Conference Planning Guidelines
The amount of planning, committee work, advance deadlines, etc., in part depends on the size conference you are planning. Regional conferences require lots of planning and hard work.
Establish regular planning/reporting meetings. Set up email lists. Always make it clear who is supposed to do what and when. Keep minutes/notes of your meetings and use them to follow up. The more you communicate with each other, the less likely you’ll have slip ups.
Set a Date (12 Months)
The general time of the conference should be suggested. Then look at your campus schedule to determine what dates would be best. Consider the size and scope of your conference. Small groups can be hosted nearly any time. But larger groups will require housing, transportation, and food services that might conflict with other campus events. Summers and between semesters/quarters are often better than when school is in session. Avoid football and parent weekends if possible. Check for other major events that might conflict.
Considerations for selecting conference dates include:
- Enough lead time to assure finding adequate meeting space.
- Possible conflicts with other conferences or symposia that the members of this special interest group might attend.
- Appropriate time of year for work loads of the proposed audience
- Possible conflict with national and religious holidays.
When the conference is over, you don’t want to be left with a handful of bills for which you (or your department) are responsible. Careful planning (projecting costs) and money management can ensure that you’ll be financially solvent.
Before sending out the conference brochure/announcement, you must determine a conference registration fee. On the one hand, you want to cover your costs. But on the other, you want to keep the costs low so that as many people as possible can afford to come. Try to find a balance between providing the amenities, and keeping costs down. If your departmental budget allows for it, you can contribute to the conference (e.g., student wages, university vehicle rental, mailing costs, etc.) If not, these costs must be figured into the registration fees.
Be sure to include the following costs:
- Publicity (brochure, printing, mailing),
- facilities (lab fees, equipment rentals),
- staff (student or other wages),
- transportation (university vehicles),
- meals (snacks, meals),
- conference materials (packets, name tags, etc.)
Remember that you can always do things more cheaply if you don’t count all the costs… so count them!
Attendees should be expected to pay their registration fees in advance. This helps provide an accurate picture of the number who will attend because the attendees are more committed to attending. You can consider a slightly higher fee for late registrations or registrations onsite, if your food and facilities planning can handle extra last-minute registrations. Refunds should be allowed, but not after deadlines for food and facilities counts have passed.
You should work with your institution to determine the best (i.e., most prudent) method for handling registration fees and for paying conference bills. Be clear up front what accounting procedures are to be used (for example, what kind of documentation will be required to get reimbursements from this account.)
Don’t minimize the importance of a detailed accounting of your conference funds. Setting things up right before you begin to receive registrations fees can make things a lot easier during and after the conference.
A good program is critical. Look for variety, interest, timeliness. What do your members need or want to leave with? Try to balance lectures with discussions, hands on, social activities, and time for colleague interaction.
A general call for presenters should have a deadline that gives you ample time to recruit and to fill in gaps should you not get all the good proposals you need. Network with other members of your organization to identify people who might be invited to make presentations. Experience shows that some recruiting will be necessary, even if proposals are abundant.
Immediately after the deadline, begin organizing the conference schedule. Select the proposals you want to use and contact them to verify their availability. Create a tentative schedule, matching presenters to the facilities. You may want to lay out your schedule on a whiteboard, or use 3×5 cards on a corkboard so you can visualize how things fit together. For example, you don’t want all of your sessions on hiring student employees to take place on the same day and time. Make sure you plan time for attendees to talk with each other, such as at breaks, before and after dinners, at receptions, etc.
Send a formal acceptance note to each participant, and ask them to confirm by sending an abstract (if you didn’t get that as part of their submission) and submitting a request for any special equipment (AV, computer, etc.)
Unless you have only a handful of people attending your conference, you’ll need some sort of management system. In most cases, a simple merge database will suffice for mailings, conference lists, generation of name tags, etc. For larger conferences, consider a more capable database that also can handle many fields (e.g., presenter status, dietary requirements, etc.) For income and expenses, you may need a spreadsheet program. And unless you have a graphics department to prepare your program and brochures, plan on learning more about your favorite word processing program.
Promoting your conference begins by posting the date and location on web sites. If you have the expertise and resources, you should consider setting up your own conference web site for up-to-date information, on-line registration, proposal submissions, etc.
The first wave of publicity comes with the call for presentations. Also, consider electronic mailings and posting to a web site.
The next wave comes as you send out the conference announcement, with as much detail as you have, including a tentative program. This is important if you want to convince people they should come. Set a registration deadline that accounts for your own deadlines (food services, etc.) You may have to consider a higher fee for those who are late, especially if that really does incur additional costs for you.
Exhibits take a lot of work to coordinate and set up. The larger the conference, the easier it will be to convince vendors to participate. Smaller conferences may not even want to have exhibits. If you do have an exhibit, assign a committee member to be in charge rather than taking this on yourself.
An exhibit hall must be easily accessible and must have adequate space to accommodate vendor booths. There may be costs associated with such a hall. Some facilities require that their own people set things up. Make sure you know what is included with any rental costs, and what you may have to pay extra for. Make sure that there is adequate time for attendees to visit the exhibits.
Adequate limo or shuttle services from the airport. If the housing is not within walking distance to the conference, in case of bad weather, or for handicapped assistance, you should provide for shuttles. Be sure to calculate all the costs for this service if you want to include it as part of the registration fee.
At a minimum, you need to provide some sort of printed program. For most conferences, the following is usually adequate:
- a simple folder with program, maps,
- lists of local restaurants and attractions,
- a name tag, and
- writing materials (pen and pad).
If you plan properly, you should be able to generate name tags to be printed from your conference database program.
Keep the name tag layout simple: a small conference logo or title, the person’s full name in LARGE, readable letters, and the person’s institution. Don’t make people squint to read names on name tags.
The actual type of name tag (paper stick-on, pin on plastic case, hang-around-the-neck, etc.) depends on your preferences and budget. If you do provide stick-on tags, you may want to generate at least one tag for each day of the conference since they won’t be able to reuse the tags. If you use plastic badges, you can invite attendees to recycle them at the end of the conference.
Equipment and Support
This is another critically important part of the conference, it’s a demanding and time-consuming responsibility. To the extent that you can, schedule conference sessions in rooms that have basic AV equipment (overhead projectors and screens, for example). If the rooms already have computers and computer/video projection, that’s even better. Then assign conference sessions to the appropriate rooms.
Determine ahead of time what portable equipment you have available, and whether you have to rent equipment. Then when you confirm conference presentations, ask presenters to provide you with a list of equipment they need.
Once rooms and equipment are assigned, the person in charge should organize support to make sure equipment is in place and working, and to move it as needed. For larger conferences, assigning support staff to a specific presenter/room and having them contact each other before the session can be helpful.
You might also consider having a central equipment distribution room, not only for security of equipment, but also so conference presenters know where they can go for help, or to pick up that extra extension cord.
These should be considered as part of the equipment. Presenters should supply information as to the platform (Mac, PC), operating system, hardware requirements (disk space, RAM, CPU speed), application software, network connections required, etc. If you can set up computers ahead of time, based on presenter needs, that’s great. You will want to make equipment available to presenters ahead of time so they can set up software and make sure they operate as expected. If software is installed, make sure it’s clear who cleans up (removes) such software after the session.
Depending on the size and scope of the conference, you may need to provide for one or more social activities for attendees. At smaller conferences, organized dinners at local restaurants can be enjoyable. For larger conferences, a banquet may be in order. At the very least, provide a list of recommended local eateries for those who want to venture out on their own.
You should also consider whether your locale has something uniquely interesting to offer. If feasible, you could organize a group outing to a play, local site, etc. Be sure to determine whether costs are included in the registration, or if it is to be a separate (and therefore optional) cost.
If yours is a very large conference, you may want to offer optional activities for families, especially if your locale, weather, and schedule promise to attract families and friends of conference attendees.
Whatever you plan, however, be sure to include some free time for people to do things on their own.
One of your very first items of business should be to reserve necessary rooms for plenary sessions, breakout sessions, exhibits, breaks, receptions, and conference headquarters/registration.
Thoughts on meeting rooms:
- Ballrooms for plenary sessions, food functions
- Registration area
- Conference office
- Email room/documentation room
- Speaker prep area
- Hospitality area (see note below)
- Message Board/Info area
- A/V and other secure storage area
- Board meeting space
- Poster Session space
Estimate the number of people you think might attend and make arrangements accordingly. Block some rooms at a local motel/hotel. When making reservations with local hotels, negotiate other amenities if possible such as shuttle services (from airports, to conference sessions). Find out how long reservations can be held, cancellation deadlines, etc.
Well-planned meals and snacks are critical to a successful conference. Determine what is needed, and what it will cost. Be sure to negotiate food services. Usually food planners will allow up to 10% more people than you contract for (e.g., for late registrations), but be sure this is clear up front.
For small conferences, many if not most of the meals can be left up to the attendees. Be sure to provide a good list of local eateries. Include information about which are within walking distance, which are not, and how to get to those that are not.
Strategically scheduled snack breaks, with drinks and fruit or cookies, can add a touch of class to your conference. These don’t usually cost too much, and can be covered by registration fees. Don’t skimp on the time allotted for breaks, since attendees will want to network and will take the time anyway.
If you do have group meals, be sure to allow for special dietary considerations. Also, work with your campus to determine when (or if) alcohol can be served, for example, at a cash bar reception.
Decisions to be made: Who, What, When, Where, How
|Conference, Meeting, Event|
Things which are considered when choosing a hotel include:
- Meeting space (recommend 24 hr hold if possible). Easier to release than book
- Sleeping room block – Sometimes underestimates needs – understand your contract and book to reasonable max
- Internet connection for meeting and sleeping rooms
- Comfortable food space – hotels underestimate comfort needs
- Copying – where can you get inexpensive copying 24 hours a day.
- Hotel and A/V contacts specified – and restrictions – some hotels require that you pay them a percentage of what you would have rented if you bring it in from another source.
Other items to consider after a hotel is booked:
- Get it all in writing esp. when changes to the original agreements are made.
- It never hurts to ask for whatever you think you want
- Find out the “key phrase” needed for registering rooms at conference
- Know what complimentary suite(s) you will have (see note below)
- Hotel diagrams – do a walk through of hotel in preparation for planning and another when your program is being fleshed out
- Clear identification of who has authorization for approving additional costs
- Be clear on confirmation dates
- Ask about complimentary hotel limo airport pickup for conference/program chairs if desired
Thoughts on location:
- Overflow hotel nearby
- Restaurants in walking distance
- Safe neighborhood
- Easy airport transportation
- Running/walking routes
Thoughts on facilities:
- Spacious size meeting rooms
- Sufficient number of meeting rooms
- Traffic flow (see note below)
- Availability of internet connection (and wireless) at a reasonable cost
- ADA requirements
- Acceptable sleeping rooms and amenities
- Exercise facilities
- Lockable areas
- Understand hotel’s food and beverage limitations e.g. provide vegan, gluten free, or Kosher meals
- Adequate restroom facilities, both location and number.
The hospitality suite is a room, a suite, an area where people can stop in either during the day or just in the late evening to relax, have something to drink (soft or hard), talk, or listen to music. It does not have to be fancy. You can be very flexible on this space.
You may think this a strange thing to check for but in some hotels the ballroom spaces are on different floors from the meeting spaces – or the hotel plans to convert the ballroom into the smaller meeting spaces during the breaks and expects the attendees to remain in the break area for close to the entire 1/2 hour.