|Learn how to organize a conference that brings together people with a common interest to network and listen to presentations and ideas.|
Why organize a conference?
Who might organize a conference?
When should you organize a conference?
How do you organize a conference?
Conferences are used to bring together people with common interests and discuss issues and ideas relating to a specific topic. Conferences can be held on almost any topic, come in many sizes, and can be run by any number of organizations. In order to be successful, a conference requires intensive time, planning, and resources. This section of the Toolbox describes what a conference is, why and when you might want to organize one, who might do so, and how to go about it successfully.
What is a conference?
A conference is a gathering of people with a common interest or background, with the purposes of allowing them to meet one another and to learn about and discuss issues, ideas and work that focus on a topic of mutual concern. The Latin roots of the word “conference” mean, literally, “Bring together.” A conference brings together people and ideas. In the cases of health and community work, conferences often have the goal of generating or working toward solutions to problems or broader social change.
Conferences may be held in places other than the workplaces and neighborhoods of their participants, so that the people attending can focus on the topic at hand without distractions. Some conferences are even held in another area of the country or the world.
A conference may also be held online, or something similar. Teleconferences bring people together through live video feeds, allowing people to discuss issues, hear presentations, network, and otherwise do many of the things they might do at a conference, without leaving their homes or offices. Similar situations can be set up using the Internet, projectors, and web cams and microphones.
The structure and contents of conferences can vary greatly, but a typical framework would include one or more presentations of work and/or ideas about a given topic. These presentations may take the form of lectures, slide shows or films, workshops, panel discussions, and/or interactive experiences. In addition, many conferences include posters or graphic or multimedia exhibits that participants can view independently.
Informal local conferences – like that organized by the Peterson Women’s Health Collaborative in the example at the beginning of the section – may sometimes consist entirely of discussion, but usually include some presentation of ideas or practice, at least as a springboard. Frequently, the format of a grassroots conference is similar to that of a professional one, but less formal. (Such conferences are often held outdoors, for instance, where weather permits.)
A conference may last a few hours or several days. It may be a one-time event, or a regular (usually annual) fixture on participants’ schedules. It may be held at the YMCA down the street, or in a hotel in Paris or Barcelona or San Francisco. It may also be one of several types:
Academic conferences. Most academic conferences are centered around a single subject, and sometimes on a single topic within that subject. The format usually involves graduate students and academics presenting their research, work, and theories, and defending, expanding, or changing them in response to questions, criticism, and other feedback from colleagues. Generally annual, these conferences are often sponsored by the professional organization of the discipline involved, and may be held in a different city each year. A major focus of academic conferences, besides the exchange of ideas, is networking, which, in academia as elsewhere, is a key to collaboration, funding, employment, and other professional benefits.
Professional association conferences. These are similar to academic conferences in some ways, but presentations tend to be focused more on practical issues, both having to do with the actual work participants do, and with regulations, funding, and other forces that affect the profession. Professional associations in the U.S. may exist at state, national, and, sometimes, international levels, and each of these levels may hold a yearly conference.
Both of these types of conferences may also be used to conduct organization or association business – election of officers, approval of bylaw changes, annual meetings, etc. – and to present awards and honors.
Training conferences. A training conference may be run by a professional association, but is at least as likely to be conducted by an industry or industry organization, a state or federal agency, or a local coalition or initiative. As might be expected, its purpose is training, and so it might include workshops on methods and techniques, information on new regulations, or simply an exchange of experience and methods among people from a number of different organizations. Another possibility for nonprofits is a conference run by a manufacturer or supplier to teach participants how to use products their organizations have purchased.
Issue- or problem-related conferences. These might be convened by almost any association, organization, institution, or citizens’ group to focus on a particular concern. Such conferences range from “Education Summits” called by the President of the U.S. and attended by politicians, school superintendents from large cities, and eminent thinkers (but often no teachers or students), to local-coalition-sponsored events focusing on child abuse in the community. The purpose here may be to inform and energize people about the issue, to create a critical mass of concern about it, or to develop strategies for approaching it. Depending on the issue’s importance and the enthusiasm of the participants, this kind of conference can turn into an annual event.
Why organize a conference?
There are a number of reasons you might organize a conference, some practical, some idealistic, some political, and some with elements of all three.
- There’s an issue that needs examining. The example of childhood asthma at the beginning of this section fits into this category. Organizing a conference may both respond to and help to emphasize the urgency of dealing with the issue.
- The field needs a conference. There are several possible reasons for this:
- The field may be a new one, and still lack a clear identity. A conference could bring together the people who are building it, and help to define it.
- The field may not be cohesive. People in it may not know one another, may disagree on methods or other issues, or may simply not realize how many others have similar interests. A conference could bring them together and create networks that would expand and improve the work.
- There may be new research findings, work, ideas, methods or information (new regulations, etc.) that need to be shared.
- People may need to be energized, and to know they’re not alone. The field may be reeling from budget cuts or revelations of illegal or unethical practice on the parts of some. A conference may serve to refocus energy, provide a forum for solving some of the problems that have come to light, and simply give participants a chance to demonstrate mutual support.
- Your organization or group wants to start an annual gathering. You think that an issue, a field, a community, or a particular group of people is important enough that it needs to have an annual conference focused on it.
- There’s a crisis or opportunity that should be addressed. A conference may deal with a huge drop or a huge increase in funding for the field, for instance, or with the fact that a standard practice has been shown to be ineffective or dangerous.
Opportunities here might include an opportunity to advance knowledge or practical application in the field. A hot issue may bring funding to study or try certain things, for instance, or may attract new participants or funders.
- You may want to establish the legitimacy of the field. Especially if your work has only existed for a few years – or less – you may want a conference to confirm that there are large numbers of people engaged in it; that most of them have respectable credentials; and that the field is not out on the crazy fringe, but has a solid intellectual and philosophical foundation.
- Feedback from the field or the community may demand it. People may clearly express their desire for training, networking, or other benefits that a conference can provide.
- A funder may demand it. Some of the funding for an organization or coalition may come earmarked for a conference, or organizing a conference may be a condition of funding for your work.
- You may want to enlist people to advance the field, either through their work or through advocacy. A conference can provide instruction and motivation to that end.
- It’s a matter of prestige, credibility, or credentials for you or your organization. For academics, for instance, the act of organizing a conference itself may bring prestige. The fact that you can gather people from your discipline – or, better yet, from a variety of disciplines – establishes you as an important person in your field. The same may be true for a community organization, a hospital or clinic, a coalition, or any number of other organizations or institutions. Organizing a conference can establish you as a voice of reason or a leading authority in the field, which, in turn, can bring funding and requests for collaboration that can improve your work.
- It’s part of your job. Some staff and board positions in professional associations, government agencies, coalitions, foundations, or educational institutions come with the organizing and running of an annual conference as part of their job description.
Who should organize a conference?
We’ve said that many different kinds of organizations, groups, and institutions might find themselves in the position of organizing a conference. Some of the more common examples are:
- Professional associations and organizations. These might include associations that represent:
- Academic disciplines (economics, education)
- Licensed or certified professions (psychology, social work, nursing, law)
- Special interest groups within professions (environmental law, family therapy)
- Line workers within professions (home health aides, independent living advisors)
- Government agencies. Government agencies at many levels run conferences for their own employees, usually for purposes of training and information-sharing. They may also run conferences as funders – bidders’ conferences to help potential funding applicants understand a bidding process, for instance, or conferences to explain new regulations or other important information to funded groups.
- Coalitions. Whether at the local, state, or national level, coalitions often find that conferences are good vehicles for highlighting and strategizing about issues, planning for the future, or motivating advocacy.
- Individual organizations. A local organization such as a mental health center, a hospital, or a parenting teens program may host a conference focused on its issue, or on a community-wide problem that concerns it and other organizations and agencies as well. A statewide or national organization may organize a conference for its own members.
A community mediation program found that it was having difficulty mediating family cases involving teens, and that there was very little in the literature that addressed such cases. The program decided to host a conference for area mediators and mediation programs to discuss the issue, and to try to find or develop some strategies for success in these mediations.
- Educational institutions, or departments or groups within them. In addition to academic conferences, educational institutions may host conferences that grow out of their work. A high school that pioneered heterogeneous (mixed ability-level) grouping in classes, for instance, held a conference to introduce the concept to high school teachers around the state, and followed it up with training conferences to help other schools learn how to apply the concept in the classroom.
- Advocacy or community activist groups. These groups may hold conferences to publicize or to educate the public about their issues, or to train advocates or activists.
- A group with a stake or interest in the subject of the conference. A citizens’ group – the community health educator trainees described at the beginning of this section, for example – might organize a conference around an issue that affects and is important to them.
When should you organize a conference?
- When you want to educate the field, a particular group, or the public about an issue. You might organize a legislative conference to which you invite lawmakers, experts in the field, and practitioners to discuss a policy issue. A local coalition might convene a conference centered on a local issue, and invite people from all sectors of the community to learn and strategize about it.
- When you want to gather people with expertise to tackle an issue that needs to be addressed, or to work on a problem.
- When new work in the field needs to be publicized. A conference is sometimes the best way to get the word out.
- When you want to energize or re-energize people about their work. Having the chance to discuss the work with others in the same circumstances, and to remember why they’re doing it are powerful encouragements to keep going.
- Annually, to bring the field, profession, coalition, or interest group together to learn, network, celebrate successes, and work through challenges. Annual conferences serve a variety of purposes, not the least of which is to define the group and to create solidarity.
How do you organize a conference?
With conferences, as with so many other things, the devil is in the details. In some ways, organizing a successful conference is mostly about the details – how it’s publicized, how people register, how you choose the location, how you communicate with the people running the space, and on and on. We’ll try here to keep the description of handling the details under control by putting as much as possible in the “Tools” that accompany this section.
There are obvious differences between organizing a small local conference, attended mostly by people you already know and have contact with, and organizing a state- or nation-wide conference that attracts hundreds of people, most of whom don’t know the organizers or one another. There are also, however, some general guidelines that work for both. We’ll try to set out those guidelines, and to make distinctions where necessary between larger and smaller conferences.
It should be said here that a conference, even a small one, requires a lot of work. You have to start, as we explain below, months, or even a year or more ahead (for a large conference) in order to make sure that space and everything else are in place by the time you need them. For that reason, the first decision you have to make is whether you want to organize a conference. Ask yourself:
- Do we have the resources – financial, personal, and otherwise – to do this?
- Do we have the time and energy to do this?
- Are there others – individuals or organizations – who should, and would be willing to do this instead?
- Are there other ways to better achieve the goals we have for this conference?
If the answers to all these questions point in the direction of organizing a conference, then go to it! If you’re not sure, think carefully about whether it would be a good idea for you or not.
Once you’ve decided to go ahead, a way to help keep all the details under control is to make lists for yourself. Having a checklist of the necessary tasks for each part of the work you have to do – facility, presenters, etc. – with appropriate dates by which tasks need to be finished, will make your life infinitely easier, greatly reduce the chance for errors and forgetfulness (not to mention your stress), and increase the efficiency of your operation.
A final point to keep in mind as you read the rest of this section: the more work you can delegate, the better. Both the coordinator and the committee have too much to do to spend their time discussing menus or the number of chairs needed. Subcommittees, individual sub-coordinators, or volunteers can take on those tasks and do them well. Try not to burn anyone out – your conference will be far more successful if the organizers find the most of the work enjoyable and doable.
Organizing a conference involves several phases:
- Creating an organizing structure – putting together the group of people who are going to organize and run the conference, and planning the ways they’ll work together.
You might call this group and its function the “infrastructure” of the conference. An infrastructure is the internal structure that supports everything else. In the case of a city, for instance, it consists of the building and maintenance of the roads, sewers, electricity system, waterworks, and other basic services, and of the people who do that building and maintenance. In the case of a conference, it’s the organizing group and the systems its members use to work together.
- Planning the conference.
- Publicizing the conference and recruiting and registering participants.
- Running the conference.
- Evaluating the conference and the conference-organizing process.
Creating an organizing structure
- 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.
If it’s not possible for the previous coordinator or committee chair to serve on the committee, you might at least try to consult with him. A good idea would be to prepare, after the conference, a how-to-run-a-conference guide that can be passed on from year to year. That would be a huge benefit to the organization, and would eliminate many of the pitfalls and mistakes that plague conference organizers.
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.
- 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.
Event planners are professionals who specialize in – surprise! – planning events. They may not know about your particular issue or field, but they do know how to organize large numbers of people, negotiate with facilities, book rooms, and identify and take care of all the details that can easily go unnoticed until they surface to create crises. Their services generally don’t come cheap, but if you’re running a large conference and don’t have any idea how to go about it (and you have the funds), hiring an event planner to coordinate it may be a good strategy.
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.
Another element of infrastructure is a communication system. Unless the conference coordinator and everyone who works with her, including the organizing team, are all located in the same place – i.e., the same building – communication is an issue. It can even be an issue when the coordinator and everyone working to put together the conference works on the same floor. Where the committee may be scattered among several cities (not unusual in the case of a large professional association, for instance), communication becomes vital.
E-mail is an obvious answer, but there are times when voice contact and/or discussion are absolutely necessary. There have to be provisions for regular meetings (by conference call if people are widely scattered), and ways in which everyone can be reached quickly if there’s an emergency or an immediate judgment to be made. There also must be provisions for how and by whom final decisions are made if not everyone can be reached. The important point is that a good communication plan is invaluable.
Planning the conference
Any planning process will work better if it has a clear and reasonable timeline. Each step in the process should have a deadline that allows for time to correct mistakes, deal with the unforeseen, and still get the task completed in time to do whatever else depends on it. Time is always the most precious commodity in planning, and there is never enough of it. The better your estimate of how much time you’ll need, the more likely it is that you won’t be pulling your hair out as the deadline approaches…or after it’s passed.
The following steps will help you and your organizing committee to plan your conference:
- 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:
- Cheerleading (helping participants feel good about what they and the field do)
- Passing on information (new developments, issues to watch, regulations, etc.)
- Improving practice
- Highlighting an issue
- Decision-making and planning (e.g., setting the direction for an initiative or a field)
- Kicking off a new initiative or a new direction
- 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:
- Members of or people interested in a certain profession or discipline
- People with a particular political agenda (pro-choice advocates, gun-control opponents)
- People involved in a specific community (or broader) issue
- People concerned with a specific population
- People from a specific population
- Public officials (may be at any or all levels)
- People from organizations funded by particular sources
- Members of the sponsoring organization
- People from a particular sector of the community
- Residents of a particular community
- The general public
This is the time to determine whether and how to involve your intended audience in conference planning. That means somehow – through surveys, telephone sampling, focus groups, informal conversation, or some other method – getting feedback from them about what they want and need. It may also mean putting together a participatory planning group representing various parts of that intended audience. If your focus is on training, for instance, you might want to know in what areas people feel training would be most helpful. Adjusting your plan to the needs of potential participants should mean a well-attended and useful conference.
- 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 Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays).
Annual conferences are usually scheduled at or close to the same time every year, so that participants can plan around them. Some conferences vary their schedules depending on where the conference will be held, choosing times that people will want to come to the conference location (fall in New England, January in Miami), or times when the weather is less likely to pose problems (don’t plan on Alaska in February).
- 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.
We’ll try here to discuss what might happen at both large and small conferences, but it’s difficult to draw an exact line between the two. For some organizations, a showing of 200 might be huge, for others hugely disappointing. For the purposes of this section, we’ll draw the line at 150, since it isn’t unusual for a local coalition or organization to attract that many people to a well-planned and well-advertised one-day event. We understand, however, that some conferences of that size may take place in hotels, last for several days, and involve multiple workshops. The issue here is not only the number of people you expect, but the nature of the conference itself. Is it formal or informal? Narrowly or broadly focused? Does it attract people from a wide area, or from a single community? Are there 3 sessions or 130? Is it held in a conference venue or in the local YMCA? These questions are at least as important as the number of attendees.
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…
- Will you have one or more keynote speakers, or other full-conference activities? These might include plenary sessions (gatherings of all conference participants), films, music, demonstrations, a wrap-up session, etc..
If you want a keynote speaker, you have to choose someone appropriate and convince him or her to come. That means, if this person is any kind of celebrity – even just within your field – getting to that person as much as a year or more before the conference, so that they'll have the time free. It may also mean offering both expenses – reimbursement for travel, lodging, and food – and frequently an honorarium (payment) as well. Choosing the keynote speaker may be a joint task of the organizing team and the coordinator, but tracking this person down and negotiating (and going to Plan B when they are unable or unwilling to come) falls to the coordinator.
You also should negotiate with a keynote speaker – especially if you’re paying them – both what you’d like them to talk about, and what, if anything, you expect of them besides their speech. Should they be available to mingle with participants throughout the conference or for a day, be a panel member, eat at least one meal with participants, run a session? These sorts of questions should be worked out beforehand, so neither the speaker nor the committee will be surprised by the other’s expectations.
Some conferences may be small enough that the idea of a keynote speaker or a plenary session seems foolish. That doesn't mean, however, that they can’t attract well-known experts in the field to join the conference as speakers, presenters, and/or participants. These people may welcome the chance to get to know local folks and discuss real issues. You risk nothing by inviting them, and you may be surprised at who accepts.
What other kinds of sessions will you have? Some possibilities:
- Lectures or similar presentations – informative sessions presenting practical or theoretical ideas or methods relevant to the work. These may include elements of other kinds of sessions, but essentially consist of subject matter flowing in one direction. A variant here is a poster session: posters with graphic and text explanations of a presenter’s work can be viewed independently by participants. At a scheduled time during the conference, each poster presenter gives a short talk on her poster and answers questions about it.
- Workshops – teaching of methods, techniques, or other skills or related activities (e.g., relaxation response as a way to relax during breaks from a stressful job).
- Important factual information – new regulations, political/advocacy issues, state of the field, etc..
- Threads or strands – a series of sessions that all relate to one topic (depression, working with Hispanic populations, advocacy, program administration, etc.).
- Interactive – hands-on sessions where participants are just that: participants in discussion, activities, simulations, role plays, etc..
At adult education conferences in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, theater groups of Adult Basic Education staff and learners act out situations in learners’ lives, 1and then interact – in character – with the audience to involve them in examining the situations.
- Show and tell – sessions where participants share what they’re doing in their work.
Sessions of various kinds generally last from 45 minutes to three hours, depending on how the conference is scheduled. Participants may have as many as 15 or 20 choices for each session at a large conference.
Unfortunately, these choices don’t drop out of the air. Someone – the coordinator and the organizing team – has to find people who are interested (and interesting) to put on the various sessions. For a local conference, that may mean contacting appropriate people, posting notices at various organizations and agencies, or choosing the people you want beforehand, and then persuading them to accept. For a large and broader conference, it’s much more likely that you’ll send out a call for presenters with your pre-conference registration materials (or even before), advertise for presenters in one or more professional journals and/or on the Internet, put the word out through everyone you know, and blanket other organizations, universities, hospitals, etc., to recruit the presenters.
- Will you have several choices (“breakout groups”) for each session, or will they be limited to one or two strands? The key here is probably the actual size of the conference. Many types of presentations are ineffective if there are too many people involved.
- Will you offer professional development or continuing education credits for specific workshops, all workshops attended, or for the conference as a whole? Many professions require members to take a certain number of continuing education credits per year in order to maintain their certification or licensure. Conferences may provide some of those credits – how many depends on discussions with the licensing organization.
- Will there be exhibitors? Often, businesses that produce or sell materials relevant to the topic or the participants of a conference will pay a fee – and may contribute to the conference in some other way as well – in return for being allowed to set up displays and introduce (and sell) their wares to attendees. Typical examples are textbook and software companies at education-related conferences and drug companies at health conferences. Exhibitors are usually only interested in large conferences where they’re likely to be exposed to hundreds of conference-goers.
- Will there be field trips? These are visits to such places as clinics, community service programs, public housing projects, natural areas of environmental interest, etc.. Field trips may last a full day (or even more than one day in some cases), and take participants to observe and experience places and programs related to the purpose of the sponsoring group and/or the topic of the conference.
- Will there be organizational business transacted? Many conferences double as the sponsoring organization’s annual meeting, and include the election of board and officers, awards and honors ceremonies, yearly financial reports, and votes on such organizational matters as bylaw changes.
- Will there be entertainment scheduled? Some conferences include dinner dances or evening entertainment – live music or a film, for instance. Large conferences, especially those that change locations every year, often schedule trips to local events and attractions.
Some conferences provide, and others sell promotional materials – hats, t-shirts, key rings, small backpacks, etc. – often provided by exhibitors and imprinted with the conference logo or the name and logo of the sponsoring organization.
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.
Whether you choose to break out or not depends on a number of factors: the number of ideas you want to present; the extent to which you’d like to have everyone at the conference exposed to the same set of ideas; the number of people attending (a lecture with an audience of several hundred is less dynamic than a discussion among a group of 15); how much discussion you want; whether there are activities (role plays, for instance) that will work best in small groups; etc..
- 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.
- Geographical location. This refers to the actual city or area where the conference will be held. For a conference that centers on a particular city or community, this decision boils down to one of space (see below). For an annual conference that changes location every year, or for a statewide or national (or international) conference, however, the choice is not so simple. You have to consider what people can afford, how far they may be willing to travel, and where they’re willing to go. There’s also the question of whether you’re seeking an exciting place to visit (Rome), or a place without anything that would distract from the work of the conference (a retreat center in rural Canada).
- Conference site. First, how much space do you need? A large conference with multiple break-out sessions will need a number of rooms that will accommodate groups of 10 to 40 or so, and some that will hold more. A conference that keeps all participants together can do with one large – or not-so-large, depending on the number of participants – hall or auditorium. Do you want rooms that are set up like most classrooms – everyone facing front for a lecture – or rooms that can be adapted to many styles of seating – circular, small groups, around a table, etc.? Do you need lots of open space for people to mill around? Do you need a room large enough for all participants to fit into at once? Do you want informal space where people can sit comfortably and talk? Do you want outdoor space as well? What about space for meals? Do you want to be in a hotel, where people can stay the night? Do you want to be in a space where you don’t have to worry about disturbing or being disturbed by anyone else? These and similar questions are the ones you should be asking to determine where you might want to hold your conference.
Many large conferences are held in hotels, which, incidentally, do a good deal of their business by running conferences. Most hotels have large ballrooms and a number of smaller meeting rooms which serve as conference facilities. The hotel will provide the catering for any meals and snacks, and will also hold an agreed-upon number of guest rooms at a special conference rate for conference participants. Some hotels also furnish audio-visual equipment, sound systems, and whatever other electronic gear is needed. Obviously, none of these services are free, but the attraction of having them all under one roof is a powerful one, as is the fact that these hotels host conferences continually, and their staffs are accustomed to working with conference organizers and helping to smooth the way.
Other possibilities for a large conference may be conference or convention centers, which are often very near several large hotels that will reserve blocks of rooms at conference rates; retreat centers, which are usually less comfortable lodging than hotels, but often in striking natural settings; or community facilities, which are generally no-frills, but cheap or free, and often in neighborhoods where the focus of a health or community service conference can be plainly observed.
Conference sites charge fees for their space and for each of the services they provide. Conference organizers, unless they have a regular agreement with a site, may solicit bids from a number of possibilities. The coordinator and some or all of the team may visit some or all of the bidders to see the facility and discuss how it can best serve the conference. They then choose the site that seems to best serve their needs (not necessarily always the cheapest one).
Small local conferences often are able to find donated space or use space belonging to the sponsoring organization or to an organization with which one of the committee is affiliated. Retreat centers, particularly, are sometimes willing to donate or charge a small fee for space as a community service, as may libraries, community centers, town halls, or similar facilities.
If you’re using donated space, or if there’s a very strict limit to how much you can spend on a site, then the size of your conference may be limited by the amount of space you have. That information should be sent out with pre-conference registration materials (space is limited – first come, first served), and registration should be shut off when the limit is reached.
In general, if you meet anyplace other than a hotel, conference center, or retreat center (and sometimes at those facilities as well), you’ll have to provide for any AV equipment, lodging, food, and other extras yourself. Remember also that space needs to be handicapped accessible and to have adequate restroom facilities – including accessible ones – for the number of attendees.
- Food. As explained above, if you hold your conference in a conference facility, it will probably take care of the catering. (In general, for a large formal conference, participants sign up and pay for the meals they want as part of their conference registration.) A conference in a hotel or conference center will usually provide continental breakfast and lunch each day of the conference, and may include one or more dinners (often a “banquet” or awards dinner). At another type of site, you might hire a caterer to provide food, or organizers and volunteers might prepare it themselves. An informal, one-day conference might be brown-bag (i.e., bring your own lunch) or provide a simple meal (pizza or sandwiches). Another possibility is a midmorning and/or midafternoon beverage and snack break. Bottled water or coffee is often available throughout the day. If a conference is grant-funded, meals and snacks may be free to participants.
- Lodging. If attendees, speakers, or presenters are coming from a distance, they may need a place to stay. Hotel-based conferences usually provide rooms at special rates (participants are virtually always expected to pay for their own hotel rooms), while lodging at retreat centers may be included in conference registration. Often, lodging is offered at several hotels. Participants at grassroots conferences might stay in local people’s homes, in hostels, or in vacant dorms for little or no charge, or might camp. Conference organizers often agree to pay lodging expenses or to provide a home stay for a keynote speaker and/or other “special guests.”
- Fees. If the conference is local, and has few or no expenses, then it might be free to participants, as might a conference that is funded by a grant or contract. Most large, multi-day conferences charge fees to cover costs, which include materials, mailings, space and equipment rental, catering, expenses and/or payments for keynote speakers and other presenters, copying and printing, etc.. Some conferences are money-makers, and charge fees that are large enough to pay for the conference and support the sponsoring organization as well. Members of a sponsoring organization and those who register before a certain date often get reduced rates. Fees may range from as little as $25 or $30 for a one-day local conference to several hundred dollars for a multi-day national event. Grassroots conferences may charge fees on a sliding scale, to encourage diverse participation, and seldom charge more than will cover the actual costs of the conference.
- Signage. You’ll need signs pointing the way to various conference rooms, exhibitors, meals, rest rooms, and other points of interest in the conference site, as well as to official conference tables or booths – for registration, information, advocacy, etc.. Those tables or booths will also need identifying signs, and there should be signs directing participants to each presentation. The signs might be supplemented by maps of the conference site posted in prominent places (especially at corridor intersections and gathering places). In addition, a conference bulletin board in a central location could be used to advise participants of time or room changes, emergency phone numbers, lost-and-found, etc.. It could also have space for “conference personals” (Hi, Brad – Arrived late last night, would love to see you. Lunch Friday? Call me. Jim)
- Identification. People will need signs, too. Conference staff, volunteers, technical assistants, and other “officials” should have name badges that stand out (a different color, perhaps) and that identify them as people to approach with questions. All participants should have badges that give their names and work affiliations, so that everyone knows who everyone else is. (Badges can be pre-printed or supplied as blanks that participants fill in themselves. In either case, they can go into the conference packet.)
- Safety and security. A hotel or other conference site will usually employ on-site security and people with emergency medical training. Even if this is the case, conference staff should have a first-aid kit with essentials: band-aids, aspirin, aspirin substitute, antacids, etc. At a local conference held at a community site, you’ll want to make sure that participants and presenters know whether and where they can safely store outer clothing and other personal effects, and you may also want to ensure that you have an EMT, nurse, or other medical professional or paraprofessional available in case of emergency.
Coordination and troubleshooting. As we discussed above, the coordinator should be the point person in dealing with the conference site, or with caterers, suppliers, presenters, entertainers, exhibitors, participants, and anyone else. It generally falls to him to negotiate with the hotel or other site, to discuss payment and any other benefits with exhibitors, and to handle participants’ problems, complaints, or special needs. He also generally works out the details of mutually acceptable contracts with sites and others.
Most hotels and conference centers have standard contracts and standard procedures that they use for all conferences. Those contracts can be adjusted for a specific conference with specific needs. It’s the coordinator’s responsibility – with the help and oversight of the organizing team – to make sure that everything possible is covered in the contract, and that prices for any special services are reasonable.
There should also be contracts with anyone else – other than participants – who’s paid for providing services or who is paying fees to the conference organizers (exhibitors, for instance). That includes any keynote speakers and/or other presenters who are being reimbursed for expenses or paid a fee, caterers, exhibitors, equipment suppliers, etc. For a large conference, absolutely everything should be in writing. (See Appendix #1 For more on negotiating contracts.)
For a local, one-day event, there may be no need for contracts. Donated space, free or sponsor-funded pizza, and local presenters may eliminate the need for any formality. If there’s a caterer, or you’re paying for a site, contracts are necessary, no matter how well you know the other party.
Publicizing the conference, registering participants, and recruiting presenters
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:
- Print advertising, particularly in journals, newsletters, and other print media read by your intended audience or published by the sponsoring organization.
- Posters and/or other announcements sent to organizations and institutions concerned with the conference topic or theme.
- Stories, interviews, and/or press releases in the local, statewide, or national media.
- General communication to an e-mail list.
- Announcements sent to opinion leaders in the field or the community.
- Word of mouth (most effective, obviously, on the local level, but also effective in much larger circles, especially through the Internet.)
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.)
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.
The presentations for academic and some other conferences may be scholarly papers. In general, either the papers themselves or their topic and general outline must be submitted to and accepted by a panel of experts or conference organizers. For other conferences, organizers usually require only a title and brief description of the proposed presentation.
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.
A note here about conference staff – coordinator, committee members, and any volunteers, support staff, or others involved: Conference staff should be identified by colored badges, ribbons, or some other distinguishing tag, and should be visible and available throughout the conference to answer questions and address problems. The more quickly participants, representatives of the facility, presenters, and others can find these folks, the better. And the better-briefed staff people are – the more easily they can answer questions and solve problems – the more smoothly the conference will go, and the better participants’ experience will be.
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:
- Scheduling the right presenters for the right rooms at the right times.
- Scheduling sessions so that participants can follow topical threads (i.e., making sure that sessions on the same topic aren’t scheduled at the same time, or located so that getting from one to the next is difficult).
- Appointing a “host” for each session, who will introduce the presenter, make sure equipment is in place, keep track of time, hand out printed materials, and distribute and collect evaluation forms. The host should also put out and retrieve a sign-up sheet for continuing education credit, if the conference offers it.
- Working with the site to make sure that adequate space is available for meals, breaks, and other conference events.
- Placing exhibitors, coffee, handouts, and anything else in appropriate places (where they don’t contribute to blocking traffic, are accessible and easy to find, etc.).
- Finding the best places, in terms of traffic flow, visibility, and accessibility, for registration, information, and emergency services.
- Arranging for, or informing participants and presenters beforehand about, conference parking, or the lack thereof.
- Printing or copying material for participant packets, evaluation forms, etc.
- Recruiting and organizing volunteers to staff check-in and information tables, direct people to sessions, hand out important information, etc..
Suburban and rural conference sites usually have ample free parking. Urban sites may charge for parking, may have arrangements with parking garages blocks away, or may have no parking at all. If numerous people are driving to the conference, it’s important to either make arrangements for parking (perhaps in a local parking garage at a reduced fee), or to at least inform conference-goers of the situation.
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 so 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 are full, etc..
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.
At a conference where most presenters are from the sponsoring organization, or are not paid, they may have their conference and meal fees waived for the day they present, as an inducement for people to consider conducting a session.
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.)
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.
The host for each session may be given a box with evaluation forms, any handouts that the presenter has provided beforehand, a continuing education sign-up sheet, and whatever else may be needed for the session. The box is checked out, and then checked in again when it’s returned with the sign-up sheet and filled-out evaluations.
To help with the collection of overall evaluations, conferences sometimes offer a premium – from a small conference memento to something as substantial as a t-shirt to a chance to be entered in a prize drawing (often for an item contributed by one of the exhibitors) – to everyone turning in a form.
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 needs to 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.
Follow-up. 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.
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.
These questions are less of an issue for an academic conference, where the goal is to have people present their work and ideas for others to wrestle with and discuss. The skill of the presenter may have a great deal to do with how convincing he is, but has very little to do with any decisions about whether he should be invited to another conference. That has more to do with the quality of his work and ideas. The only exception might be if his ideas are simply offensive or ridiculous – racist, homophobic, denying the existence of the planet Jupiter, etc.. And even ideas that seem offensive need to be taken seriously if they are based on facts that can be proven.
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?
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 they large 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?
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?
The organizing process. There is much overlap between this and the previous part of the evaluation. Here, you need to examine:
- Whether there were enough people, both in the initial stages and during the conference, to do everything that needed to be done.
- Whether there was enough lead time.
- The planning process. Did it include enough input from everyone who should have been included? Did it have a structure that made planning relatively easy? Did it result in a plan that was easy to follow? Did it result in a successful conference?
- Whether the initial estimates – of numbers of participants, costs, etc. – were reasonably accurate.
- What went particularly well.
- What needs to be changed, and how.
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.
Conferences come in many shapes and sizes, but all need to be organized. While small and large, local and farther-reaching conferences have different needs, there are some organizing guidelines that work for most. Just about any sort of conference needs a framework of people and systems to build it on. Any conference needs to be planned – its location, space, timing, content, and form have to be determined. Any conference needs to inform its intended audience of its existence, and convince that audience – or enough of them – to attend. Any conference has to attract interesting presenters, whether they’re from the next office down the hall or from the far reaches of the world. Any conference has to be run well if participants are to have a good experience. And a conference should be followed up and evaluated as well, so that the next one will be better.
Regardless of whether it’s aimed at an immediate problem, improvement in practice, networking, or advocacy, a conference should excite participants, and leave them wanting more – more ideas, more contact with others with the same concerns, more change, more ways of doing their work. A good conference has the ability to put into motion currents that can have great influence on an issue or a field. It’s worth the effort to organize it well.
Conference Planning Guide from the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime.
Conference Planning Guide from the Student Environmental Action Coalition.
How to Organize a Conference: Step by Step Manual, by the International Association of Political Science Students, is a manual that can be used as general guidelines for organizers. It’s an overview of all the steps that need to be taken when organizing an event while you implement your own thinking as well as ideas.
Organizing a Conference from the Post-graduate Online Research Training site of the University of London. This is particularly oriented toward organizing an academic conference, but a good bit of the information is applicable to other types of conferences as well.