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Organizing a conference involves several phases:
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:
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:
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 Thanks giving 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.
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.
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:
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:
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 s 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 arefull, 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 needsto 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.
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 theylarge 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:
Once the evaluation has been completed, and you’ve decided how to make improvements, you’re ready to organize your next conference. But first, take some time to put your feet up and relax now that this one’s over.