The Anatomy of A Perfectly Organized Conference
1. Conference Objectives
The very first step of conference planning is to identify what your objectives are; objectives outline a set of clear, realistic and measurable goals that keep conference organizers focused while guiding them every step of the way in their decision making and planning processes.
When writing your objectives, you must always think of your participants as well as sponsors and what benefits are they getting by being part of your conference. Intensive research of such is imperative to the ensure the success of your conference. After needs and interests of potential participants and stakeholders are identified, summarise your objectives in bullet points and make sure they're shared one way or another with all involved in the conference, i.e. staff, committees, speakers, sponsors, VIPs and participants, etc.
2. The Theme of the Conference
For recurring conferences either annually or biannually, a theme refers to the topic or subject matter to be discussed this time around. The décor and design elements of the conference usually complement its subject-matter, giving more sense to referring to a conference topic as a theme. For example, if the theme of a conference is Waste Management, the conference décor and collaterals can implement or be entirely made of environmentally friendly/recycled materials, further emphasizing the overall intention of the conference.
The theme of your conference should be closely linked to your goals, therefore, coming up with one should be discussed at the same time as your objectives are. Your theme should be relevant and interesting enough to gain participants; not too narrow so it's not limiting to your speakers or attendees and not too broad so the focus isn't lost.
3. Popular Types of Conferences
Conferences can be organized for a variety of reasons, but the most popular types of conferences are:
• Academic conferences, which gather academicians and researchers to discuss and present research findings and current scientific advancements;
• Business conferences, which gather industry professionals to discuss business trends, opportunities as well as promote products and services and
• Political conferences, which gather politicians, either of the same or conflicting parties at a provincial, state or national level to discuss policies and issues of national interest.
Depending on the type and objectives, conferences can also vary in size; they can be as small as a hundred attendees or less, or as big as thousands of attendees, with a more intricate conference program that accommodates the participants' size accordingly.
4. Your Conference Organizing Team
Organizing a conference is seldom a one-man job; assembling a team of talented, hardworking individuals is necessary to bring your conference into fruition. It's equally essential that conference organizers delegate tasks strategically - according to merit - and guide their team members in accomplishing those tasks on time. For maximum efficiency, teams can be divided in but not limited to:
• Finance, Budgeting and Treasury
Once a budget is set, your finance department needs to be informed so the necessary funds are allocated and released when needed. Assign some of your team members the responsibility of maintaining a costs spreadsheet, keeping track of the remaining budget, collecting incoming payments from participants or sponsors and updating the rest of your team accordingly.
• Design and Production
While the designing and production of invitations, ads, catalogs, kits, décor, booths, merchandise and more can be outsourced to a third-party service provider, there still needs to be some in-house personnel to communicate the desired design details and features as well as approve of those designs before they head into production.
• Bookings, Services and Vendor Management
Finding and making arrangements with the right venue, hotel, transportation providers, caterers and other service providers can be a tiresome task that requires good negotiating skills; your ideal candidates for this would be personnel with experience in Procurement, Vendor Management and Logistics.
• Marketing, Social Media and PR
An experienced team to handle Marketing, Social Media Management and PR is needed to deliver the right messages about your conference to your target audience. The Marketing team should be in charge of email dissemination, telemarketing, and advertisements (if any) to secure sales. Similarly, a social media content creation and management team is needed to create and maintain your conference's online presence as well as manage customer feedback. If your conference expects media coverage, then have an experienced PR executive handle media kits, news releases and invitations.
• Registrations Management
Sales personnel are needed to keep track of registrations, resolve any issues related to participants as well as provide them with any needed documents such as invoices as well as visa letters, for participants visiting from abroad.
• Stakeholder Management
Your Sponsors, VIPs and Speakers have a financial as well as a reputational stake in being associated with your conference, which is why they should be given a higher degree of exclusivity. See that team members with PR experience handle all processes pertaining to your Sponsors, VIPs and Speakers which include approaching them with proposals, collecting sponsorships, handling any requests and taking care of their travel, accommodation as well as entry and other arrangements on the day of your conference.
• IT / Tech Support
An IT / technical support team is needed onsite during your conference to facilitate the audio-visual elements as well as handle any technical issues such as equipment malfunction immediately. While manpower is needed regardless of the size of your conference, it can be significantly minimized with the help of a user-friendly event management software such as MeetingHand. Click here to learn more about this cost and time efficient platform.
5. Conference Timeline
After all responsibilities and tasks are divided amongst your team members, establishing a realistic timeline for task completion is necessary to keep everything and everyone on the right track. Your conference timeline can be as simple or as detailed as you want; it can be a simple checklist or a master timeline outlining all activities to be done before, during and after your conference. What matters is that everyone on the team understands what needs to be done, and when it needs to be done. A pro tip would be to share an editable copy of your timeline online with the rest of your team so task status updates are shared instantaneously with everyone.
6. Conference Budget
Knowing how much you've got to spend isn't the difficult part, making sure you don't exceed your budget is. To develop a realistic and strategic budget, conference organizers must first take into consideration their current financial capabilities, their expected return on investment (ROI), and finally, what their conference needs in terms of expenditures, which should include but not limited to:
• Venue renting
• Marketing expenses
• Speakers and Entertainment
• Vendors and freelancers
• Production costs (printed materials, kits, goodies, décor etc.)
• Technical Equipment
• Furniture (if necessary )
• Internet + IT support and set-up.
It is highly advisable that all expenses are meticulously researched and documented in a costs spreadsheet for ease of reference. For a rainy day, it's also advisable to set aside a contingency fund of 10-15% of your total budget to cover any miscellaneous expenses or to take care of any unforeseen issues that may arise.
7. Conference Sponsors
Sponsorships revenue makes up a significant portion of a conference's return on investment (ROI) - raking in profits higher than any other revenue source. Be that as it may, securing sponsors isn't an easy task. To have a better shot at gaining sponsorships successfully, the following needs to be considered:
• Select the right sponsors
Intensive research is required before approaching potential sponsors; you need to get to know your potential sponsors and determine if you're compatible with their target audience and marketing objectives. Because sponsors need to see value in supporting your conference or organization financially, so make sure you approach ones you share similarities with so you're not wasting your time or theirs.
• Offer flexibility
Opting for a tiered sponsorship model is standard practice that's recommended so your sponsors can have options to choose from. Tiers are usually divided into Platinum, Gold, Silver, Bronze etc, but feel free to use creative, unique names that stand out. Having more than one or two sponsorship packages allows you to negotiate or offer exclusivity to sponsors depending on their financial capabilities. Sponsorships do not necessarily have to be in the form of money; your sponsors can help your conference by providing speakers, merchandise or even allow you to host your conference at a location they own - saving you quite a penny!
• Develop a sales approach
Selling sponsorships should be no difference different than selling services; a convincing sales approach is needed. Make sure you prepare brochures, catalogs and various collaterals outlining the benefits of being a sponsor in an attractive way. Prepare a call list, email list and schedule meetings with potential sponsors to make your sales pitch. Once you secure a sponsor, long agreements with technical details should be avoided. A proforma invoice outlining the sponsorship responsibilities is rather advised. Opt for an accessible payment method or offer multiple payment options for your sponsors to choose from. The bottom line is, the overall process should be well planned, yet simple and quick.
8. Conference Venue
Your conference needs and capabilities should guide you in choosing an appropriate venue. When doing so, consider the following:
• Venue Capacity While receiving a large turnout is a good thing, the “we're running out of seats" crisis is not. To avoid overcrowded halls and consequently, attendee dissatisfaction, conference organizers must take into account the maximum number of attendees, staff, technical crew and guests - that can be present on-site - when selecting a venue, especially if the conference is free-entry.
It's important that your location is accessible to your attendees by several transportation methods, be it public or private. It's also very considerate to choose a venue that has the appropriate facilities and equipment for people with disabilities. Though they may not be needed during your conference, it's always good to be prepared. Similarly, it's always great to choose a location that's in good proximity to restaurants and tourist attraction sites.
Conference attendees always appreciate it when the location of your conference is within a short distance to where they stay. If your conference is to be held at a hotel event hall, do try to arrange for available accommodations there. You can also check if you can get discounts on rooms, the event hall or services; there is always room for negotiation! Alternatively, if your conference isn't located within walking distance to your participant's lodging, do see that transportation is provided so participants arrive easily on time for your conference.
• Your Image and Branding
The venue you choose says a lot about you! Make sure you choose a venue that reflects positively on your brand and portrays the right image to your audience, as well as - if not especially - your sponsors and partners.
Having a tight budget is never an excuse to settle for a terrible location, especially for paid conferences. As a conference organizer, you have to keep your finances in check, reallocate funds where necessary, explore ways of increasing your return on investment (ROI), do your research early on and finally, - and this is an important one - put your best negotiation skills forward!
• Food and Beverage
Most conference-hosting venues provide food and beverages. Your job is to ascertain the quality of the food, check if they provide meal options for attendees with specific dietary requirements either for health or religious reasons as well as discuss the possibility of bringing in outside catering if/where necessary.
Poor internet connection can test the patience of the sanest among us! Though most venues put Wi-Fi on their brochures, they conveniently fail to mention that it doesn't handle heavy traffic so be prepared to make arrangement for internet connectivity.
Sourcing for equipment can be tough, especially for infrequent conference organizers. Which is why it's most ideal that the venue you choose provides all the equipment that you need; this includes technical equipment for audio-visual support such as microphones, speakers, screens and projectors as well as the non-technical such as seating, tables, podiums, VIP couches etc…
9. Conference Date
Picking a good date for your conference requires more research than you think; conference organizers must choose a date that works for their speakers and attendees, and not just for themselves. This can be done by making sure the said date doesn't coincide with:
Holidays and peak travel/tourism seasons:
As obvious as this may seem, we reiterate: it's not advisable to organize conferences during a public holiday! Yes, your attendees have better things to do! Besides public holidays, it's also not advisable to organize conferences during peak travel and tourism season, i.e. June through to August. Not only your conference will clash with some of your attendees and speakers' pre-planned vacations, but peak tourism months make it impossible for the participants to get flights and accommodation at reasonable prices and in turn, making it hard for them to attend.
College and University exams:
If the target audience is made up of university and college students, make sure you get information on exam dates as well as pre/post exam breaks and ensure that your conference dates do not clash with them.
To secure the highest number of attendees possible, it's imperative that conference organizers are aware of what their competitors are doing and when they're doing it to avoid organizing a conference simultaneously with others of a similar nature.
10. Conference Speakers
Think of your event as a concert, and your speakers as the main performers; speakers can very well be the determining factor behind your audience's choice of attending or skipping, so make sure you make the right investment. Be it industry experts, public figures or even celebrities, speakers of high caliber can generate enough buzz and attention for your target audience to become participants.
Speakers job, after all, is a tough one; they first need to attract attendees, then engage, entertain and educate them throughout your conference while making sure they reinforce your conference's key themes and topics. Therefore, it's incumbent that you choose speakers that are experienced, knowledgeable, relevant and charismatic to successfully engage your audience and make your conferences memorable.
A pro tip would be to see your speakers in action to have a better idea about their performance and content delivery. Find out how they engage an audience and handle questions if any, especially with controversial or topics of which conflicting views are present. It's also advisable to research their online presence and activity on social media to get a better idea about who they are and what they stand for as well as avoid any conflicting views if any.
It is important that you identify your speakers early in the planning process, so that not only will they have enough time to prepare for your conference, but you'll avoid short-notice costs.
11. Conference Agenda & Calendar
What your conference has to offer plays an important role in your participants' choice of purchasing and attending; participants need to see value in the content of your conference hence it's important to analyze their interests and purchasing patterns through short surveys to be able to design a program worthy of their hard-earned dollars.
Once the content of your conference has been finalized, you can proceed with allocating time slots for each session then organizing those slots into your agenda. While doing so, make sure you build in ample breaks for your participants to:
· Move from one location to another - if the next session is held at a different hall
· Have their refreshments and tea breaks
· Network, exchange ideas and socialize with other participants and delegates
Once you've finalized the timing of each item on your agenda, you can then proceed with designing your itinerary, creating multiple viewing formats and sharing the final copy with your host and session chairs so that they're familiar with the running order and approximate timing of each element of your conference.
12. Conference Marketing
All of your efforts and hard work come down to this! Poor marketing of a conference can result in its failure, so do take note! First, a solid marketing plan needs to be developed to keep you and your team on the right track. The marketing plan should describe all channels of getting the message out about your conference to your participants and key stakeholders effectively. It should also specify who amongst your team is responsible for each activity along with the proposed dates of task completion. It is important to keep your sponsors in the loop regarding all marketing activities as it affects them too.
The internet is everyone's main source of information; so make sure people can find information about your conference on there too. Create an engaging and professional looking website for your conference with all information pertaining to it including:
• Participants' registration form
• A detailed conference program outlining all sessions, workshops etc..
• A speakers' page or section with bios and photos if possible
• A sponsors' page with company descriptions, websites and social media
• All travel, transportation and accommodation detail with a map to the venue as well as a list of all transportation options to get there.
• A contact page with a form where participants can leave questions or suggestions as well as a general line and email address.
• Social media links and all relevant hashtags.
News Releases and Media Management
News releases are informative and credible pieces that are issued for the media to pick up and publish for free. They can also be published on your website and in any publication you own. Have your PR experienced personnel prepare an informative and concise news release to be sent to print, broadcast and online media outlets along with an invitation to attend the conference. This should be done around 10 days prior to your conference so journalists have ample notice to add your conference on to their agendas. Make sure you follow up with them and get confirmation on their attendance 2 or 3 days before the conference.
Social media is a powerful tool to communicate creative and engaging content with your audience, and the best part is, it's all for free! It's highly recommended that Conference organizers make use of all popular social media channels by designating a content manager and a designer to propose ideas, create and post content then manage audience feedback and questions.
Email marketing is a cost-effective digital marketing tool that's used by most conference organizers. Prepare informative, engaging and creative email content that most importantly, has a call-to-action button or link for your potential participants to visit your website and register for your conference.
13. Conference Registrations
Selling all seats is what every conference organizer is after; and the bigger your conference quota is, the bigger your workload is. First, conference organizers must decide on how their participants will register for the conference. While registrations can be done offline in-person or via mail, we strongly recommend using an online event managing platform to automate registration and payment collection while keeping a neat, auto-updated reports of such. This is especially recommended for conferences with a large expected turnout. MeetingHand is a comprehensive and user-friendly online event management platform that covers all aspects of event organizing from managing registrations, marketing, abstracts and uploads, bookings, payments and budgets to creating your very own website, mobile app and more. For more information, visit www.meetinghand.com.
It's advisable that conference organizers come up with a registration structure that's profitable but also thoughtful. Price affordability can be perceived differently by different groups of people. In academic conferences for example, the financial capabilities of students, university staff and field experts aren't equal, thus creating registration types that apply lower rates to groups of lower financial means (of your target audience) is due to ensure they can attend your conference too.
Differentiation of fees should also be considered when organizing an international conference; for example, while your registration fees are considered affordable to Americans, Europeans and certain Middle Easterners, participants from developing countries may beg to differ. This contrast in perceptions needs to be observed when creating a pricing scheme to not restrict certain groups from attending your event.
Period-based pricing is a common practice in the events industry whereby registration fees are defined by how early or late each participant registers for your conference. These periods of registrations are usually divided into Early, Normal, and Late, with an increase in price from one period to another respectively. Period-based pricing is usually implemented to encourage participants to register early for a conference, giving conference organizers solid data to act on early when making arrangements for accommodations, venue, catering and other services as required. And as some service providers may impose higher fees for late notice changes in quota, it's only fair that some of the cost is borne by those late registrants, hence the price increase for late registration period.
Now we can talk about the money! choosing payment methods should be done in the very first phase of your conference planning process. Though conference organizers can opt for a single payment method, it's highly recommended that they provide multiple payment options for their participants, both online (credit card and transfers) and offline, (cash or cheque). Always keep in mind that it's not just about your convenience, it's about your participants' too.
14. On-site Operations
On-site operations entail all the tasks, procedures and protocols to be performed on the day of your conference. As your conference date nears and your team has accomplished most, if not all tasks that needed to be done during the planning phase, a new task structure - outlining what each team member should do on the day of your conference – needs to be developed.
Start briefing your team on all on-site protocols. Check on the progress of your Design and Production team to make sure all collaterals, design elements are ready to be put up. Make sure your Stage and Equipment team has tested all equipment and know all cues for lights, sounds, projecting videos, presentations and more. Conducting a rehearsal is always a good idea to make sure everything and everyone is on the right track, correct any mistakes beforehand, discuss possible changes that can be done to further enhance and the show and more.
Check to see if your venue layout is as planned and all sub-locations within are ready with all necessary arrangements including the lobby, main hall, booths, media room, speaker-ready room, lunch and dinner areas, session/workshop rooms and VIP area (if any).
A day or hours prior to your conference, make sure your Information desk is all set with materials such brochures and maps if necessary and your registration area is set with participant check-in lists as well as printed itineraries, handouts, kits, goodies, badges and more items for distribution.
15. Conference Services and Bookings
Choosing a Host / MC The master of ceremonies (MC) - also called emcee, host or compère - is the official host, taking the responsibility of delivering the welcoming address, introducing special guests and other speakers, and moving the event programme forward. Make sure you choose an experienced and charismatic host to keep your audience engaged and entertained. See that your host is fully versed in the running order and approximate timing of each element of your conference.
For international conferences or ones located in a different city, conference organizers may need to provide accommodation options to make things easier for their participants. Furthermore, it is important that these accommodation options aren't very far from where your conference is held; conference attendees always appreciate it when the location of your conference is within a short distance to where they stay. If your conference is to be held at a hotel event hall, do try to arrange for available accommodations there. You can also check to see if you can get discounts on rooms, the event hall or services; there is always room for negotiation!
If your conference isn't located within walking distance to your participant's lodging, do see that transportation is provided so participants arrive easily on time. Similarly, If you're expecting a great number of participants visiting from abroad, check if you can make arrangements for their flights and transportation from the airport to the hotel. While participants can make those arrangements themselves, they always appreciate it when they're being taken care of and are given more options.
• Food & Beverages
Bad food can be bummer! Whether you're hiring a catering company or going with your venue's provided catering service, the quality of the food still needs to be ascertained. It's recommended that conference organizers sample the F&B menu beforehand as well as check if meal options for attendees with specific dietary requirements either for health or religious reasons.
16. Conference Equipment
Conferences require several equipment, be it of the technical or non-technical variety which include but aren't limited to audio-visual equipment such as microphones, speakers, screens and projectors as well as stages, podiums, seating, tables, VIP area setups and more.
Frequent conference organizers can choose to invest by purchasing some of the mentioned equipment to avoid the recurring costs of renting. An alternative would be to source for venues that provide all of the needed equipment, and this is especially recommended for infrequent conference organizers.
17. After the Conference
Surveying your participants about their thoughts and experiences is very important especially for frequent conference organizers to keep on improving. To cover all basis in a brief and concise manner, ask your participants to rate each element of your conference including its date, location, topic, sessions, speakers, and catering. It's also important to ask if they have any suggestions or recommendations for your future conference.
While surveys can be done manually through printed forms that are given to your participants, we strongly suggest that you use online ones; it's the 21st century after all! Online surveys are convenient, quick and easy to use and provide you with clear data that can be viewed in multiple formats with just a few clicks.
• Following Up
Another post-conference suggestion is to actively follow up with your participants, sponsors, speakers and VIPs through emails as well as social platforms to ensure those established connections are maintained. Create and share creative content, newsletters as well as reminders of current and future happenings to maintain a communication line and keep your audience engaged until your next conference.