Shdlr provides a painless way to create your conference schedules but there is a lot more to a conference than that…
The logistic behind the organisation of a conference is a major task and shouldn’t be left to the last moment! Planning ahead is absolutely crucial, and excellent attention to detail is key to the success of an event.
All conference attendees expect the best from an event organizer, and they usually have very little patience or indulgence for little delays and organisation glitches. Participants must be able to enjoy stress-free conferences, and it starts with a professional organisation of the registration desk.
Indeed, the registration desk, and especially front-desk people have a crucial role in the running of the event as they are usually the very first people to greet and interact with the newly-arrived participants, hence the need for an outstanding organisation.
Here is a thorough list of the key steps that must be followed to ensure that the front desk organisation goes as smoothly as possible during a conference.
First of all, let’s start with the obvious; the registration desk itself. Participants entering the conference should be able to see it immediately. Having the desk strategically placed—usually by the entrance—will ensure that conference attendees entering the conference hall won’t have to search for it. This is the ultimate pre-requisite and something you should consider as an absolute MUST. Participants are usually pressed for time and won’t appreciate wasting their time looking for the registration desk upon their arrival. It’s also a good idea to put up signs to indicate exactly where the registration desk is located. Not all conference halls are the same, and in some cases, organizers won’t be able to place the desk by the entrance or in a very strategic area, hence the need for signs and clear indications to help the participants find it.
Most conference organizers have guides/volunteers ready to help people find their way inside and around the conference hall. This is a very wise way of ensuring that people are attended to as best as possible. Organizers usually hire volunteers that are required to wear designated T-shirts or suits representing the conference organisation. This helps participants find them amongst the crowd, and volunteers in conferences are usually greatly appreciated for their professionalism and willingness to help.
One of the most important thing to do before the official opening of the conference is to make the registration desk available one afternoon or possibly even one evening before the event starts. The reason for this is simple. As explained above, participants are usually pressed for time and most certainly stressed-out and like taking a look at the venue and asking all the necessary questions before the actual opening of the conference.
Furthermore, opening the registration desk one day ahead of the conference will help reduce the crowds of stressful participants. Opening the desk prior to the day of the conference is also a test run that will not only help you collect information and questions from participants, but also give you pointers about what might be improved before the conference gets underway. Needless to say that opening early will, in most cases, ensure that the conference schedule is met and can start on time.
Conference participants usually leave the event with swag bags filled up with all marketing and advertising goodies ranging from pens to business cards or even discount vouchers. Organizers must be prepared to hand out the swags on time and by packing the bags early you can ensure that at the end of the conference, the participants won’t have to wait in line to receive their swag.
Remember that filling up promotional bags can take time and since some of them are going to be personalised, you can’t leave it to the last minute. Good conference organizers will look at the number of attendees and check out for any shortfall, should there be some so that there is enough time to sort out this possible little hurdle.
The name tags of the participants are usually printed and placed days before the start of the conference as this can be a time-consuming task, especially when you have a few hundred participants registered to attend the conference. It’s also advised to arrange the name tags alphabetically, preferably by name, surname or possibly ID, depending on the instructions given by the delegates or the participants. This, in fact, is one of the biggest time-saver especially when the crowds start arriving.
As far as payment is concerned, and particularly if participants have not yet paid their fees, you must be ready to deal with all sorts of payment methods. Not everyone will want to pay by credit card for instance. Indeed, some will pay by cash only, so having some change is always a good idea to avoid stressing situations. Also, make sure you know where the nearest bank or cash point withdrawals (ATM) is located as some participants will want to withdraw their money on the spot.
If you happen to have to the prepaid delegate list ready, make sure that these delegates are directed to a separate counter to ensure that they can be cleared faster and don’t have to queue up unnecessarily. First of all, it wouldn’t be fair on them since they made the effort of paying in advance and secondly, it will make dealing with the payment process a lot easier.
Volunteers must be able to direct participants with ease and answer all of the questions featured on the conference leaflets. Ensure that volunteers are kept updated about any possible change in the planning or the venue and that they know their way around the conference hall as participants will undoubtedly ask about everything ranging from the network access to the bathrooms, telephone booths, etc.
There are a few practical things that can go a long way in making a big difference and securing further events. Participants will enjoy finding extra city guides and schedules. Leave any such leaflet on the registration desk. You should also be in possession of any back up information concerning the participants as well as a list of all the major organizers including their mobile phones, names and full address.
Finally, computer network is crucial to a conference and potential issues with the Internet access inside the conference hall can be prevented by separating the registration desk network from the ones used by the participants. The participants and registration desk sharing a common local area network and internet connection can dramatically slow down its speed leading to delays at the registration desk and that is preventable by separating both networks. A printed backup list of participants would also come in useful in situations of a network failure and save precious time.
Delegates and Speakers coming into the city of the event can be demanding and even a little worried as far as travel and accommodations are concerned. In fact, most of them will only confirm their presence if they have a clear confirmation that their travel and accommodation arrangements have been properly organized.
It’s true that a majority of people, especially those who have never been to major Indian metros wrongly assume that arranging travel and accommodation in India is going to be a difficult and disorganized task.
Well, this assumption is not true but just like everyone who decides to visit a foreign country or city, it’s best to be prepared, find out exactly what our needs are in order to ensure that our stay will run as smoothly as possible. The same applies for conference participants, especially since they are coming in for business purposes.
First of all, unless we’re dealing with a very small and closed group of attendees, the best advice with regards to finding a hotel or apartment is not to book any accommodation on their behalf. The reason is simple; each person has their own preferences, needs and possibly demands. Moreover, handling sudden changes such as dates of arrival, guest numbers, or even delays and cancellations can become a real nightmare for the organizers. Instead, thinking practically and contacting several hotels to negotiate special rates and discounts remains the smartest and most cost-effective move.
Also, as previously mentioned in another post, the conference handbook and venue guide should have all the required information about transport to the conference location ready and updated, including the various modes of transport as well as the overall fares.
Speakers, on the other hand, especially if invited and paid for, are a different matter altogether. The conference committee should arrange for dedicated local transport for them and ensure the absolute best in terms of organisation. The team should have put together a hospitality committee for this purpose and ensure that all tasks — from the choice of accommodation to the different facilities are met. Ensuring that the team members responsible for the transit have all the necessary details about the flight arrivals and departures is always helpful.
The hospitality committee should also ensure that the speakers and invitees have been provided with their local contact information. A spreadsheet with responsibilities clearly defined and distributed to all team members is a good way of keeping everyone on the same page. You can always try more complex project management tools if you so wish.
More importantly, the details of stay and transportation should have been transmitted to the assigned speaker prior to the beginning of the conference in order to avoid all sorts of misunderstandings and mix-ups, which could seriously delay and affect the course of the conference.
Little gestures and extras like installing military flags go a long way especially when you want to stand out from other event organisers. What you want is, turn these speakers and invitees into regular attendees and offering little luxuries such as a free pick-up from the airport—unless they themself decline—is going to impress them and make the crucial difference.
Conference participants are usually stressed-out about the whole logistic of the trip and like nothing better than when everything has been properly taken care of, especially mundane tasks such as ordering taxis to get to a hotel in a foreign country for instance.
Include local attractions
Playing good host with foreign participants who are coming into the country or city for the very first time is extremely important, both for the well-being of the participants as well as the reputation of your event. Offering genuine information about the traditions and customs of the country to the delegates as well as invitees of your event will make a great impression on them. Conferences can be long and daunting and squeezing some local tourist information in between business talks will be much appreciated.
Also, arranging sightseeing tours and local landmarks visits for the participants’ partners is a great way of showing them your own gratitude and appreciation. Most of the time, participants are far too busy to arrange tourist trips for their partners, and this little extra perk is certainly going to impress them.
Organizing travel and accommodation is not just about booking rooms and flights, it is about being good hosts. In this difficult economic climate, competition is fierce and playing excellent host will certainly not go unnoticed with them. Over-delivering is also a great way of keeping the participants happy like we did for example with the guys from WoodPursuits.com. The bottom line is, happy participants are straight lines to procuring the sponsorship for your next event.
One of the most important things while planning a conference is Budgeting. After all, you don’t want to spend more than you are going to earn as revenue from ticket sales and sponsorships. As a part of a team that organises technical conferences in India, I have some experience that I would like to share with you. There are several tools that may help you plan the budget but, a spreadsheet with columns for the expense and income is perhaps the most simple and adequate tool for creating a financial plan to calculate the costs. The exercise starts much earlier than the event is scheduled, with getting quotations from vendors and filling out the relevant columns in the spreadsheet. Following are the heads that one should consider in financial planning of a conference
- Location/Venue – choose a venue depending on the kind of money you are expecting to raise along with the expected audience. The venue costs should not be more than 30-35% of your entire conference budget.
- Travel and Stay arrangements of key speakers/personnel of the event – How you treat your guests is important in getting good reviews from your key invitees. The boarding arrangements need not be top class, but they should be clean, easily accessible and should provide for basic necessities like hot water, coffee and breakfast.
- Conference proceedings and properties required – If you do not plan and provide for the properties like projectors and computers that are needed for the seminar, you will be running around just before the conference is about to start. In the least, you will miss out on important work scheduled for that time, and the worst –you may not get the equipment at the eleventh hour.
- Public Relations (Advertisements, handouts, posters/stickers and other allied expenses) – Advertisements are expensive. Plan for them well in advance. Posters/stickers and handouts need to be ready in advance too for them to reach your target audience.
- Meals for the attendees and speakers – The food should be fresh and filling. Remember, a starving audience is not a happy audience and irrespective of other things they will give negative reviews for your event. If you plan a special meal for invitees, budget that too.
- Entertainments (if being hired) – It is a good idea to entertain your guests at the end of the day. Plan for this expense if you have the budget.
- Coffee/Tea supply during the event – Techies need coffee or tea through out the day. Having a constant supply of hot beverages through out the day is a good idea – and it is not expensive either.
- Expenses related to creating and maintaining the event website – Your website will give you exposure in the virtual world, and it is important. Don’t cut corners on website related expenses.
- Printing (conference tickets/booklets/attendee speaker and team badges etc) – You will require these to be printed prior to the conference. The numbers for printing will depend on the number of registrations you get.
- Stage decor (flex prints, floral decorations etc) – Apart from whatever decorations you wish to have if you have sponsors, their logos need to be displayed on the stage.
- Vigilance (security, emergency arrangements, etc.) It is always a good idea to arrange for security at the venue. Budget for this.
- Hardware and Stationery (Computers, phones, printers, copier, papers etc) – These are basic necessities for any conference. Arrange for them in advance so that you don’t go running around for small things.
- Personnel and Volunteers (food, conveyance etc) – You will need volunteers to run the event smoothly and you should take care of their needs.
- Insurance costs – If you wish to have an insurance (fire, theft, or general), it would be a good idea to find out costs and provide for it.
- Bank costs (money transfer fees, online ticket sales fee) – When you sell tickets to the conference online, there are always costs involved. The credit card company takes their charges (in India it’s around 5%) and the ticket selling site will take it’s commission. Likewise, if your sponsors are making payments to you telegraphically, there would be transfer costs involved.
- Miscellaneous expenses – Account for 5-10% of the total budget as Miscellaneous / Emergency fund.
- Govt Taxes if applicable – In India, if you earn money or take sponsorships, you need to pay the government it’s due. Most sponsors would deduct this and give you the cheques, but you have to be vigilant and account for taxes (from the profit if any)
While it is good to plan your expenses, economizing on your budget by reducing costs wherever possible is equally important.
- If an event like the one you intend to organize has been done earlier then talk to the organizers of past events; they will have pointers for possible vendors.
- Getting quotes from several vendors and then zeroing on the one that gives most value for money. When the vendors know they are pitted against another they often give you their best rates.
- Look for barter sponsorships – The sponsor gets free publicity and in exchange, offer their services. It’s a win-win for both parties.
- According to www.smoothlinefences.com.au you need to limit the food choices – you need not have a seven-course meal at the conference (unless it is a food related conference) – simple, clean and tasty food comes at a reasonable price.
- Tea/Coffee can be sold by the vendor at the venue instead of being distributed free. It costs little, so the attendees don’t mind paying for it.
- Estimate the number of attendees correctly so that you neither fall short or have left over (food and conference goodies). However, be careful, falling short of food and goodies will give your conference a bad name. With online ticketing, it is easy to do the estimation.
- Ask the attendees during the registration if they would take part in the evening events, especially when the costs are affected by numbers. This will help you plan better.
- Sell some conference goodies at the venue. People often like to have extra conference memorabilia (like T-shirts, you can get them made by companies like The Clothing People
Hope these pointers help you in planning your conference budget. Please feel free to comment if you have further insights. The accompanying graph has % spending based on my experience of handling accounts for a leading conference over the years. Some conference organisers may spend their rupee differently.
Today if I saw a conference without a conference website I am most certainly going to give that conference a miss, more like such a conference will hardly be noticeable. The conference website is the single most important source of information for all the attendees, be it delegates, speakers or sponsors. The conference website should be put online as soon as possible and have the relevant information outlined in an easy to find manner.
Start with preparation as early as possible. It is not unusual for event teams to start almost a year in advance. While not 100% essential it is best to use a CMS for maintaining your website as CMS makes it easy to manage changes right through your browser., My current favorite CMS is WordPress (Yes! it is a CMS) if you have the expertise you can try your hand at using Drupal, Joomla or the likes. Website designing is a professional’s job but most CMS system offer templates and themes which are very flexible. It is generally a good idea to keep the design minimalistic so that the content gets undivided attention. It is very desirable to hire a designer if your budget permits it.
Keep your site up-to-date. A frequently updated site promotes your event while all the time helps you save time by avoiding unnecessary inquiries or ambiguities.
Be sure to have the following on your website –
- General info: What is the event about, who is the target audience, what is the theme of the conference (in general or specific for the year), who is hosting the conference, when will it happen, and why it would be a good idea to submit a talk or participate as a delegate. All these should be either linked to the appropriate registration forms or mention dates when they can be accessed.
- Timeline: Put up a timeline with dates for various participants. Speakers, Delegates, Volunteers and Sponsors.
- Information for Speakers: The quality of talks and speakers are the most important factors in the success of a conference. To attract the best speakers ensure you have all the relevant details on your website a quick list would include
- Call for Papers – Mention what kind of talks, demonstration or workshops are expected. Also make clear what is a *no no* e.g.; advertisement of commercial services or products.
- Process of selection – Clarify who will select the talks, what further materials may be asked before the selection is final
- Important deadlines – This should be part of the timeline shown to the speakers. It may include things like, Call for papers opens, deadline for initial submission. Publishing of first reviewed. Call for details (clarification and slides etc). Ensure that you are giving adequate time and heads up to the speakers.
- Venue Guide: Make this more than just about the venue, list information on how to get to the venue from important locations in the city like from Airports, Railway station, Bust stand etc. Modes of transport available and approximate fare charged to reach there. Also list out accommodation available near the venue. A link to the city guide if your city has one is a great idea!
- Delegate registration: These days ability to register or buy tickets online is a must. Sites like Eventbrite make it super simple to sell event tickets online. Check out alternatives available for your country. DoAttend and Aayojak are two popular similar sites in India. Group discounts and Corporate benefits should be listed on this page. Also list related items from the timeline here like – dates for Early Bird discount offers. Furthermore, the deadlines for registrations and the early bird rate should be on this page If you want to highlight any acceptable payment method do it here.
- Conference schedule: shdlr.com can be your one stop shop for creating event schedule. It not only gives schedules in multiple format including a mobile website and subscribe-able iCal files which are supported by every standard Calendar application be it on desktop or mobile, shdlr.com also has downloadable formats of your schedule which can be used for printing the Event Brochure.
- Contact us: This page is a must and should have clear information on all modes of communication including Social media pages.
Each conference will have its own unique bits of information and you should customize your website for them. Do comment and feel free to add anything that you feel is particularly important, but I have missed.
Shdlr was born to itch a need… now that we have got people using it as a conference schedule maker I started wondering what more can be done? Organizing a conference is not just about scheduling nor can everything be made into an app. What can I do about the scores of bits of knowledge accumulated over the decade? How can I let this knowledge be used by someone else wishing to organise conferences? The best way I thought would be to write a series of blog posts on conference planning, hopefully the result will be a handbook which can be useful to conference planners.
I do plan to go over every milestone of planning and perhaps also ask some friends to contribute a post or two, the posts may not be in the correct order for now, but here goes the very first topic: Choosing date and location for your conference
- Similar conferences: Research a bit for similar themed or similar topic conference taking place somewhere else at the same time? This will impact your target audience and number of attendees
- Holidays, fairs and events: Get information about local holidays, other conferences, fairs like this one for men’s tungsten carbide rings for example, and events in your city. Mid December to Mid January is usually an inopportune time, Several events at the same time make it hard for the participants to get accommodation at reasonable prices, in turn making it hard for conferences to get participants.
- College and University exams: If the target audiences are college students get information on Exam dates and ensure that your conference dates do not clash with them
- Venue capacity: This should be an obvious one, but can get overlooked. Inspect the venue, find out what is the advertised capacity. Will the venue administration allow more than the advertised capacity if more people want to attend than expected?
- Accessibility: Is the venue easily reachable by public transport? Is the venue accessible by physically challenged people, you may not need this, but it is nice to have.
- Venue Layout: If your conference is going to have multiple concurrent sessions, then consider the layout of the venue and the distance between various halls / locations. Delegates often change from one hall to another, but these can also be minimized by planning your schedule such that similar talks are bunched one after another. Shdlr provides an easy way to do this by way of using talk tracks or talk types.
- Free Internet access: This is a must for almost every technical conference. Most venues will say that they have wifi access, but these are almost never meant to handle any substantial concurrent traffic. Plan and budget for getting extra bandwidth from ISP. To give a hint HasGeek and Foss.in have had 20mbps fiber connection for their recent conferences.
- Fire safety: Get information on emergency exits and fire safety equipment and pray you never need to use them. Ensure that the additional plug points which you may provide for hackathons etc are rated for the loads they will carry. More on this in a later post perhaps
Have I missed something important? Do you want to add some point? Please feel free to add them in the comments…