibiting at your conference is worthwhile so be prepared to answer them or better still assign someone to dealing exclusively with exhibitors.
Organising a conference is hard work and stressful. Do not even consider doing it alone. You should assemble a team of colleagues and volunteers to help you execute your conference in the planning stages as well as on the day. It’s also a good idea to utilise in-house resources at the conference venue.
Each person should have a clearly defined role leading up to and on the day of the conference and this should be finalised as early as possible in the planning process. One of the most important roles on the day is the MC who will welcome people to the conference, introduce speakers, handle the handovers and monitor timings of presentations. You will also need runners, stage managers and AV technicians.
Finding a Conference Venue
The conference venue is extremely important. Some people choose to use conference venue finders to find conference venues but you are better off doing the research yourself and visiting potential locations in person. This way you can negotiate the contract yourself, save money and have control over the look and feel of the venue. It makes sense to have a set of questions to ask the venue to ensure it can deliver exactly what you need and meet your audiences’ needs. Disabled access is essential.
Make sure the venue is big enough – not just the main auditorium but other spaces such as exhibition rooms and breakout spaces. There’s nothing worse than being stood at the back of a room trying desperately to hear the presenter or worse still missing out on a session altogether.
Your venue needs to provide all of the facilities you need to make every aspect of your conference a success. This includes AV equipment, Wi-Fi, catering, a stage and, of course, comfy seats.
Wi-Fi – One of the biggest difficulties with larger conferences is finding venues with Wi-Fi that can cope with the demands of numerous delegates. There’s no doubt that the quality of Wi-Fi is improving in venues, especially in London and other big cities, but it is well worth getting an honest idea of the Wi-Fi’s capabilities. Many venues offer free Wi-Fi today, which is great news if it works!
Conference Catering – Decide if you are going to provide catering. This can be a big expense for you but also a major perk for delegates. If you don’t opt to provide lunch catering (tea and coffee during the breaks are essential) then you need to provide information on nearby eating options.
If you do opt to provide lunch at your conference then it makes sense to meet with the caterers and discuss your options. You want the food to look and taste good, but always remember your budget. It is important to always provide vegetarian options. You should also confirm the numbers three days before the conference.
Staging, Lighting, AV – The presentations need to take place on a stage that offers good sightline for the audience and all of the AV equipment your speakers need. This will include a large projector, a pinned-on mic that is amplified through the PA. An added bonus if you opt for a theatre-style venue is that it has professional lighting and AV that can add a real wow factor and enhance the presentations for the audience.
With the propensity of mobile phones, tablets and laptops at conferences todays, it is important to have sockets available for delegates to charge their electronic devices.
When to Hold Your Conference
Once you know where you are going to host your conference, you then need to lock in a date. The most popular time for conferencing is between March and November with summer conferences in July and August often dismissed due to holidays. Have a few potential dates in mind in case your preferred venue is unavailable. These dates should not clash with any other related conference or event so do your research.
Peter-Paul Koch states that: “A conference should be held on a Thursday and Friday or a Monday and Tuesday. This allows attendees to play the tourist, too. If you’re going for one day only, it’s Friday.”
Once you have your dates confirmed and a deposit has been paid to the venue, you can now confirm availability with the speakers.
Speakers can make or break your conference so you need to invest time and effort in finding the very best. Engaging presentations have the potential to truly inspire delegates and turn all of the ideas and scribbled notes into real-life actions and genuine change. The right presentation can be the catalyst to delegates adapting their business and they should remember where it all began.
Sometimes it can be all too easy to pick from the same rotation of speakers especially as famous keynote speakers can help shift tickets. But having a great speaker that the audience has not seen before adds real value. You may also want to consider bringing a few off-topic speakers into the programme to shake things up a bit. There is always the option of headhunting someone doing inspirational work in your field but is not a seasoned speaker. What they may lack in presenting experience, they can make up for in passion and quality of ideas.
Once you have your speakers confirmed, it’s important to treat them well. Be clear with them about what you are offering from the start. At a minimum you will need to cover off all of their expenses like travel and accommodation. Beyond this you may want to offer them a share of profits or a set fee.
Prior to the conference you will want to find out the details of their session content, the title, as well as all of their AV requirements. When it comes to the conference itself, take the time to brief them fully on the programming, the length of their talk and the AV set-up so there are no surprises. This will help things run smoothly and relax them. Once you have a speaker at your event, it’s worth encouraging them to stick around to mingle and network with the crowds. Not only will this make them feel more relaxed, it again adds value for delegates.
When it comes to scheduling your conference day, it makes sense to group the speakers and their presentations by a theme. Hopefully, this will be an easy task once you have the finalised session descriptions from them.
It is important to not cram too many sessions into a single day. If the presentations are as engaging and though-provoking as desired, then you may find attendees tire towards the end of the day. With this in mind, it’s important to consider the last speaker. With attention spans waning, the final ‘graveyard’ session can be poorly attended, so either save a speaker for this slot that will pull a crowd or consider ending the day earlier, giving people a chance to travel or network.
There is also the difficult question of session length to consider. How long is too long? How short is too short? We feel like the majority of ‘normal’ presentations should last between 30 and 40 minutes, with keynote talks going up to an hour. The content needs to be engaging and cater for short attention spans – the motto ‘all killer no filler’ is a good one.
After each themed session, you should have a coffee break (at least one in the morning, one in the afternoon) as well as a longer lunch break. People need a chance to breathe, process information and network as well as visit the toilet. When a session doesn’t run to schedule follow Peter-Paul Koch’s advise: “If a session is too long or too short, just do what comes naturally, but end the next break on schedule.” This will ensure that you get back on schedule for the next session.
Often the hardest part of conference planning is the marketing and promotion. You want the people that matter to find out about it and to want to come. In order to do this, you will need to make full use of your networks both online and offline to build towards awareness of the conference and those all important ticket sales/registrations. Make a list of relevant industry publications where you can share details of your conference.
It’s also important to start your promotion as early as possible and send out reminders and regular marketing messages (without spamming) as you get closer to the big date.
Some event organisers experience a flurry of activity closer to the date of the conference so if you haven’t sold all your tickets with only a month to go, don’t lose hope – the final fortnight could be key.
Regular communications with both delegates and speakers is key. The most important email is the one you send a week before the conference, which includes all of the important information. This should include the addresses and websites of the venue, nearby hotels, parking details as well as dates, times and any other vital information.
As well as sending out regular emails you should also have a website that contains up to date information. For more information on event websites and listings, read our guide to getting your event online.
Social media is an important part of conferencing today and needs to be utilised. Start by creating a hashtag for your conference – keep it short and sweet and include it in emails and any promotional material. Then actively encourage attendees to use Twitter at the conference and take the time to interact with them online. With a little bit of effort you can get the hashtag trending and increase awareness and engagement.
Registering for a conference can be more complicated than it needs to be. Attendees can all show up at a similar time and want to pick up their lanyards and register with minimal stress. Organisation and clear communication is key to dealing with large volumes of people and making sure that everyone can get in and settled as quick as possible. With that in mind, it’s important to streamline the registration process. Firstly, you should be able to register online in advance. Secondly, you will need to give each attendee a lanyard along with a goodie bag.
Peter-Paul Koch recommends preparing a registration desk with lanyards laid out alphabetically from A-K and another for L-Z.
What Attendees Need to Collect:
- Lanyard with their name and business clearly displayed on it so it can be read at a glance
- Goodie Bag containing any freebies from sponsors
- A Booklet that contains the conference schedule and a map of the venue and local area
When it comes to industry conferences, networking is really important. The most successful conferences provide numerous opportunities, and relaxed ones at that, for attendees to chat, make valuable new contacts and reconnect with those they already know.
It helps to have regular breaks throughout the day and designated spaces for people to congregate. If the sessions have been good, there will be lots of talking points to help break the ice and facilitate the exchange of ideas.
Zach Inglis, organiser of HybridConf, set out with the conference goal to “bring people together in one place where they can discover and share and then leave full of positivity towards the great community we have the privilege to be a part of.” Networking plays a crucial role in developing this sense of community.
Another thing that helps encourage productive networking is post-conference drinks. Whether this takes place at the venue or a nearby bar, these ‘sessions’ allow people to continue to network while relaxing over a well-deserved drink.
By the end of the event you should have a stack of business cards and lots of exciting opportunities.
Conferences don’t have to stop at presentations and networking. You can add real value by organising workshops, training session as well as round tables and breakout sessions. These smaller events and sessions allow people to explore and debate issues in more detail.
Event technology has developed at an incredible rate over recent years and there are now a number of tools available to enhance your conference. From virtual attendees to hologramatic presenters to Tweeted questions, it really is a brave and exciting new world.
Many conferences are getting their own apps developed to help attendees get the most out of their days. All of the data collected, including feedback on the individual presentations and the event as whole, can be invaluable in delivering bigger and better the next year.
Read our blog on conference mobile apps and how they can increase engagement, provide big data and enhance your conference.
Recording the Conference
If your budget stretches to it, you should document the conference by taking both photographs and filming the presentations. Depending on your industry, it is often quite easy to find a volunteer with the requisite skills and equipment. The recorded sessions can then be uploaded (with permission) and you can share the knowledge even further as well as adding value for all involved.
When the conference is done and dusted and you have given yourself time to fully relax and unwind, its time to follow-up. Begin by sending sincere thank you emails to speakers, volunteers and sponsors. It can also then add value to send an email to attendees with a compilation of slide shares, videos and other resources related to the day. You must also pay all of the outstanding invoices.
With these practical tasks fulfilled you can start to appraise the success of the conference. Review any data gathered from apps or feedback forms and look at ways to improve your conference for next year.
Central London Conference Venue
20 Bedford Way has been fortunate enough to host numerous national and international conferences at our Bloomsbury venue. Over the years, we have developed our service and believe that we know a thing or two about how to put on a conference. It’s one less worry when you have a dedicated and experienced catering and conference team on hand.
One of the biggest additional costs is hiring AV equipment and technicians – this is not the case at 20 Bedford Way as we include this in our venue hire. Our 933 seater Logan Hall theatre is an auditorium with all the facilities you require. As well as this our Central London location benefits from amazing transport links, making it an ideal conference venue. As a tourist and business destination, London conferences attract people from overseas. Find out more or arrange a visit.
Conference Planning Resources
Peter-Paul Koch’s Conference Organiser’s Handbook is the most comprehensive Conference Planning Resource out there.
Zach Inglis – Planning a Conference
Scott Belsky – Tips for Making the Most of a Conference