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How To Organise A Conference: A Step By Step Guide

Organising a conference is no mean feat. From guest speakers and venues to entertainment and catering - not to mention everything in between - there’s so much to think about. For some, taking on such a mammoth task can seem quite overwhelming. However, with the right can do and proactive attitude, along with quite a bit of planning, you can navigate your way safely to organise a memorable and engaging conference for all attendees.

How To Organise A Conference

But where to begin? As an award-winning event management company, we’ve headed up more than a few conferences in our time. So, to help you, we’ve put all of our expertise and knowledge into this handy step by step guide. In this, we’ll talk you through each part of the journey, from planning to execution.

Ready? Let’s jump in.

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Step 1: Pinpoint Your Goal
When you hurtle headlong into organising a conference it’s all too easy to start with the elements you know you’ll need: venue, entertainment, and food. But hold your horses. Before you even start Googling for suppliers or getting quotes from venues you need to take a step back and see the bigger picture.

Successful conferences start with a clear goal in mind. What are you hoping to achieve through your event? And how will you make it engaging for your intended audience?

Before you delve headfirst into the nitty gritty of organising your event, do some planning first. Questions you could consider are:

What is the purpose of my event?
What elements will help me achieve my goal?
Who is my audience?
What do my audience want from this kind of event?
What will set my event apart from other events?
How will I measure the success of my event?
As well as this, it may also be worth considering at this stage the 4 ‘W’s’. These are:

Why am I holding this event?
Who is my event for?
Where will my event take place?
When will my event take place?
Brainstorming this and having a clear goal in mind will illuminate the path to planning a successful conference. Once you know the answer to the above questions you can devise a strategy which is focused on achieving what is laid out in front of you without getting sidetracked.

Step 2: Prepare A Budget
Money talks. So preparing and understanding your budget is one of the key aspects of the whole planning process.
Your budget will dictate quite a few things. It may be that you have to compromise or prioritise certain things over others in order to meet both your core goals and your budget.

When you know exactly how much you can spend, break it down even further by assigning mini-budgets to different aspects of the event (i.e. venue, accommodation, etc). Doing this will help you, and anyone else, through the quoting and negotiation process.

Remember that your budget doesn’t just mean how much you’ll be spending, but potentially how much you will earn too. If your conference is open to the general public and you’ll be charging a fee for tickets or registration, then your budget will support you in pricing this. Furthermore, don’t forget there are certain avenues you can explore in regards to sponsorship or funding that may be relevant to your event, too. So do your research!

Step 3: Decide How You Will Manage The Planning Process
Whether there is just you involved in planning your event or you’ll be delegating tasks to a wider team, it’s crucial to have a way of tracking and managing the planning process.

This can be achieved through the set up of a simple spreadsheet which lists tasks to be completed, who is responsible for them and the deadline.

With so much to do, it is easy to lose sight of what has (or hasn’t) been done. And when this happens, things start to slip through the cracks. So ensure that you have a robust plan as to how the planning process will be managed and be sure to communicate this to anyone who is working with you in this project.

Aside from spreadsheets, there are a whole range of technologies which can be utilised to help you stay on track. These include messaging apps like Slack, video conferencing programs like Skype or Zoom, and project management software such as Asana or Trello.
The best advice we can give is to have one central place where everything related to conference planning lives. It’s also vital to have regular update meetings to ensure that everyone involved is on track.

If you are working alone on this, then ensure you have all the information you need in front of you and regularly ‘check-in’ with progress. Remember, there is no weakness to delegating tasks. In fact, it’s the smart move. So if you can, find someone to support you with certain parts of the process so you can keep spinning plates elsewhere.

Step 4: Choose Your Team
This step may actually come right at the very beginning of the process, depending on how you work. But regardless, assembling a crack team of colleagues (or event planners) to support you in organising the conference is one of the best moves you can make.

How you structure your team depends on the size of it. If you have a very large team working under you then you may have the scope to divide them up into sub-teams and appoint sub-team leaders. Different aspects of the event can then be delegated to each team. For example, you could appoint a marketing team who will be responsible for spreading the word about the conference.

However you assemble your team, ensure that the priorities you thrashed out above and the overarching aim of the conference is communicated to them. Similarly ensure your team is fully briefed regarding deadlines and how they are to update you on progress.

 

Step 5: Pick A Theme
Every conference should have a theme.Whether it is an overt theme or a unifying message which ties the whole conference together, having a theme in mind will support your organisational efforts.

It is really up to you as to how ‘out there’ you go with your theme and how far you take it. This will also largely be dedicated by the type of sector you are in and the culture of the organisation you work for.

Do not underestimate the effect a well-chosen theme can have on an event. The right theme can inspire attendees and also support in driving forward discussion and networking. Therefore, take a lot of time to think about a theme and ensure it is considered in all aspects of planning for consistency.

Step 6: Choose A Suitable Date
When your conference takes place is actually much more of an involved decision than you might initially realise. When you decide on a date you should ensure that it:

Gives you enough time for planning;
Doesn’t conflict with other major events;
Is the optimal time for maximum attendance
Holding a conference in the height of summer when lots of people are on annual leave isn’t the best of moves. Neither is planning your conference to coincide with a big event happening in the same location.

Give the date and times of your conference a lot of thought, and remember to take into account where your attendees may be travelling from and whether or not that may impact attendance.

As well as this, decide on how long your conference might be. Many take place over 2 days or more, therefore it may be necessary for delegates to stay overnight. Is this suitable for the dates you have picked?

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Step 7: Decide On A Location & Venue
When you have your date, budget and theme nailed, you can then start looking at venues. Location is another very important aspect of your event, particularly as you want to be sure that it is accessible for your delegates and big enough to comfortably accommodate all of your guests.

Before you start your research make a list of ‘must have’ and ‘nice to have’ features. Doing this will help you to create a long-list which can then be whittled down into a shortlist. As well as this, keep your budget in mind and perhaps give yourself an upper limit on how much you’re prepared to spend and what criteria a venue needs to meet in order to warrant that amount of spending.

Essential factors to consider when choosing a venue are:

Costs – Be sure to explore what is and isn’t included with a venue to avoid discovering hidden costs further down the line!
Location – Delegates should be able to easily get to your venue. If that’s not the case, but you have your heart set on it then be prepared to arrange transportation too.
Size – You may already know roughly how many people will be able to attend. If so, use this to inform the size of your venue. It’s best to strike a balance. You don’t want fitting everyone in to be a squash and a squeeze, nor do you want to waste money on a venue that looks half empty.
Atmosphere – Consider your theme when choosing a venue. Does it feed into what you’re trying to achieve or does it distract from it?
Facilities – If you have planned breakout sessions or evening entertainment can the venue accommodate that? As well as this, does the venue have the right equipment you need? For example, do they have audio & visual equipment available, charging points and reliable WiFi?
Accommodation – Does the venue offer rooms for guests to stay? If not, are there any hotels or guest houses available nearby?
Food & Drink – Some venues have their own in-house catering services you can take advantage of, while some might require you to bring in your own. If food is available at the venue then be sure to discuss special dietary requirements and how a venue will manage this.
When it comes to venues there’s a lot to consider. Choosing the wrong venue can make or break a conference, so it’s worth taking the time to get it right.

One way to better navigate the minefield that is finding a venue is to use a venue finder service. Here at KDM we offer this service for free to clients and they can explore a huge database of venues to find the right ones for them. Further to this, we can take the lead on negotiating fees, dotting i’s and crossing t’s so you can rest safe in the knowledge that the venue is in the bag and everything you need it to be.

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Step 8: Arrange Catering
If you’re planning a conference then you’re going to want to feed and water your guests for the duration. Therefore, it’s important to ensure catering is in place for the big day (or days!).

Whether you use internal or external vendors for catering, it’s still important to give a lot of thought to this aspect. No matter how much entertainment you put on for guests, breaks are always important at any type of event so plan these carefully. And that’s not just lunch and dinner, either. Remember to build in several breaks throughout the day and offer delegates the chance to grab a coffee and other refreshments.

As well as this, be sure to consider your theme when it comes to catering. In some ways, this might help you decide on the type of food that you would like to serve to your guests.

Other things to consider is how many people you will need to cater for and dietary requirements. Often you will need to confirm the final headcount with a caterer at a specific time during planning, so ensure that you incorporate doing this into your plan, especially in regards to picking an RSVP date.

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Step 9: Organise Your Speakers
It is likely there won’t just be one person speaking at your conference, therefore it is necessary to make arrangements for both speakers and entertainments. Your speakers are essentially the stars of the show and will act as a very big draw for guests. Therefore, take some time to really plan your strategy here in order to execute it well.

Like a music festival, it’s a good idea to choose a ‘headline’ act. This should be someone who is well-known in your industry and able to speak on the theme or unifying message of your conference.

To execute this part of planning effectively, start by making a list of potential speakers you would like to invite. Then, decide how you will contact them. Depending on how eminent they are you may have to get in touch with them via an agent. If that isn’t the case but you still require an introduction use professional tools at your disposal such as LinkedIn to see who in your network could make it happen.

When you have secured your speakers you’ll need to understand what equipment they may need on the day to deliver their speech and whether they have any special requirements. For example, will they bring their own laptop with them? Will they need a projector? Do they have any dietary requirements? Will they need accommodation and transport arrangements to be made on their behalf?

All of this should be considered with every speaker you secure. Furthermore, it’s best to have a few back-ups speakers prepped well in advance just in case one of your “A-list” speakers has to pull out.

Step 10: Arrange Your Entertainment
Keeping your guests engaged beyond the scheduled talks and workshops is important, too. One way to achieve this is by laying on entertainment throughout the day to keep the energy high and guests involved.

The type of entertainment you arrange will depend on the size and type of conference you are holding. For example, if you are hosting a dinner in the evening you may arrange for a piano player, singer or even a DJ for afterwards. You might also consider entertainers such as comedians, illusionists or motivational speakers.

Some conferences also have entertainment stations throughout the day for delegates to engage with. This could be a Virtual Reality stand in the lobby of a hotel, a treasure hunt or even an interactive team building session (such as an Escape Room).

Step 11: Make A Schedule
When your venue, vendors, speakers and entertainment is secured, you need to make a robust agenda. This shouldn’t be a collection of loose times but a rigid and detailed plan of what will happen from start to finish.

Your main agenda will be the one that guests see. It is a timetable of the day and will lay out what is happening and when. Alongside meatier speeches from the speakers you found earlier, you might also consider incorporating workshops, team building activities, networking opportunities and regular breaks.

As well as this agenda, you should also have a timetable formulated for staff who will be working the event and anyone else involved. This should detail what time the venue can be accessed from, what time the conference starts, break times and lunch times, and any other prudent information. Having this to hand and distributing it will ensure that everyone is where they should be at the right time and avoid any mishaps.

Step 12: Market Your Event
Ideally, you will begin marketing your event as soon as the date of the conference is agreed and the venue is chosen.

This is best done through a multi-channel approach that uses all the different technologies and tools at your disposal. We recommend using a mixture of PR, social media, and both online and traditional marketing to raise awareness of your conference.

If your conference is for internal employees only marketing is still important. Spread the word through internal communications and posters. Be sure to have a way for guests to RSVP, too! This will help you to see how effective your marketing efforts are and keep track of how many people will be in attendance on the day.

Step 13: Be The Host With The Most
When the big day arrives it’s time for all your hard work to come together.

As long as you have the right contingency plans in place, if something goes wrong you should be able to get things on track quickly.

At the start of the day ensure that everyone behind the scenes has been briefed. Also make sure that everyone knows who they should report to in the event of a problem.

Providing you’ve covered all of your bases then you should be able to go with the flow and enjoy the fruits of your labour. But, if something goes wrong, don’t panic! Deal with it calmly and be sure to reflect on it afterwards.

 

Step 14: Follow Up
After all that you probably want to know if your conference was a success and to leave people with a positive impression of your organisation.
Therefore, it’s important to follow up with delegates and speakers.

Be sure to reach out and thank everyone for coming and making the conference a success. For speakers and entertainers the personal touch will go a long way so make a point of thanking them over the phone or face to face if you can.

You should also take steps to collect feedback from delegates and find out what they thought of your event. You can do this in a number of ways, however one of the best and easiest ways is to send attendees an online survey by email.

This should all be done as soon as possible after the event – ideally the next day – so it is fresh in people’s minds and they feel motivated to provide feedback.

Do you need help with organising a conference?

We told you there was a lot to think about!

Hopefully the above information will provide you with a road map of how to go about organising a successful conference in the future.
Should you need any help with this process, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us. As experienced Event Management professionals we have headed up more than our fair share of conferences and we would be happy to support you in making yours a success should you require it.

At KDM Events, we can help with all steps of the planning process. What’s more, our flexible approach means we can be as involved as you like. To find out more, contact us for a friendly chat with one of our Event Managers.

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