The term conference can be used to describe any meeting of people to ‘confer’ on a certain topic. Far removed from the stereotypical ‘year-end company conference’ which is just an excuse for the whole company to pull into a posh hotel and have a weekend long party, the planning and execution of a successful and effective conference takes a lot of time, discipline and commitment.
Depending on the size of your project, successfully planning a conference includes the following:
* Setting up of a Conference Planning Committee.
* Accurate budget planning.
* Selecting an appropriate conference venue..
* Negotiating agreements and contracts with all the necessary parties.
* Sourcing speakers and presenters relevant to the purpose of the conference.
* Planning the program.
* Executing the conference plan.
Besides these factors, you also need to consider what specific purpose your conference will be heading. Conferences can be presented as either incentive events, training courses, sales conferences, seminars and/or workshops, and these various themes pose differing challenges in planning and execution.
The first step in planning your conference is assembling a planning committee and appointing a Conference Coordinator. The size of your planning committee should be relevant to the size of your conference, as an oversized committee can lead to a lack of organisation and indecisiveness. Essentially you should look for persons to serve on your committee who:
* Are qualified to serve due to their experience on substantive issues.
* Are dependable.
* Are able to accept responsibility.
* Work well with others.
* Can make decisions.
* Can abide by the decision of the majority.
The Conference Coordinator can either be appointed internally or externally, in other words, either one of the existing members of the committee, or a person who is exceptionally skilled in conference planning and is contracted from an outside agency for their services. Although it is more common to choose a person already serving on your committee, hiring an external coordinator allows the committee members to keep focused on the matters more central to their usual jobs. The work of the Conference Planning Committee is a part-time responsibility; for the coordinator, the conference can become a sole assignment!
A conference budget should be prepared through a thoughtful process involving the sponsor, planning committee and coordinator. The coordinator should be in full control of the budget, for if payments are approved by someone other than the coordinator, it will be difficult to hold him/her accountable for expenditures. A budget should not be seen as a financial document, but rather as a planning and management control document. It is a listing of all anticipated expenses, funding sources and projected revenue. Part of preparing a conference budget requires compiling a split folio. This is a division of expenses which lists the charges covered by the conference master account and individual guest charges.
The important thing when deciding on a location to hold your conference is to give yourself time. The more time you have to choose a site, the better your options will be. Matching your conference with the right type of facility is essential, for instance, if you are planning you conference with a lot of free time, the conference centre should be located close to local restaurants and attractions. On the other hand, if conferees are flying in for a one or two day stop-over, keeping it as close to, or at the airport, keeps your ground travel time to a minimum.
Over the past few years it has become more common to enter into formal contracts with hotels regarding accommodation and facilities rather than the informal agreements of the past. The process of reaching an agreement may involve a series of conversations over several days or weeks. Keep in mind that negotiations should be viewed as a collaborative effort between professionals, as both parties want to gain the maximum benefit from the deal. Everything is negotiable, providing it is done from a position of knowledge:
* Know what you want to buy.
* Know what a competitive price is for what you want
* Know what your budget will permit.
Next in the planning process is gathering the substance of your conference, in other words, finding potential speakers and presenters that will act as an attraction. Few things can do more damage to a beautifully conceived conference than inappropriate topics or incompetent speakers. Usually your speaker needs will depend on the topics to be addressed, but sometimes this may get reversed. If a speaker is selected because of his or her reputation for making dynamic presentations and the topic is determined solely by the speaker’s preference, this can lead to an unpleasant surprise when the topic is out of sync with the purpose of the conference.
One way to avoid this problem with speaker topics is to put out a call for papers. Speakers can then be chosen from respondents. The other method is careful planning by the Conference Planning Committee, the coordinator, and the sponsor. If the people responsible for the conference have done their homework, they will know what topics they want to cover, and their job will be narrowed to searching for speakers with expertise on the chosen topics.
Planning the program of the conference is a very important process, as it can be done in any number of different ways. An effective program can serve to add impact to high quality sessions, where as a poorly planned schedule will see conferees losing interest in activities that should be attracting the most attention. Below are some tips to ensure your schedule is as effective as possible.
* When overnight accommodations are required, schedule registration periods and events after hotel check-in is available and before check-out is required.
* Vary events between those with no alternatives and those that offer choices.
* When a conference lasts longer than a day, schedule free time.
* Spread intense sessions.
* Schedule sessions with stimulating presentation methods after lunch.
* Schedule breaks in between sessions.
* When conferees are “on their own” for lunch, provide information about restaurants, prices, and service time.
* Large groups need more time for networking than smaller groups.
Execution of the conference plan begins with registration and ends with evaluation. Now the time has come where months of preparation will pay off, providing it is all executed as planned. The process of registration should be a fast and simple process, whether it is in advance or on-site. Avoid tedious, complicated registration forms, they are not a survey; only ask for information you need. For on-site registration, make sure that you are well prepared. Create a checklist of everything you need. Make sure the registration area creates a flow of traffic and that there is adequate staff for the amount of registrations expected.
During the conference it is important to make good use of signs; this ensures that conferees never become disorientated with their surroundings. It is very important to keep to the agenda. Changes are sometimes unavoidable, but make sure that if a change has to be made to the schedule, that it is well publicised. During the conference, the coordinator’s time is in great demand. Delegation plays a key role in the smooth running of a conference, but is worth nothing without a well trained and informed group of staff members.
Evaluation can give a qualitative measure of any or every component of the conference; this aspect alone gives it value. Additionally, evaluation can be a valuable tool in planning next year’s conference. The most common method of evaluation is the use of an evaluation form. The form is designed as a questionnaire to gauge conferees’ reactions to and thoughts of various components of the conference. The design of the evaluation form should facilitate a quick and easy response and at the same time permit a more detailed reply.