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14 Actionable Steps To Organising A Conference

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How to Organise a Conference: Step-By-Step Guide


So you’ve decided to organise a conference. Quite a task!


You should start planning the conference at least six months prior to the date. (For larger conference, the planning might start a year in advance.) You’ll be keeping track of a lot of moving parts.


You must have a million questions on your mind. Where do you start? How do you find the right speakers to invite? Which venue will best suit your needs?


Not to worry.


The truth is, even though organising a conference is a demanding endeavour, you’re not the first one to face it. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. It’s all about following a few specific steps.


We’ve prepared this top-level guide on how to organise a conference. It’ll walk you through the main steps involved and link you over to valuable tools and articles that will make your job a lot easier. The steps aren’t strictly chronological---you may well start contacting potential speakers before you’ve secured a venue---but they give you a rough idea of what to focus on first.


Ready to start arranging that conference?



Step 1: Decide on a theme


Every great conference needs a theme. What’s the unifying message that your speakers will deliver and what’s the key takeaway for conference attendees?


The best themes are catchy, relatable, and trigger an emotional response. You want the conference to inspire and stimulate conversation. Your theme has to enable that.


For instance, “Stronger as a team” is probably a better theme than “Achieving improved efficiencies through increased cross-functional collaboration.”


The theme is more than just a rallying cry for all participants; it will also guide your branding and promotion, from designing a logo to coming up with social media hashtags to printing your posters, brochures, and other collateral.


Further reading & tools


Step 2: Assemble your A-team


Chances are, you won’t be organising a whole conference all by yourself. (In fact, we’d be shocked if that were the case.)


You’ll need a dedicated team of people to assume responsibility for different aspects of the planning, negotiations, and promotion. Your core team will likely include:

  1. Planning team: Conference venue, accommodation, activities, catering.
  2. Administration team: Budgeting, attendee registration, ticket sales. This team/person will also be the main point of contact for questions related to the conference.
  3. Marketing team: Contacting the media, creating promotional material, managing your website, blog, and social media activities.
  4. Sponsorships team: In charge of securing sponsors, applying for grants, and fundraising. (Only relevant for conferences that rely on external sources of finance. Obviously)
  5. Volunteers: Helping with all on-site activities on the day of the conference: door management, ticket scanning, keeping track of the guest list, manning the wardrobe, guiding people, etc.

Your main job will be to coordinate the team, set priorities, and delegate tasks.



Step 3: Prepare a budget & business plan


Whether your conference is funded by sponsors or not, you’ll have to put together a budget. You need to know where your money is being earned and spent.


Having a budget will also help you set the price for participating in the conference. Here are the most common items you’ll want to budget for:

  • Venue
  • Accommodation
  • Transportation
  • Catering
  • Speaker fees
  • Activities
  • Marketing
  • Team members

Preparing a budget with realistic estimates will also come in handy when searching for venues and negotiating contracts.


Further reading & tools


Step 4: Find sponsors & grants [optional]


If you’re financing the conference on your own and are not looking for external sources of revenue, you can safely skip this step.


If not, you’ll want to go out looking for sponsors or arrange fundraisers. The key thing to keep in mind is that the sponsors and their values should align with the theme of your conference. (Would you want McDonald’s to sponsor your “Let’s Get Fit” conference?)


Start by finding sponsors that fund similar events or are generally associated with your conference’s main themes.


Decide how much say the sponsors should have in how the conference is run. Will you allow their branding and logo on every piece of equipment? Will they be able to bring in their own speakers?


Remember: It’s a fine balance between getting funded and sacrificing the integrity of your conference. You’re the judge of where to draw that line.


Further reading & tools


Step 5: Settle on a date


Now it’s time to decide when your conference will take place. As discussed, that date should be anywhere from six months to a year ahead.


You also need to find out how long the conference will last. Industry consensus suggests that a conference with around 300 participants calls for two full days. Larger, more in-depth conferences may stretch for even longer.


Here are some great rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  1. Pick a date that doesn’t conflict with other major events like festivals. City-wide events make booking flights more expensive and generally hinder transportation to and from the conference. Besides, you don’t want your conference to compete for attention with big events.
  2. Avoid summer and winter holiday periods when people tend to go on vacation. It’s best to aim for a date between the middle of March and end of June or from early September to late November.
  3. Never plan a conference during the weekend. For most participants, attending a conference is a part of their job, so schedule it during the workweek.
  4. Try to aim for the end of the week, so that traveling attendees get the chance to stay behind and sightsee during their time off. The best days for a conference are Thursday and Friday.

Setting a date will give you a fixed point to count back from to better plan your preparations.



Step 6: Book the venue


Once you know the date, you can start looking for available venues that match your requirements.


In general, venues might fall into three categories:

  1. University campuses: These are best suited for smaller, academic events and are relatively cheap to hire.
  2. Hotels: These typically have dedicated conference facilities and own catering. They’re the best all-in-one choice since they offer both accommodation and conference space. They also tend to be the most expensive option.
  3. Independent venues: This category includes all other types of venues that can host conferences. Many of these specialise in specific types of events.

But the cost of the venue is just one part of the puzzle. Here are a few other factors to consider when looking for the right venue:

  • Size: Booking a too-small venue where everybody has to squeeze into a tiny room is clearly a bad idea. Similarly, securing a giant venue for a relatively modest crowd will not only hurt your wallet but also make the conference feel empty and poorly attended.
  • Location: It’s best to pick a somewhat secluded location so that participants are better able to focus on the conference itself. Even better if the venue has calming, picturesque surroundings to help people relax.
  • Atmosphere: It’s crucial that the vibe of the venue suits your target audience and theme. You don’t want to host a business conference inside a giant gym, for instance.
  • Facilities: Does the venue have the proper layout and the right conference room styles for your needs? Does it have the necessary facilities like e.g. smaller rooms for breakout sessions?
  • Accommodation: Does the venue provide accommodation or are there hotels nearby?
  • Catering: Is catering included or can external catering companies easily get to and work inside the venue? If not, are there suitable restaurants and cafes in the area? (Keep in mind any special dietary requirements: vegan, kosher, nut-free, etc.)
  • Transportation: How easy is it for participants to travel to the venue by public transport? Are there enough parking spots for those who drive?
  • Technical aspects: Does the venue have the right IT, audio, and video equipment? You’ll need projection screens, microphones, plenty of charging spots for participants, and---of course---solid WiFi access.

When negotiating with potential venues, try to arrange for early access to the place so that you can do a “dry run” or a walkthrough with your team prior to the conference. You should be able to ensure that every detail is in place before the big day.


Quick tip: If you find a great venue that’s just out of your budget, see if you can negotiate a lower fee in return for a multiyear contract (provided you’re organising a recurring conference).


Further reading & tools



Step 7: Arrange catering & other vendors [optional]


Typically, a dedicated conference venue will also provide on-site catering. If that’s not the case, you’ll need to bring in external vendors.


Decide on what type of refreshments you want to offer and how many breaks there’ll be for food. Reserve up to an hour for lunch and a few 15-20 minute breaks for coffee and snacks. Remember: If there’s room in your budget, it’s always best to go for proper hot meals instead of sandwiches when it comes to lunch.


You want to be sure that the catering company can handle the logistics on the day of the event. Your best bet is to find a local company close to the conference venue to avoid potential traffic-related issues and delays.


Don’t forget to check how far in advance the caterer needs to know the final headcount, the menu, and any special dietary requirements. That way you’ll also know what “RSVP by” date to put on the conference invite.


Think about any other external vendors you might need, such as a decorating company or suppliers of special IT equipment.


Further reading & tools


Step 8: Line up your speakers


This may just be the most critical step of all. Your speakers are the stars of your conference. You want a solid lineup in order to attract attendees and guarantee a professional experience.


One sure way to gain traction here is to first secure one big-name speaker. Someone who is very well-known and respected within the field. This will boost your credibility in the eyes of other potential speakers and make them more likely to sign up.


Start looking for thought leaders that focus on the same themes as your conference. Create a prioritised list of potential speakers you’d like to invite. Then start making those calls and writing those emails.


Here are a few things to address:

  • Compensation: Do they require a speaker fee or other forms of compensation to participate?
  • Supporting equipment: Does their presentation rely on specific IT equipment or other props?
  • Special requirements: Do they have specific dietary preferences? Will they need to have transportation and accommodation arranged for them?

Work through your list as you gradually fill up the allotted time slots with quality speakers.


But don’t throw away that list just yet! You want to have plenty of backup speakers in case some of your first-priority ones cancel. You should always have a Plan B.


You can also consider recruiting some local speakers. You’ll save on transportation and lend an air of authenticity to the conference.


Further reading & tools


Step 9: Put together an agenda


Now that the key elements are in place, it’s time to shape them into a detailed agenda. Ideally, you want your agenda to be in place at least four months before the conference starts.


Remember that the conference’s main objective is to inspire people and expand their horizons. You can’t do that without an understanding of your attendees.


Try to get inside the mind of a typical attendee and answer a few key questions: What are their expectations? What knowledge do they already have and what would they like to learn more about? What types of sessions (presentations, workshops, etc.) could best help them absorb the ideas discussed?


Armed with this information, you can begin drafting an agenda. A very top-level conference agenda might look something like this:

  • Day 1:
    • Theme-setting keynote speech by an influential speaker
    • Speaker presentations
    • Common dinner
  • Day 2 and onward:
    • Shorter hands-on sessions and workshops
    • Networking and team-building activities
  • Final day:
    • Motivational speaker to end on a high note

When it comes to the shorter sessions, there are plenty to choose from: Small-group lectures, workshops, interactive sessions, Q&A sessions, and many more (see linked article below).


They will typically range from 1 to 2 hours and depend on the conference theme. You’ll also need to decide whether to have everyone participate in all sessions or have a number of them running in parallel and let people pick their preferred topics.


Further reading & tools


Step 10: Start registering attendees


It’s finally time for what is arguably the most exciting part: Getting people to sign up for your conference!


Your best choice is to make a professional website for the conference. At the very minimum, that should include:

  • An appropriate domain (i.e. www.myconferencename.com)
  • Must-know details about the conference (where, when, who, what, why)
  • Browsable conference calendar / programme
  • Registration form where people can sign up or buy tickets

You’ll be adding your conference website to all marketing and info material going forward.


Don’t have the resources to make a dedicated website? Your other option is a third-party ticketing site like Billetto. Here, you can easily create an event page for your conference with all the key details.


In addition to that, ticketing sites take care of processing payments and issuing tickets on your behalf, which saves you the headache of worrying about extra administrative tasks.


Further reading & tools


Step 11: Promote your conference


You now have your venue, key speakers, a clear conference programme, and a website (or event page) to guide people to. From now on, your main focus is promoting the conference via all available channels.


If your conference isn’t free to attend, you’ll want to settle on the right price. On the one hand, the conference fees should help cover your costs. On the other hand, you don’t want to price interested attendees out and end up with a half-booked conference. You can consider a sliding pay scale based on people’s career status (e.g. students pay lower fees).


Promoting your conference offline? You want to make a high-quality booklet with the conference agenda and a visible link to your website or the ticketing site.


Online, you have numerous ways to promote your conference on a relatively small budget:

  • Social media sites (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter - all depending on your audience)
  • Relevant forums where potential attendees might hang out (e.g. a community for engineers where you can promote your tech conference)
  • Own blogs and press releases

If your promotion relies heavily on social media, consider a catchy hashtag you can use whenever you post about the upcoming conference.


Don’t forget to encourage your speakers to promote the conference to their audience on their own channels. They have a vested interest in doing so and can expose the conference to people who are more likely to be interested (after all, they already like your speakers, right?).


Invite journalists within your chosen niche to cover---and maybe even attend---the conference. When reaching out to the media, it’s best to keep your pitch simple and short (up to one page), focusing mainly on the 5Ws (who, what, when, where, and why).


Further reading & tools


Step 12: Take care of on-site planning


In this step you get down to the nitty-gritty details to address how attendees will physically navigate the venue on the day. Here are just some of the questions you’ll want to answer:

  • Will there be a wardrobe?
  • Who will man the doors and scan tickets?
  • Which locale will be used for the main event?
  • What rooms should be reserved for the breakout sessions?
  • Where will refreshments be served?
  • Will you have an exhibition area where sponsors and vendors can set up a booth?

The best way to go about this is to walk through the day’s agenda and put yourself in your attendees' shoes. Try to imagine how they will act on the day and what needs they might have.


As we already mentioned, it’s best to gain early access to the venue so you can examine the space and prepare a detailed plan in advance. If you have external caterers or other vendors, plan a walkthrough so they also familiarise themselves with the layout, the location of the kitchen, and so on.


By checking things out in person you’re far better prepared to address any issues that might arise on the day of the conference. Speaking of which...



Step 13: Host the conference


The big day is finally here!


Provided that you’ve followed all the above steps and have a team of volunteers in charge of on-the-day activities, there shouldn’t be much for you to worry about.


Here are a few situations that might require your attention:

  • Calling up backup speakers in case of any last-minute cancellations
  • Personally introducing the conference and the main speakers
  • Making sure presentations don’t run past the allotted time
  • Participating in networking and facilitating conversations
  • Gathering in-person attendee feedback as the conference unfolds
  • Communicating with journalists and others reporting on the conference

Today, you reap the fruits of your hard work and get to enjoy the (hopefully) inspiring conference.


Further reading & tools


Step 14: Follow up after the conference


After it’s all over, you still have a bit of work to do.


You should follow up with all the people involved: your team, speakers, volunteers, vendors, and---of course---the attendees. You want to follow up for two main reasons:

  1. Say "Thank you": You should thank everyone for their participation and efforts. Not only is this a common courtesy but you’ll also get to leave a positive impression. There’s a good chance this isn’t your last conference, so you want to nurture any connections you’ve made.
  2. Collect feedback: This is the perfect opportunity to hear what people thought of the conference and what could be done better in the future.

The easiest way to gather input is to email everyone a link to an online survey. Keep it relatively short and focus on a few main themes: What did they like the most about the conference? How would they rate the different elements (presentations, refreshments, accommodation, etc.)? What would they change or improve?


Try to follow up within a few days at most, while the conference is still fresh in everyone’s mind. People have busy schedules and a limited attention span, so don’t wait too long to get in touch.


Further reading & tools


You now have a much better on idea on how to organise a conference and what key steps are involved. It’s time to set the wheels in motion. We know you can do it!




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