In our previous two blogs about organizing conferences, we gave an overview of the various phases of organizing a conference and looked at how to set up a conference organizing structure. In today’s blog, we will be looking at the planning phase of the conference.
Each step in the planning phase of the conference needs a clear and realistic timeline which allows time for mistakes to be corrected and for the unforeseen. It is also essential that everybody is in agreement on the purpose of the event before the planning of the conference can start. Is the purpose of the conference training, networking, providing information, advocacy, highlighting an issue, problem solving, decision making?
The Target Audience of the Conference
The target audience of a conference is mainly based on the nature of the conference and sponsoring organization. The target audience can be members of a particular profession or discipline, or share a specific political agenda. They could also be from a specific community, or the conference can be aimed at a specific population group. Other potential target audiences include public officials, members of the sponsoring organization or the general public.
The next step is planning how to get the target audience involved with the conference. Some of the ways in which this is effectively done is through surveys, telephone sampling, focus groups and informal conversation. These are also excellent ways of getting feedback on the wants and needs of the intended conference audience, which will help the organizers to adjust their planning according to the needs of the conference participants.
Conference Length and Date
Deciding on the length of the conference will depend on what needs to be done, what the participants can afford in terms of time and money, availability of target groups and the budget of the sponsoring organization. Most national and international conferences take place over several days, while, with smaller local conferences, the length of the conference is determined by the time the participants can set aside and how long the conference space will be available.
The date of the conference need to be planned, so that it does not coincide with other events that your target audience may be attending. The date should also not conflict with events of national interest or the family obligations of participants. Annual conferences usually have a set date each year, so that the participants can plan around the conference well in advance.
The Format of the Conference
The format includes the overall theme and structure of the conference. Generally, both small and large conferences will start with a keynote address. This can be in the form of a speech or presentation by a well-known or inspirational speaker. The purpose of the keynote address will be to introduce the theme and kindle enthusiasm for the conference.
A conference day may be divided into from two up to six sessions. Often lunch will be included as part of the conference fee, and some of the days may also include a dinner. Meals can include a speaker, giving of awards, organizational business, or it may just be social. It is advisable to wrap-up the conference with a final speaker that will send the participants home thinking about the topic. The wrap-up will also help delegates feel that they had a coherent experience.
Logistics of the Conference
The logistics can be seen as the nuts and bolts of the conference including where it will be held, how presenters will be found, costs involved, transport and other practicalities that need to be planned.
When planning the location of the conference, the organizer needs to consider in which city the conference will be held, and the distance participants will be willing to travel. The organizer needs to decide if the conference should be held at an exciting place to visit or rather a quiet place with little distractions.
Finding a venue for the conference will be based on how much space is needed and whether smaller rooms are required for breakout sessions. Choosing a venue will also depend on specific requirements such as outdoor space, space for meals, accommodation and privacy. Most specialist conference facilities offer catering services, and most hotels and conference centers serve lunch and breakfast every day. For other venues, a caterer may have to be hired, or organizers and volunteers may also be responsible for the catering. It is not uncommon at informal one day conferences, for participants to be required to bring their own lunch or receive a basic meal such as pizza or sandwiches.
If the conference venue is a hotel, accommodation for conference delegates are often made available at a reduced rate. For large conferences, it may be necessary that accommodation is arranged at various venues in the area. It is important to note that the conference organizer is often expected to pay for accommodation for the keynote speakers and special guests.
Other logistics that require consideration include the conference fee, signage, identification for officials and participants, and safety and security issues.
Conference Coordination and Troubleshooting
The conference coordinator is the person who is ultimately responsible for dealing with the caterers, the venue, suppliers, presenters, exhibitors and participants. The coordinator negotiates and discusses payment with exhibitors, and also handles any problems and complaints that may arise from participants during the conference. The coordinator is also in charge of any contract negotiations with the venue and other parties involved with the conference.
In the next blog in this series about organizing conferences, we will look at how to publicize the conference, as well as registering participants, and recruiting presenters for the conference.
Resource: Community Tool Box: http://ctb.ku.edu/