So, you've been given the job of organising a conference for your association, society or medical college.
If this is your first event, it might seem daunting as you read this. It doesn't need to be like that. Some of us even get to enjoy the process, especially when everybody is standing around after it has finished and saying how good it was.
If you're an experienced professional, you've probably gathered a few mental scars on your way but the fact that you're experienced shows that you also know how to put together a successful event.
Either way, it's worth having a look at our top tips for a successful association conference.
It's possible that you've been told what the event is for. On the other hand, it might be that it happens every year and everybody assumes that the purpose is widely understood.
In fact there can be many purposes behind an association meeting and if you're organising one, it's worth being certain what they are so that you can shape the programme to suit the purpose.
For example, it might be that it's a chance for members to share the results of their research or maybe it's an opportunity to explain and explore the latest techniques in your organisation's field. Those are the sorts of reasons that will be given if you ask 'What is the conference for?'.
In most cases, though, there are other reasons that are equally important such as generating income for the organisation and providing networking opportunities for the members.
The key point is that you need to understand all of the expectations of your organisation's senior team so that you can choose a venue and create a programme that will meet (or even exceed) those expectations.
In order to be able to do that, you have to understand what those expectations are. If you haven't been told, ask. If you don't get a satisfactory answer, you might have to come up with a statement of purpose for yourself.
However you get there, you need to know what it is you're trying to achieve with this meeting.
One of the easiest ways of getting it wrong in the meetings business is to spend too much money. But how much is too much?
You have two options on this question: ask your organisation for a budget. If that doesn't work then option two is to come up with a figure yourself.
There are software programs that can be used to organise a meeting and some of them include a budgeting module. It depends on the event, but you can probably do just as good a job with a spreadsheet. You just need to remember everything that will have to be paid for.
There are various headings you might need to include in your budget such as:
If you're organising an in-house meeting, perhaps on one particular aspect of the discipline your members practice, you probably won't need all of those headings. If you're organising the annual conference, you'll probably need all those and maybe a few more such as video production, photography, goodie bags and so on.
The best way of working out what headings you need is to walk through the event like one of your attendees. Suppose it's a subject-specific in-house meeting. Members might arrive in the morning. You might provide coffee or leave them to use the machine in the corridor. You'll be using a meeting room in your organisation's building so there won't be any venue hire costs. If delegates are going to be given any printed material to take away, that'll probably be supplied from the association's resources. There probably won't be any outside suppliers, especially if there are to be only a couple of sessions and there's a data projector in the meeting room already. You might give the delegates lunch or, again, leave them to their own devices. For this kind of meeting then, your budget might be very low and very simple.
It's a different matter at the other end of the scale. Maybe you're organising your association's annual conference. Delegates will arrive in the morning and collect badges and conference packs. You might have a plenary session followed by a series of papers being delivered on topics of interest to the members, some of them simultaneously. There will be coffee breaks, a lunch break and an exhibition running alongside the conference. If it's a multi-day conference, delegates will need accommodation ranging in cost to them from cheap and cheerful B&Bs for the students up to four and five star hotels for the people who have reached the top of the field which your organisation represents. You might have a dinner which delegates have to pay to attend, and you might have visits to local installations that will be of interest to them. With this sort of meeting there will be accommodation and catering costs even if the delegates have to pay their own way: the organising team will have to be accommodated and those costs will have to be included in your budget.
One of the difficulties with this type of meeting is anticipating how many members will attend: at the time you're defining your budget, you're going to have to make an educated guess at that figure. One of the best ways to do it is to look at how many have attended in previous years.
If you do all of this, you've got a fighting chance of being able to calculate how much the conference is going to cost.
Don't forget to include a contingency allowance. There may have been an association meeting that didn't incur unforeseen costs but we haven't heard of any.
The best approach to the whole budgeting process is to be as structured and as thorough as possible. This will lead you to an overall estimate of the outgoings.
Then you can start to think about the income. The most obvious income is derived from registration fees paid by delegates. But that's only the start: there's also the income derived from exhibitors who want to reach your members. It may be possible to attract sponsorship and that can be applied to practically anything that can have a logo applied to it – lanyards, conference packs, breakout rooms, receptions, coffee breaks. The only limitation is your imagination and the willingness of relevant organisations to pay.
Clearly this element of the budget is of crucial importance, given that the annual conference represents the bulk of the annual income of many associations so it's worth taking the time to get it right.
One way or another, your aim must be to define the budget that you are working to and to make sure it includes everything you're going to have to pay for and all the income you're likely to generate. That's challenging enough but, once it's agreed, you have to stick to it. On a big event, that's a whole different challenge. You'll have to get used to telling people (even board members) 'We don't have enough budget for that'.
In broad terms you'll have two choices for your venue: in-house or external. In house will probably be fairly simple but if you're using an external venue, there are a few golden rules.
You must visit the venue. You can look at plans and photographs or even a virtual walk around but you may only discover the drawbacks to a venue when you visit it. There used to be a conference centre that was in the same building as a public swimming pool. Delegates were unlikely to appreciate the all-pervading smell of chlorine.
On your visit make sure you check all of the facilities you'll need. Will the room for your plenary sessions be big enough? Are there enough breakout rooms? Are they easy to find? If they're not, you'll have to spend more on signage. Is the registration area big enough to cope with the numbers of delegates as they arrive? Is there enough room for the exhibition? Typically, coffee breaks will be held in the exhibition room so that exhibitors have a good chance of meeting the delegates so is this going to be possible? Is the exhibition room big enough? Is it too big? Will you need space for a poster exhibition? What about a conference office? With a major conference you'll need a base to work from. If equipment has to be got into the venue, how easy will it be? There used to be a hotel in Manchester with a meeting room on the third floor. The only way to get the conference equipment into the room was to carry it up the main staircase.
It's worth drawing up a list of all the facilities that you'll need before you visit the venue.
In other cases, the seating capacities of rooms have been calculated on the basis that the front row of seats was close to the front wall and allowed no space for a lectern. Ask to see a seating plan that shows the room laid out for the format you want to use – theatre, classroom, boardroom, separate tables or whatever you want.
If you're going to be using a hotel and they've offered one section of a ballroom with a partition between it and the next section, check the sound transmission through the partition, especially if the staff are going to be laying up lunch while your meeting is progressing. You don't want distractions from teaspoons being placed in saucers. Worse still is to have somebody else's meeting happening in the next section when they're playing a video with an ear-drum bursting soundtrack.
It's fairly common for associations to schedule a board meeting during the annual conference. If that's to be done, you need to make sure that a suitable room will be available.
While you're doing your recce of the venue always ask to see whatever you're told can be supplied. One venue had windows all down one side of the biggest meeting room. The sales person promised they could be blacked out. It wasn't until the get-in that the planner found that the blackout was to be achieved with black bin bags. They didn't work.
Generally speaking, never rely on the venue's own sound system. The microphone access points will probably not be in the right place for you and the controls will be in a cupboard somewhere, often outside the meeting room. Added to that, the system probably won't be very good.
If you're going to use the venue's data projection system, make sure there's always a technician on hand to fix it when it goes down.
Is the venue easy to get to? If your delegates are travelling from all over the country, those in the north might find it difficult to get to somewhere in the far south west. That's one of the reasons that some associations always use venues in the midlands. Alternatively, you could ask where the last few conferences have been held. Some associations like to move around the country: if it was in the north last year, it'll be in the south this year.
Crucially, is the cost of the venue in budget? When you're working that out, you need to make sure that you're allowing for all of the venue costs.
If you're planning a major event, there will be a lot to think about when looking at your venue. The trick is to approach it logically and to be as structured as you can.
Even though it's likely that your delegates will be members of your organisation, you will still need to know how many will be attending. Whether it's a straightforward meeting for just a handful of people or an annual conference, you'll need to know how many people are coming. The easiest way to establish that is to use an online registration system. You need to consider a few points in relation to these.
First is the question of data security. You'll obviously need to comply with current data protection legislation so you need to check that the online system you're using provides good enough security. If you work for a big association, you might even want to organise penetration testing for the company providing registration services. If you can't afford that, ask the registration company if any of their corporate clients have paid for penetration testing and if so, what were the results?
Apart from that, remember that you should keep the data only as long as necessary. It may be that there's no reason for you to keep the data for more than a few weeks, possibly a couple of months. Obviously if you need to keep a record of CPD credits earned by attending the conference or individual sessions, you'll need to keep data for longer, but the point is that you need to decide when the data should be deleted.
Will the system you choose enable you to send a personalised email to members containing a link to the relevant registration form pre-populated with that member's details? That saves a lot of time for all concerned.
When you're deciding what to ask people registering for your conference, ask only for the information you need. For example, you obviously need their name and email address, but do you really need their postal address? If you're not going to use it, why ask for it and store it? The best thing to do is to look at the last registration form you used and make sure that all the information requested was used.
If yours is an international association, does the system you're using recognise the special characters that are used in many languages? For example, we all know about the characters in French and German that don't appear in English but some languages such as Turkish have many more.
You might also want to take account of national sensitivities such as the expectation in Germany that all of an individual's titles be used. This could mean that the registration system might have to enable a delegate to have 'Herr Professor Doktor' on their registration and on their conference badge.
There's also the fact that more people seem to have hyphenated names these days. In addition, if you have people attending from the Middle East, you might want to allow for the fact that individuals in that part of the world can have multi-part family names. In both cases, you need to make sure the badge production software can print very long names. Some truncate long names and that can cause offense.
Then you may need to think about how delegates can book additional elements such as breakout sessions, external visits and all the other activities that may be part of a meeting.
It might seem that online registration is simple and, providing you choose the right system, it should be. It's just a question of identifying exactly what you should be looking for.
Enjoying what we have shared so far? Part II will be in your inbox next week!