Rachael Ziccone is Conference & Events Manager for Corporate Challenge Events and member of the Professional Conference Organiser’s Association in Australia.
Are you planning a conference for your organisation, association or club this year?
Now whether it is a conference for over a thousand delegates or a smaller one for a few dozen, you still want it to be slick, professional and leave a lasting positive impression.
Whilst organising a conference may seem daunting at first, if you break it down into these 10 key planning areas, you will be off to a great start.
1. Define the purpose
A simple one to start with, and really, you won’t be able to go any further without one. So at the very beginning, identify the reasons you need to stage the conference and what you aim to achieve.
Establishing the purpose and the objectives for the conference will keep you focused and help you with further planning such as when to hold it, who to invite and what to feature in the agenda.
When to hold it? So once you have the purpose, now consider what will be an effective time to stage the conference.
You will need to do research on your target audience here to identify dates that work for them. For example, you don’t want to hold an event for tax accountants during peak tax return preparation months.
Other considerations here will be giving yourself and your team adequate lead time to ensure the availability of venues and accommodation, and to avoid potential clashes with other events in the industry.
As early as possible in the planning process, you will need to establish an event budget.
You can start by calculating all your likely expenses. These may include venue hire, catering, audio visual, insurance, speaker fees, travel and accommodation, marketing, registration system, website, merchandise, promotional items, staff and engaging a professional conference organiser (PCO).
It’s wise to add a contingency for all of those unexpected things that will arise. A reasonable contingency to maintain is 5 to 10 percent of the total expenses.
Now key questions that remain are... What will be your return on investment? Do you need to offset costs with revenue from the conference? If so, what is a competitive registration fee for delegates? Is there an opportunity or need to sell sponsorship or exhibitor marketing at the conference? Are there any government grants that this conference could be eligible for?
Once you have a clear picture of this budget, you can start to lock more plans in.
You need to book some venues up to 12 months in advance to get yourself the best deal and sometimes even secure it.
When booking your venue, some considerations here include location, public transport, parking, room space, audio visual facilities, proximity to accommodation, accessibility, cleanliness and comfort.
It’s always wise to have a PCO or your financial controller look over the contract to ensure you haven’t missed anything, as the fine print is just as important as the big print!
Most conferences will take place without incident, however you can never be too careful and should always cover the event for potential risks.
Each event is different so you need to consider the risks in all activities and do your research on appropriate insurance providers and level of cover.
If you have engaged a PCO, you may already be covered for some insurance such as public liability, so be sure to discuss options with them first so you don’t double up.
What will you name your conference? How will it be branded? How will you promote it to your target market?
The branding of your conference including a name and logo is vital in creating the image you want for the event and to be appealing to your target audience. A professional graphic designer is an asset for you here.
It will be useful for them to produce a style guide to ensure the conference branding is consistent on all materials such as the website, advertisements, brochures, signage, programs, merchandise and audio visual.
You may also consider engaging a PR or marketing agency to assist you in identifying your target markets and developing strategies and tools to promote the conference to them.
The conference website is a vital and central hub to communicate and engage with your delegates, speakers, sponsors, exhibitors and other stakeholders. It is essential that it looks smart, is easy to navigate and provides a quality visitor experience.
Consider what information needs to be on your site and how you can maximise having a website to save you time in the planning the event. For example, having a FAQ page may save you considerable time in answering common questions.
You can create your own website or engage a professional such as your graphic designer or PR agency. Most PCOs have event software that has the ability to build websites customised to your event.
8. Online Registration
Having delegates register online is both time-saving and cost effective. It can combine the practicality of online payment with the efficiency of immediate confirmation and financial reporting.
If you engage a PCO, they will likely have an event software program for the conference that is user-friendly, able to be customised and features a registration system.
When the registration system is being customised for your conference, consider all the information you need to collect from delegates such as contact details, dietary requirements and session choices.
Who will be onsite to assist you during the conference? Whilst you will have specialised teams provided by the venue such as AV and catering, you will need staff for your own welcome desk and to assist speakers, sponsors and exhibitors.
It is a good idea to have a central ‘go to’ person that is monitoring the conference program and ensuring the conference is going to plan and schedule.
Depending on the scope of your event you may also need to consider security, an MC for each session, transport coordinators and parking attendants.
A 10th important area is structuring the conference agenda. You can read more on this important planning area in this blog.
So that is a 1 to 10 of planning a conference. As you have read, there is a lot to consider in the planning, so ensure you give yourself a generous lead time, a contingency in your budget and seek experts in their field to assist you where you can.