Recommendations for Running Professional Conferences

Professional ConferenceThis blog post is coming out of several requests from several different angles on how to run a professional conference. Instead of delivering a custom response to each person (which would take a considerable amount of time), I’ve made things pretty generic here, and I hope each person out there that might need this information finds it useful. If you have your own experiences or advice others might find helpful, please drop a comment.

First off, a little about me. I’ve been involved in a volunteer capacity at seven different Pikes Peak Writers Conferences. I’ve assisted at a handful of other writing-based conferences. I’ve also attended roughly 30 different conferences for both writing and in my various Day Jobs. My volunteer positions ranged from lower-levels to keeping an eye on things and helping out in major ways. I’ve seen pitfalls, successes, great conferences, and rough ones.

The point of this information is to assist those people out there running conferences get a grasp on the big things, the minutia, the traps, and the easy parts. This is, by no means, the end-all, be-all guide to how to do everything. Every conference is different and each one has special needs. I’m going to try to keep things as generic as possible. This should allow the larger audience to benefit from what I’ve seen and learned.

Definitions

  • Staff: The people running the show. These can be paid staff or volunteers.
  • Faculty: The people presenting in sessions. This includes keynotes, guests of honor, industry specialists, area experts, agents, and editors.
  • Attendees: People that have given you money to be there.
  • Venue: Where everything happens.
  • Venue Staff: People responsible for the venue, but not the event. Typically, these are hotel employees.
  • Session: A classroom-style setting where attendees learn.
  • Presentation: A single faculty member. Maybe two, if it’s a “tag team” style presentation.
  • Panel: Multiple faculty members speaking in a single session about a topic.
  • Moderator: The person that gives announcements, introduces the faculty member(s) in a presentation, keeps track of time, and then steps aside other than to remind the faculty member(s) of how much time is left in the session.
    • In the case of a panel, the moderator asks questions, guides the conversations, but largely allows the faculty to speak in fair amounts of time.

Venue

The venue is the place (or places) where everything happens. Usually you pay for access to these locations, but sometimes you’ll get lucky and land a venue (like an outdoor park) for free. However, there may be permits you’ll need to get for these free venues. Check with the local municipality on these public resources.

  • Make sure all venues are available for planned events, and that those venues are informed about your plans to use their facilities. This is pretty easy with the paid venues because you know you have to give them money for the venue and they should put it on their schedule. However, if the venue lands in the free category, then make sure there’s not a curfew (if an outdoor venue), or a closing time (such as with a library) that will conflict with your plans.
  • For the free venues, don’t just show up and expect resources to be available. Call and arrange things before you put things in your schedule, on your map, or in your programming.
  • Make sure all areas of the venues you plan to use are accessible to those people with physical disabilities. If in a hotel, this is usually already taken care of because they have to be compliant with ADA laws. If your venue is in an older part of a city that predates escalators, elevators, required wheelchair ramps, and such, then make sure to mention that on your web site, in your registration form, and everywhere else possible. Don’t wait for attendees to give you money, show up, and then not be able to partake in what you have to offer. This will only lead to an upset attendee and a potential loss of revenue because you had to refund the registration fees.
  • Make sure each room for a session is large enough to hold your anticipated attendees. If you’re doing a “single track” set of sessions (meaning all attendees are in the same room at the same time), the room for the single track needs to be large enough for all attendees to be comfortable in. (More on handling multiple track scenarios in the “Programming” section below.)
  • You need a map of your venues in the program guide. If it’s a single venue, then a single map (or one per floor in use at the venue) is adequate. If it’s multiple locations, then a map of the pertinent parts of the city are needed.
    • Speaking of maps, make sure they are on the web site, in the program guide, and include nearby, local attractions and popular places to eat.

Staff Members

  • Conference Director
    • Buck stops here.
    • Ensures everyone else is on top of things.
    • Coordinates with venues.
    • Negotiates a “con rate” with local hotels.
    • Works with the city (if necessary) for any permits.
    • Puts out word in the local community about the event for the purpose of collecting coupons, tourist events, other local events, sites of interest, etc..
  • Programming Coordinator
    • Report to the Conference Director.
    • Recruits faculty, agents, editors, etc..
    • Coordinates who is teaching what session.
    • Coordinates what room sessions are in.
    • Creates the con schedule for sessions.
    • Collects bios and headshots for all speakers.
  • Faculty Coordinator
    • Reports to the Programming Coordinator.
    • Arranges for hotel, flights, travel for out of town faculty.
  • Transportation Coordinator
    • Reports to the Faculty Coordinator.
    • More specifically is responsible for getting faculty from the airport to the venue and back again. This person usually recruits a team of drivers as well as doing some driving themselves.
  • Program Coordinator
    • Reports to the Programming Coordinator.
    • Responsible for putting together the bios/headshots into the program.
    • Responsible for putting the schedule into the program.
    • Responsible for arranging/selling advertising space in the program.
  • Handout Coordinator
    • Reports to the Programming Director
    • Gathers all handouts from all faculty and compiles them into a single document.
    • This document can be made available for a free PDF download off the web site or be sold in printed version or both.
    • The front cover of the handout document should be branded with the conference logo and year.
  • Registrar
    • Reports to the Conference Director.
    • Handles all registration issues.
    • Handles printing and assembly of badges.
    • Should be in charge of getting the registration packets stuffed with the bonus goods, program, schedule, handouts, badges, etc..
  • Admin Director
    • Reports to the Conference Director.
    • Right-hand person to the Conference Director.
    • Keeps track of deadlines, responsibilities, tasks, and goals of all team members.
    • Ensures everything gets done on time.
  • Survey Coordinator
    • Reports to Programming Director.
    • Check the pulse of your attendees. Do this via session feedback forms (you don’t want a bad speaker back, and you definitely want the good ones to return via invite from you.)
    • Do this via overall conference feedback forms (they can go in the registration packets).
    • Do this via an online survey (Survey Monkey or others) to your attendees AND faculty. You’ll want a different survey for each type of person. They’ll have different perspectives and feedback to give.
    • If possible, do a survey for each session given. This will allow you to know what topics and faculty your current (and therefore, future) attendees want to see.
  • Bookstore Coordinator
    • Reports to the Conference Director.
    • Takes books in (via commission if you do that).
    • Recruits an assistant or three to assist with sales.
    • Arranges the bookstore.
    • Runs the bookstore.
    • Orders books for sale (if necessary).
    • Returns unsold books to distributors or those that did a commission.
    • Keeps track of all paperwork (commission sheets), finances, money in, money out, etc.
    • Give information and money to the Conference Director.
  • Pitch Coordinator (if necessary)
    • Reports to the Programming Director.
    • Ensures that venues are available for pitching.
    • Ensures agents/editors aren’t teaching at the same time as they are teaching a session.
    • Provides specific pitch times to attendees that have signed up for a pitch… or keeps track of the signup sheet.
    • Handles changes in pitch appointments when attendees give up their slots or desire something different.
  • You may have other positions crop up as you mature and grow, but these are the basics.
    • As you add new staff positions, document what their range of responsibilities are, who they report to, deadlines, and who they need to coordinate with. This should be added to the existing (you have one, right?) master SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) document.

Program

The program should contain the following sections:

  • Table of Contents
  • Brief history of the conference and/or Director’s Note
  • General Schedule (just list days/times, no specifics)
  • List of Staff w/ positions
  • Map
  • Special Events
  • Keynote (Guest of Honor) headshots and bios
  • Special Guests (such as agents/editors) headshots and bios
  • Faculty headshots and bios
  • Detailed Schedule
    • This will be the bulk of your program, especially if doing multi-track sessions.
    • Include date, time, location (building and room), title, faculty involved, and a brief summary of the expected content.
  • Sponsors/Supporters Page
  • Code of Conduct
  • Scattered throughout the program will be advertisements (if you do this)

Web Site / Social Media

You need a web site! Period. Full stop. Important sections of your web site should include:

  • Overall “about” page
  • News (preferable with an RSS option)
  • FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)
  • Location and Directions
  • Faculty Listing (with headshots and bios)
  • Planned Workshops
  • Special Events
  • Policies
    • Code of Conduct
    • Non-Discrimination Policy
    • Refund Policy
    • Bookstore Consignment Policy
    • Age Limitations (if any)
  • History

You also need social media to get the word out. There are whole books written on this, so I’m just touching the basics. Unless you have a large social media staff or a marketing firm on your side, limit yourself to these three “big hitters” in the social media world:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram

What should you post? Mostly announcements and deadlines and changes.

  • Announcements of newly signed faculty
  • Announcements of last-minute changes to faculty if the faculty was doing a special event like a pitch session or some other “one-on-one” mentoring of attendees.
  • Announcements of new sessions added.
  • Deadlines for registration fee increases
  • Deadlines for “last chance” to register
  • Regularly announce the date of the upcoming conference.
  • If this is a recurring (usually annual) conference, once the dates for NEXT YEAR are determined, drop those on your social media, but clearly mark it to avoid confusion.
  • Inspirational messages to keep readers’ attention.
  • Photos of the venue, faculty, staff, and key attendees.
  • Success stories of past attendees and what they’ve accomplished since the last event.
  • Announcements of special events when they are added and/or sold out.

Registration

My advice here is to outsource your registration process to a third party. Yes, it will cost you a percentage of your revenue, but it will save you hundreds of hours of creating your own process. There’s also security involved. Some people simply won’t put their credit card into an unknown web site.

Here are some resources for you:

While I’m on the topic of some people not wanting to do online credit card purchases, I want to warn you away from the “complex interactions” with attendees. In other words, make a simple system for payment and registration and everyone uses it. It’s not worth your time and trouble to meet someone at a coffee shop to pick up a money order and then attempt to tie that payment into your registration system. If a potential attendee only trusts their local grocery story with their credit card, then have them buy a pre-paid gift card (Visa or MasterCard) for the proper amount at the grocery store. Then they can use this card on your online site. If someone wants to be difficult, put the difficulty on them, but still be as helpful as you can.

Programming and Scheduling

This is probably the single item that will consume the most time. You need to know what faculty you’re going to have, what those individuals are comfortable talking about (solo or on a panel), what topics you’ll cover as a whole, and where each session is going to be. There’s also the consideration of not booking someone for 3 sessions in a day and zero for the other days of the conference. I also highly recommend not booking someone for back-to-back sessions. This makes things rough on the faculty. Incredibly rough.

You need software to assist with all of this. There are existing sites that can help you out. They’re not free, but they are worth every penny. These sites can help you track bios, headshots, contact information, scheduling, rooms, time slots, and so on. They’ll even help keep you from double booking a faculty member! Here are some sites that you can leverage in this area:

The key to this area is communication. When you’ve slated a faculty member for a session, let them know right away. If things change, let them know that as well. If they have desires for teaching a particular type of session or for having an informal “Koffee Klatch” style meeting with attendees, work with that as well. At the end of the day, the faculty must know what they are doing before they arrive.

Registration Packets (aka: Goodie Bags)

Registration packets come in two flavors: personalized and generic. The personalized packets go to the staff and faculty, so they have a separate schedule specific to them. This will let them know when they have to be somewhere and where to go. These personalized items are usually put into a brightly-colored envelope inside the generic packet that they also receive. When you hand someone a personalized packet, make sure to point out the bright envelope, so they know it’s in there.

Things that go in the goodie bag:

  • Program
  • Personalized schedule (if needed)
  • Badge
  • Meal tickets (if you feed people)
  • Special event tickets (if any)
  • Small goodies from sponsors. These can include:
    • Lip balm
    • Hand sanitizer
    • Coupons
    • Special offers
    • Fliers or Advertisements
  • Local attraction/restaurant fliers
  • Handouts (if printed copies were purchased or are provided for free)
  • Other freebies from sponsors
  • Separate map if the venue areas are large or located in different buildings
  • The bag itself, which is usually branded for the conference year and with a sponsor or three on it as well

Make sure to assemble the bags and registration packets the night before the conference. If you can do it earlier than this, that’s fine. However, you usually have so many last minute changes (including last-minute attendee registrations) rolling in, that doing this a week ahead of conference is nigh impossible. Do not assemble the bags in front of the attendees at the registration desk. This is the very first impression you’re making to the attendees, and it’s bad to see people scrambling for the various parts that go in the bag. This also applies a high level of pressure to the assembly process (you’re being watched!) and this will lead to mistakes and missed items.

Inter-Team Communication

This is the key factor in any successful conference. If your different teams and directors and coordinators don’t talk regularly, then you’re doomed. I would highly recommend online collaboration tools and regular meetings that are in-person.

Online collaboration tools come in lots of different flavors, but my two favorite ones are Google Groups (because it’s like a mailing list and gets into my inbox) and Slack (which is like a message board where different teams can have their own channels to reduce noise). I would recommend leveraging both, if you can.

The in-person meetings are usually done monthly, but then get on an accelerated schedule as you get closer to the conference. When you’re three months out, go to an every-other-week schedule. When you’re a month out, go to weekly meetings. Maybe throw in an extra meeting the week before the actual conference to make sure there aren’t any last-minute fires to put out.

Once the conference is done, you’ll be wiped out and exhausted, but don’t send everyone home just yet. Within two weeks of the last day of the conference, hold a post-con meeting to go over how things went, how to improve, and where to go the next year.

The last thing I want to throw out about communication. Work with your venues as well. Set up some form of token or icon that key staffers hold or wear to indicate to the venue staff that a room is too hot/cold or that more water is needed in a room or whatever. This will prevent your hundreds of attendees from swamping the desk with wild requests about the public space over which they should have no control.

Bumps in the Road

Speaking of putting out fires. You’re going to have them. Period. It’s just going to happen. The important thing to keep in mind is that if the attendees don’t notice the heat or the bump in the travel, then you’re doing things just fine. At the end of the day, the most important people at your event are your attendees. Keep them happy, and they’ll come back. They’ll also bring friends with them next time and allow you to grow and shine.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Control what you can. Focus on those items. If you can’t fix something right now make a good note that you won’t lose and preemptively make adjustments so that next time it simply won’t happen.