How to organise a conference

It is important to differentiate between seminars to which delegates are invited by a company or organisation to promote their own products and services and a commercial seminar / conference which is arranged on behalf of others by professional organisers


It is important to differentiate between seminars to which delegates are invited by a company or organisation to promote their own products and services and a commercial seminar / conference which is arranged on behalf of others by professional organisers

However, whichever one it is, it is important that the delegates come away with newfound knowledge & information which can be applied to their own work situation.

Where a commercial seminar is concerned a small fee (cover charge) is acceptable for refreshments - otherwise, if it is free, it smacks of propoganda and thereby loses credibility.

It is also wise to keep in mind that it is better to invite a select number of delegates to several seminars over a period of time rather than hundreds of delegates to one seminar.

Attention to detail is vital - there are so many small things that could go wrong but which, with some forethought and consideration, could be averted.

Guidelines to be followed:

  • Strategic planning
    It is very important to define your target audience and your goals for the event. What is the theme that the conference will be about? Knowing whom your target audience is and what the intention behind the event is will determine your approach to use to best achieve your goals. Take the venue staff into consideration and ask for their help. They know what resources they have and do this on a full time basis.

  • Budget
    • An effective budget is crucial to the success of the conference. Work out your costs, establish your budget and then make sure you stick to it.

    • Calculate how much is needed on fixed costs, e.g. venue hire, speaker's fees etc.

    • Calculate the amount needed for variable costs such as additional hotel accommodation, extra delegates' packets etc.

    • Again, you can check your figures with the conference organisers and ask for their input.

    • Always allow a contingency of at least 10% to cover unforseen expenses.

  • Dates and venues
    • Decide when, where and for how long the conference will be held. Is the location easy to reach? Make a note of the nearest airports and rail stations.

    • It is important that you carry out a site inspection where you can select the meeting room, check the ventilation, accommodation and eating areas. Also check the access to the venue.

    • Discuss the menu with the venue staff (or relevant catering company) and determine what delays may be encountered during the conference.

  • Programme development
    • It is essential that your programme is varied and tailored to suit the danger areas - the period immediately after tea and lunch. This is when energy and enthusiasm is at a low ebb and something different may be required for these periods.

    • This can be done by moving speakers around on a schedule, sessions of different time spans and creating diversions.

    • Make a note of housekeeping requirements such as fresh water and clean ashtrays.

  • Promotion & sales drive
    • A conference which is to be attended by delegates that are not part of the company needs to be promoted though news releases and advertisements in specialist magazines and journals well in advance.

    • Mailshots of publicity literature and proposed programmes can also be sent to likely participants. Although the draft programme may include the phrase "speaker to be announced" it is crucial to secure top-quality speakers early to ensure a successful sales drive.

    • Participants for an internal conference must be kept informed with regular releases and updates. If the delegates need to be away from home spouses should be informed so that they are able to make alternative arrangements. Ensure that contact details of the venue are available to all concerned.

    • A central unit must be set up to receive and track replies, handle bookings and act as a communications centre.

  • Conference material
    Conference material is a very important supportive tool. Develop a central theme - a conference identity much the same as a corporate identity - and use the layout or coloured paper for all communication e.g. name tags, registration cards, note paper, brochures, programme tickets etc.

  • Layout & seating
    There are various ways in which the presentation room can be laid out such as:
    • Auditorium style

    • Syndication style

    • Cocktail style

    • Classroom style with straight desks

    • Classroom style with herringbone desks

    • The U shape

    • The oval shape

    Consider the various options and your intentions during the conference. Classroom style is very rigid and formal whereas the U shape encourages more interaction and eye contact with other delegates. Consider the equipment that will be needed such as overhead projectors and other visual aids. Ensure the room is not cluttered.

    The delegates are going to be sitting for quite a while so ensure the seating is comfortable and not cramped.

    Provide plenty of aisles and easy entry/exit.

  • Equipment
    The public address system is one of the most common items in any conference event. Unfortunately, it can also create the most problems so ensure it is tested and that delegates throughout the room can hear what the speaker is saying.

    Another effective aid is the overhead projector. The placing of the projector needs to be carefully considered:

    • Avoid placing it in the middle of the room as those in the centre will have difficult in seeing around or over it. Ensure that it is placed in an area where neither the projector nor the speaker will create an obstruction.

    • The screen should not be too small and difficult to see

    • Make sure the writing is legible

    Before placing any other equipment in the room consider the obstruction it may cause to the seated delegates.

    • Do the speakers require a lectern?

    • Is the room going to be darkened whereby the speaker may require some lighting to read his notes?

    • Is a TV and video recorder required?

    Speak to all the speakers and ask them what they will need for their talk and make sure it is available and tested

  • Presentation kits
    Most delegates are presented with a presentation kit with all the relevant documentation - programmes, talk summaries, notepads, handouts and promotional items as 'giveaways'. Decide what your kit should contain and get these ready for distribution at the conference

  • Catering
    This is normally handled by the conference organisers but if you need to hire an external catering company make sure the menu is decided upon and all contingencies allowed for.
    • What meals need to be catered for - breakfast, tea, lunch, and dinner?

    • How many people, over how many days?

    • How many vegetarians are included in the group?

    • Are their any special dietary requirements?

    • What can be included in a last minute request?

    Discuss the various options available and ensure all aspects are covered.

  • Printers
    Conferences involve an extraordinary number of literature such as conference programmes, tickets, name badges, invitations, mailshots, day programmes, menus, seating plans, social itineraries and details etc. These should all be included under your 'conference identity' and designed and printed well in advance. Obtain quotes from printers and check what backup service is available. Should an emergency arise, how quickly can they react

  • Flowers
    Another small item which is easily forgotton but can create a wonderful atmosphere. Are floral arrangements required? If so, where - lobby? Meeting rooms? How big should they be? But don't forget - you don't want it looking like a funeral parlour.

  • Run through the day
    This is a very basic but essential tool to ensure that all aspects of the conference is covered. Run through the entire day from start to finish. Detail every activity from registration:
    • Is there enough time to register the delegates?
    • What happens if there are latecomers?

    • How suitable is the eating area?

    • Can the dining room cope with the number of meals in the allocated time?

    • Are there enough washroom facilities?

    • Security, car parking?

    • How will the weather affect the conference?

These may seem like minor questions but ones that need to be answered to ensure a smooth and successful conference

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