How to organize a conference


September 14, 2009 by readlisaread

I’ve been steaming about this experience for a few weeks now, but really don’t like writing “negative” posts. I mean, we all have stuff to complain about, and sure it feels good to get it off your chest, but no one likes a whiner. To that end, I decided to turn my experience into a Helpful Post.

Here’s the back story…..I had the opportunity to attend two different conferences in one week.  One as a presenter and one as a participant.  Both conferences had their merits, and both their downfalls.  Here then, in Positive Terms, are my bitlets of advice for conference organizers of the future.

If you are going to bill yourself as a Technology conference, ensure you use some form of electronic registration more current than the Fax Machine.

Make sure the website for your conference 1) Exists 2) is easy to find in a Google search and 3) is a website that is pleasing to the eye, with buttons that work, and links that take you to actual pages, not down-loadable PDFs.  Not only are there still some people on this planet using dial-up, there are even more people using mobile devices who don’t care to clog the memories of their iPhones with your PDF keepsakes.   Here’s a clue- find someone in your district/town/club/organization who likes web design and would be willing to create a site for you for free. Here’s another clue- don’t assume, just because you are organizing a conference that you are good at EVERY job– that’s why you are the organizer, so that you can organize OTHER people to do things they are good at.  Trust me, they will be only to happy to be asked, and they will do a bang-up job because you entrusted them with it.

Here are some Do’s for the conference itself.

Do have lots of signs up, and repeat them in lots of places.  People attending your conference may have various levels of vertical achievement and may not be able to see the one set of maps you posted by the muffins.  Spread ’em around.

Do have something to hand out at the door.  I am all for the “new green” and my ultimate vision is to One Day hand out all the conference “stuff” on a (reusable) USB drive. Until that time, I appreciate that organizers are doing their part to limit carbon emissions by giving out less paper in more recyclable or reusable forms. Name tags are still nice, and can be reused– it helps the presenters, too, to have names to reference.  Maybe the really vital information for your conference could be organized onto a bookmark or a folded business or invitation-size card.  People like to feel, when they arrive at the registration desk, that someone was expecting them and has a little token of “thanks for coming to our conference!”.  At the same time, no one wants to lug around a plastic bag full of tripe (not literal tripe) on a hot day. Even a cold day.

Do thank your presenters, and mean it. We all know that when the presenter is introduced, the poor sap introducing them was roped into the gig by the conference organizer, but that is still about a million times better than some nervous presenter standing up, looking around, clearing their throat, and saying: “Uh……well……if you are all here, I guess we’ll begin….”  And you know, a little packet of wildflower seeds, a gift card to Starbucks or even a coffee mug or fridge magnet is a cheap way of expressing thanks, and that’s all we are expecting. A conference I presented at last spring gave presenters a gift bag with a bottle of wine, a pound of free-trade coffee and mini-box of chocolates as a gift– HELLO!  any one of those things would have been a billion times better than what I got at my last presentation (that would be….nothing, not even a card– and I did twice as many sessions!)

Do have prizes. However, Door or Draw prizes= Good Plan.  Interrupting sessions twice to collect tickets and then draw tickets and then give prize? = Bad Plan.  Also, we all know why you wait until the very last minute of the very last day to give out the good stuff, but once in awhile, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to award someone for been the 10th person to arrive at the Keynote, or the first person to arrive at the session, or even just picked at random for no reason other than just being there. Door prizes are meant to raise the fun and excitement level, not be some form of punishment to naughty attendees.

Here’s some advice about food–if you are going to bill the conferences as “Lunch Provided”, don’t run out.  Now, there are a couple of ways to ensure you don’t run out. Don’t feed your participants like they are heading out on a marathon/dogsled race. Really, some fruit, muffins, cheese and crackers, maybe some veggies will stretch your food budget.  If you feel strongly about having sandwiches, well, go ahead, but someone is going to be disappointed that there are no more deviled egg, the tops will fall off of the ham and beef, and no one will eat the dry tops, though they might eat the naked bottoms, depending on whether or not you run out of all the good kinds. No one wants cold chicken wings, and only eat sausage rolls to be polite.  Same with mini-quiches.  If you put on a lavish spread, people will look and think…”Oh, so this is why the conference cost $X.00″.  If you put on a lavish spread AND run out of food, people will think even less charitable thoughts. Also, consider that people may end up snacking throughout the day.  Cold beverages and crackers and cheese, maybe a few cookies and an urn of coffee, and you will keep most people happy for most of the day.  Tell them “Light Snacks will be provided” and they will be happy, and you won’t run out of food.  Trust me.

Finally, make sure your volunteers and support people actually know how to help presenters and participants, and don’t interrupt a session to, for example, argue with the presenter about why the Internet is not working.  If your wireless is passworded, also make sure that the password is well advertised.  If that means your IT Department has to change the password right after the conference, make it so.  They like doing that kind of stuff.  That’s why they are geeks.

Those are kind of the main points, although anyone who has organized a conference before knows there are a myriad of other details to be considered.  That’s why most conferences have Committees. Offer a few free registrations, and you will get all the help you need.  Some of those people will have good ideas, too, and some of those ideas will be even better than yours….as much as that hurts to admit.


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