How to plan a successful conference

Organising a conference is no easy task; it requires a great deal of forward-planning, multi-tasking, time and attention to detail. Putting together a successful conference that leaves a lasting impression can test even the most seasoned of event planners, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work you need to do, particularly if you don’t have much experience. This could result in you over-thinking small details, while forgetting about more important issues.

This guide provides insightful tips and outlines all of the steps required to build, promote and evaluate a successful conference. So, if you’ve been tasked with organising your company’s next event and are not sure where to start, don’t fret — we’ve got you covered. Here are our tips for organising the best possible conference.

 

What is your aim?

Presumably, there’s a reason you’ve decided to organise an event and this will affect what your conference is going to look like. Perhaps your aim is to promote a new product, reveal the findings of your latest research or to create a new source of revenue for your company.

Your goal will determine many of the details of your event, such as whether you look for sponsorship, the sessions you will offer delegates, the venue you choose and whether you’re going to charge for tickets.

With this in mind, it is incredibly important that you have a clear idea of what your aim is before you begin to plan the event.

 

Who will be on the planning team?

Student Talking

Organising a conference takes a lot of time and effort, so it isn’t something you want to do alone. Therefore, you may need to recruit a team to help you out or if our company hosts events on a regular basis, there’s already likely to be a group of people within the business that you can call upon — otherwise, you’ll need to assemble a suitable line-up yourself. Everyone should be given a role that aligns with their skillsets, and these should be known throughout the group so everyone knows who to call on in certain situations.

You need to appoint a group of no more than three or four people who will be the core organisers. Then, working below them, you need a person or small team to oversee each aspect of your conference, from liaising with the speakers to dealing with financial matters. Ensure that everyone has the capacity to complete their tasks on time and be sure to check in on a regular basis to keep track of how things are coming along. You could even use an organisational platform such as Basecamp to keep track of progress.

A service such as EventStop will help you to save time and resources in organising an event, and Hospitality Guaranteed can support you on accommodation, conference venue sourcing and event management.

 

What do you need to think about when planning a conference?

As previously mentioned, there’s a lot to consider when planning a conference. And, if this is the first time you’ve been given such a responsibility, it isn’t easy to know where to start. Here’s an outline of the aspects you need to consider:

 

The date

Before you can arrange your conference you need to decide when you’re going to hold it. There are a number of things you need to consider when doing this. This includes ensuring all of the key speakers and stakeholders are available and we also recommend steering clear of times when people are likely to be on holiday, such as during school breaks. Depending on your priorities, you might even want to plan around your chosen venue or speakers.

 

The venue

Choosing the right venue for your conference can be a huge task: you need to consider everything from its location to whether it will provide food for your guests. There’s a lot to think about which is why we’ve dedicated an entire section of this piece to helping you choose the perfect venue for your event.

 

Accommodation

If people are going to be travelling to your conference from out of town, or your event lasts a few days, it’s important that there is somewhere where attendees can stay overnight — ideally this should be either at your venue or close by.

 

Catering

To ensure that your event runs as smoothly as possible and that your guests are fed, watered, and happy you might want to arrange catering for your event. This may be something that your venue offers, or it could be provided by an independent catering business.

 

Speakers

Your programme of speakers is going to be the main attraction at your conference, so you need to choose them carefully. A mix of big and new names is likely to get the best reaction, so aim for a good balance between the two.

 

Registration

You need to offer a way for people to register to your event. Using an online system, such as EventStop, will allow you to collect your attendees’ information quickly and easily.

 

Tickets

Whether you charge people to attend your conference is entirely up to you and your company, but the decision is likely to depend heavily on what you aim to gain from your event. For example, if you’re promoting a new product you might want to focus on getting people through the door. In this situation, offering free entry may be the best option. Alternatively, if you’re looking to make money from your event, selling tickets for a fair price is a great way to do so.

 

Sponsorship

Securing sponsorship could enhance your conference in a number of ways. For example, if relevant companies from your industry come along to exhibit their products and services, or give talks, your event could gain more traction. Additionally, sponsorship can serve as a great source of revenue.

 

Marketing

Holding a conference takes a lot of time, effort and money, so you want to make sure that people are going to turn up to enjoy it. Therefore marketing your event effectively is essential, there are many ways in which you can do this from sending out email invitations to informing industry publications and websites.

 

Feedback

It’s a good idea to ask your attendees for feedback so you know what you can improve on in the future. There is a variety of ways you can collect feedback, such as handing out feedback cards at your event or sending questionnaires via email once your conference is over.  

 

How do you create your conference budget?

To ensure that you don’t spend more than you can afford, you need to devise a budget based on how much money you’re expecting to make and spend. You can come up with a rough prediction of how much money your conference will bring in by looking at the sponsorship you’re likely to secure, and the amount you’ll make from ticket sales. It’s important that you aren’t over-generous with your calculations — it’s always best to underestimate than to spend money you don’t have.

Once you’ve decided how much money you have to spend overall, you can then look into how much things will cost. You might find that certain elements such as your venue and speakers, need to be prioritised, while other elements aren’t within your budget and need to be scrapped. But do keep in mind that the price of services can almost always be negotiated. 

You should also consider that the cost of certain things, like audio-visual equipment, may be fixed, while the price of other aspects, such as food and drink, will depend on the number of attendees.

Once you’ve estimated the amount you expect to make and how much everything is likely to cost, you should be able to devise a budget that aligns with both of these figures.

 

What makes a good conference venue?

View of a Boardroom

The venue that you choose for your conference could make or break the event. You’re likely to have a whole host of places to choose from — all of which will have a different effect on your budget and the atmosphere of your conference. Therefore, it’s imperative that you choose wisely.

Once you know the type of venue you are looking for, you can use our venue finder to search for an appropriate place. But first, here’s what you need to consider when deciding where to hold your event and the questions you should be asking to ensure you make the best decision possible.

 

Location

This is, perhaps, the most important thing to consider when choosing where to hold your conference. You should pick a venue that is convenient for your attendees, with easy transport links and free parking.

It’s also a good idea to consider where those attending will be travelling from. For example, if you know that they live or work in a certain area, then somewhere nearby will work best. Or, if people are going to be flying in for your event, you might want to choose somewhere close to an airport.

By choosing a venue that’s easy to get to you’ll increase the number of people who are likely to attend. Plus, you’ll reduce the risk of anyone arriving late or getting lost, which will make things easier for you and your team who are presumably working to a schedule you’ve planned meticulously.

 

Cost

So, you’ve devised your budget but how much of that are you going to spend on your venue? Space can be expensive and your venue could cost more than anything else on your list of outgoings. However, you should be wary of cutting costs by opting for a cheap venue that might not provide everything you need. And, don’t forget our ‘Map It’ tool which can help you source and negotiate the best rates.

A good conference venue will offer great value for money — it will have all the facilities you need and you should be offered fantastic service during the planning and running of your event.

Also, think about whether you want your venue to provide food and drink, as well as equipment. If so, you need to ask whether this is included in the price or if you’ll have to pay for these separately. If you don’t ask in advance, this could cost you a lot more than you’re planning to spend.

Finally, ensure that there are no hidden costs by reading any contracts thoroughly and speaking to people at the venue, this way you won’t be stung by any additional charges.

 

Capacity

You need a venue that isn’t too big or too small — you want there to be enough space and seats for everyone to be comfortable, but you don’t want the room to seem empty. So, it is important you consider the minimum and maximum number of people attending before looking for a venue. If this isn’t possible, make a realistic estimation depending on how many people have attended previous events.

 

Accommodation

View of a bed

If you know that most people are travelling to your conference from out of town or your event runs over a number of days, you should ensure that it is easy for attendees to find local accommodation. Similarly, they should be able to travel from their accommodation to the conference venue without any problems.

For this reason, many conferences are held in hotels. However, if this isn’t something you’re considering, it’s wise to ensure that there is somewhere nearby that people can stay, and that you can offer delegates information about nearby accommodation.

If you’re holding a particularly large event that requires multiple accommodation options, take a look at our advanced features, where you’ll learn how we can help you with tracking rooms on hold and managing allocations.

 

Accessibility

It’s incredibly important that your event is accessible. This means that people with a wide range of individual needs should be able to attend.

Under the Equality Act 2010, service and event providers are required to ensure that disabled customers or potential customers aren’t at a substantial disadvantage compared with non-disabled people. To do this, you should strive to secure a venue that can be accessed by all and make any reasonable changes to ensure that anyone, regardless of their needs, can attend your conference.

 

Facilities

Don’t assume that a venue you love the look of will have everything you need — it’s vital that you ask outright. Check whether a place will provide the likes of audio visual equipment, stages and microphones if you need them. You should also consider whether these will incur an additional charge.

If a venue that you have your heart set on can’t provide the equipment itself, ask whether it’s possible to enlist an external company to do so.

 

Catering

It’s likely that your conference will last at least a few hours, so you might want to provide food and drink. If so, you need to consider whether a venue can provide this or if they will allow you to bring catering in from an external company.

Remember that some attendees may have specific dietary requirements that need to be taken into account. So, whichever route you go down, ensure that your caterers are equipped to deal with this.

 

How can your attendees register?

Picture of laptop

You need to think about how people are going to register to attend your event, and ensure that they will receive confirmation of their registration.

Using an online registration system is a great way to do this, as it takes the hard work out of collecting important data and ensures that everyone gets the information they need. EventStop offers a one stop shop for event management, this provides a quick and easy way for delegates to register online. Check out the benefits of using EventStop for more information.

 

How do you put together a conference programme?

The whole reason people are attending your event is for the programme. This shouldn’t just be a succession of talks that appear to have been thrown together. They should be connected and, ideally, build upon one another to create somewhat of a narrative.

From choosing your speakers to ensuring attendees have time to reflect on the talks, there are many things you need to consider when putting your running order together. Here’s how to handle some of the most important aspects of creating your conference programme.

 

Choosing your speakers

Picture of microphone

When choosing the speakers for your conference, try to put together a programme that includes both big and new names. Of course, it’s always a good idea to invite speakers who are highly respected, as they’ll attract people to your event and help to sell tickets. But, you also want to ensure that you’re offering your attendees valuable information that they’re unlikely to have heard anywhere else. This might mean that you have to seek out new talent and ideas, as well as well-known speakers who frequently share their knowledge at events like yours. But by doing so, you will create a unique conference programme, which will certainly make it worth the extra effort.

You should think about your speakers well in advance, so they can get the date in their diary and start to prepare. But, before you approach anyone, you need to determine how much you can afford to pay them — or whether you’re going to offer a fee at all. Of course, you should always look to compensate people for their time and efforts but, if this isn’t possible, it’s certainly best practice to cover their expenses, including any travel, accommodation costs and food while they’re with you. Regardless of whether you can afford to pay speakers or not, the most important thing is that you’re up front so they know what to expect and aren’t left disappointed. A lot of people are quite willing to talk at conferences without being paid, so it’s always worth asking anyway.

 

Leave time for attendees to think and mingle

When you’re putting a lot of time and effort into organising a conference, it can be tempting to cram every last second with talks and activities. However, your event will be a lot more enjoyable for your attendees if they’re given some time to breathe, reflect and network, so consider scheduling this into the programme. This will also allow you to collect feedback and your attendees will be less likely to leave or skip talks to eat or freshen up.

 

How will you secure sponsorship?

It’s difficult for conferences to make enough money from ticket sales alone, which is why many of these events are sponsored by relevant companies that appeal to the attendees. Depending on the industry you work in, it can be quite difficult to secure sponsorship, as you’re likely to be competing with organisers of other events.

This means that you need to put a great deal of thought into what you can offer sponsors. You also need to show them that you’ve thought carefully about how their brand relates to your event — potential sponsors are likely to cast you aside if your requests appear to be copied and pasted. So, here are a number of things you can do to ensure that you get off on the right foot:

  • Always put a potential sponsor’s logo on any PowerPoint or PDF files when you’re sending or presenting a sponsorship proposal so they can see that your materials have been produced specially for them.
  • Describe the target audience of your event and tell companies why you’ve approached them.
  • While you should have a good idea of what you’re going to offer potential sponsors and how much money you would like in return, you should be flexible and receptive to their requirements or demands — within reason, of course!
  • Prior to contacting a company, look into whether they sponsor or have sponsored any events similar to yours.
  • Do your research, so you can ensure that you’ll be speaking to the relevant person or department.
  • If you work within an industry that isn’t too serious, consider sending a creative proposal. Anyone can send an email, so doing anything slightly out of the box will help you stand out from the crowd.
  • Creating a low-budget option for small or new companies is a great idea. For example, you could offer them entry to your event, include their logo on your website and place a business card or brochure from them in your attendees’ goodie bags. You could offer this to quite a few small businesses, which could make a lot of money.

 

How are you going to market your conference?

View of a marketing analytics

So, now you know what your conference is going to look like and what it will offer. But how are you going to ensure that the relevant people hear about it? There’s a whole host of channels you can utilise, and most organisers use a combination to reach as many people as possible. Here are some of the most popular and effective routes that you should consider.

 

Email invites

If your company has a mailing list of people who are interested in your work, then use it. Send an email invite out to these people and you’re likely to achieve great results.

EventStop offers customisable email invitation and confirmation templates, which can be edited to include your event’s information and convey your brand identity. Our service also allows you to track who has responded to your messages and you can send reminders at the click of a button.

 

Create an event page

You’ll need somewhere to direct people who are looking for more information about your event, so you’ll want to create an event page. One of the benefits of using EventStop is that you can quickly and easily create an event page that portrays your corporate identity. This means that potential attendees can learn everything they need to know and sign up for your conference all in the same place. Plus, our system makes it incredibly easy to edit the information on your event page and monitor how many people have registered to attend.

 

Social media

These days, everyone is online and using social media, so you’ll miss out if you don’t take advantage of this. The possibilities are almost endless when you take this approach, so you need a clear plan of how you want to approach it. Here are some ideas that many event marketers have found to be particularly effective.

 

Make your event shareable

Screen from mobile showing social networks

Ensure that those who register for your event can shout about it and drum up some interest among their friends and followers. Make it easy for them by including a share button on the confirmation page they’re presented with after registering. You could also create a bank of branded downloadable resources, such as images that can be posted on Twitter or Instagram, which may be accessed through your event page. This will help people to get the word out about your conference with minimal effort.

 

Choose a hashtag

A great way of keeping track of what people are saying about your event before, during and after is by deciding on a hashtag that can be used on the likes of Twitter and Instagram. This will help you to monitor what’s happening online, collect feedback and pique people’s interest. More importantly in terms of marketing, your attendees will be able to use this hashtag in their online posts, which could make them more likely to share details of your event.

The hashtag you choose should be short, as Tweets have a character limit of 140 characters, and it should also be unique. Therefore, it’s a good idea to search any of the hashtags you’re considering before making a decision.

 

Create a Facebook event

Laptop screen showing facebook

If people working within your industry are likely to spend time on social media, having a Facebook page for your business is a great idea. So, if you haven’t yet set one up, create one now. This will then allow you to list your event, which will increase its visibility. You will be able to invite people that you know to come to your conference quite easily and, if they accept your invitation or claim to be interested, their friends — some of whom may also take an interest — will be notified.

 

Create a LinkedIn event

LinkedIn is a platform that people use to connect with professional acquaintances that they may not network with on other social sites like Facebook or Twitter. Promoting your event through LinkedIn will work in a similar way to doing so through Facebook, but you’ll be likely to reach an entirely different audience.

 

Let your community contribute

People will be much more likely to attend an event they’ve had a part in planning, so consider asking your online followers for their opinion on certain decisions you might be struggling with. Facebook and Twitter allow you to poll your fans and followers on aspects such as what background music they would prefer or the food they would like to be served. However, beware of using this approach too much, as you don’t want your followers to get bored or assume you’re incapable of planning your own conference!

 

Inform the local media and industry websites

Relevant industry and local news websites will often be willing to publicise your event. Therefore, it’s worth getting in touch with websites, journalists, publications and associations that are likely to be interested. This will allow you to access an audience of potential attendees much bigger than your own.

 

How are you going to collect feedback?

Manualy collecting feedback

Receiving feedback from your attendees is the key to any successful event. Unfortunately, many organisers only think to collect their visitors’ thoughts once their events over, but you should be looking to do so before, during and afterwards. Here are some approaches that we would recommend taking if you want to receive as much constructive feedback as possible.

 

Collect feedback during the event

When attendees are still at your event you have their full attention, it therefore goes without saying that having a feedback-gathering strategy that involves collecting their thoughts before they leave is one of the most effective ways to ensure you’re going to get feedback from them.

A very simple way to do this is by leaving feedback cards on seats before attendees arrive, then ask your speakers to mention these just before they leave the stage and you’ll be surprised by how many you get back.

 

Provide multiple opportunities to respond

If, for one reason or another, you don’t manage to collect sufficient feedback during the actual event, send out an email once your conference is over. You might also want to keep track of who has responded and send a reminder to anyone who hasn’t around a week after your conference.

If you are going to do this, refrain from mentioning it at your event, as people will be more likely to procrastinate in favour of responding via email. And, even though they might have the best intentions, this could lead to them forgetting completely.

 

Offer something in return

To encourage people to provide feedback, where possible, it is worth offering an incentive such as the chance to win a gift card. An incentive is likely to increase the amount of feedback you receive, which in turn provides you with more data to evaluate your event.

 

Communicate the process clearly

If you want to receive as many responses as possible, you need to make the process especially easy. That means you need to explain everything very clearly, you can do this by hanging posters at your event or explaining the process during the speaking segments. Afterwards, you should consider tweeting a reminder and, if you’re using an event app, you might be able to schedule push notifications that will remind your attendees.

As previously mentioned, leaving feedback isn’t going to be at the top of anyone’s to do list, so you need to focus on pointing them in the right direction and make things incredibly simple for them.

 

Keep it short and sweet

You should keep your survey relatively short, although you still want to provide space for people to leave valuable and constructive feedback. Five simple questions often work great when printed on cards for session surveys, whereas online evaluations should be around 10-15 questions long.

 

As you can see, there’s a huge number of things you need to consider when planning a conference, which means it can be particularly difficult if you’re inexperienced. However, as long as you cover all of these points and communicate well with those you’re working with, we’re confident you’ll be able to pull it off!

 

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