Top Ten Conference Tips for Planners
One of the questions our team of expert conference planners is asked regularly, is “How do I host a successful conference?” This is quickly followed by, “And how do I ensure everyone enjoys our conference?”
If this sounds like you, then well done! The very fact that you’re asking these questions means that you have clear ambitions for a successful event. Caring about the response and needs of your conference delegates, key note speakers and event exhibitors is the first step towards delivering the type of conference we all like to attend.
1. Plan Ahead - Give yourself the Gift of Time
Whilst it is possible to pull together a conference in just a few weeks, your choice on everything from venue to keynote speakers becomes restricted. We recommend a minimum of 6 months lead in time to ensure you can secure your first-choice of conference venue, speakers and suppliers. This time also gives you the opportunity to plan, review and check every detail, thereby eliminating the risk of the unexpected!
Additionally to this, you will find that the additional lead in time increases your chances of a full-capacity event; key people from your organisation, industry or customer base can diarise and save the date in order to attend.
2. Know Your Numbers – How Large Is Your Audience?
It may sound obvious, but the difference between 200 and 400 delegates can change everything when it comes to booking a conference venue. From the space to move around while networking, to finding a car parking on arrival, the comfort of your delegates can make or break the atmosphere, and ultimately the enjoyment, of your event.
If your final attendee number is an unknown quantity, then simply establish minimum and maximum numbers and ensure you are quoted for both when researching conference venues. Although a final number will be required closer to the day, booking a conference venue that can remain flexible within your parameters will help you to stay stress-free, and on budget.
3. Set your budget – And Ensure Everything is Included
Having a fixed budget – which you stick to! – is essential to successful conference planning. For larger events, breaking this down into budget categories for venue, equipment, marketing, catering and speakers will also be useful. Ensure each category becomes the responsibility of one person and that they are confident and committed to delivering on this.
It is also important to establish what is included in any prices you are quoted. Some venues quote room only and then add ‘extras’ such as AV equipment, wi-fi connections, and staff members on the day.
And remember; any other financial objectives must be planned from the outset. Is your goal to deliver on budget for your organisation, or have you been tasked with achieving ticket sales or selling exhibition space? Draft a projected P&L and be realistic about both spend and income.
4. Hit The Right Tone – Audience, Speakers and Venue Unite.
The tone of your conference is an extension of your brand and industry, and should reflect your wider values, promises and vision. Clear objectives around what you hope to achieve will help you identify your core audience, and set clear expectations for them.
A successful event will mean very different things for various groups; for example, a fantastic academic conference will look and feel different to a meaningful employee away day – so do think about how your venue, speakers and extras reinforce the tone you want to communicate.
Get this right at planning stage, and you will deliver a conference that is effortlessly inclusive, and could even create a buzz before the day itself. Is this an industry event where a niche number of delegates will enjoy specific expert speakers? Or are you appealing to a broad base of employees covering all ages and stages of their career?
5. Content is Everything - Keep Things Flowing
Engaging content will make your event unique, which is why most conferences are built around a theme, or set out to answer a big question. As well as bringing clarity to your attendees, this also helps to determine logistical requirements; choice and number of speakers, break-out sessions, opportunities for professional learning, duration of sessions and even number of days.
Useful questions to ask include:
- Should my conference be single session, multiple sessions in a single day, or multiple days with overnight stays?
- Do I need a keynote speaker at my conference? Are panels better than interactive presentations? Or should it be a mix of all three?
- I want to keep my audience engaged and alert - how long is too long?
As a general rule of thumb, large events are better with a mix of sessions that give delegates the chance to learn from experts, and the opportunity to interact with their peers. Additionally, giving people a chance to stand up and move around a little will help keep delegates focused and interested. However you choose to mix it up, our top tip in this section is to stay on time!
6. Location, Location, Location – Enhancing the visitor experience
The location of any conference is crucial to its success. Geographically you need to be in a central, east-to-reach area of the country with plenty of on-site car parking and a great network of public transport links. This is one of the key ingredients essential to ensuring delegates arrive stress-free and ready to go!
Conferences spread over a couple of days will obviously require accommodation, but even if you are a one day event bear in mind that some people may choose to book in the night before. Choosing a venue near hotels, eateries and opportunities to explore the nearby area is therefore well-mannered planning, that will be gratefully received.
7. Food and Drink – From Morning Coffee to An Evening Dram
When your aim is to keep people happy and alert, food and drink is always a major factor. Everything from coffee and pastries on arrival, to an evening drinks reception with sit down dinner need to be considered.
As with venue and speakers, the secret to getting the food right is to gauge your audience correctly. If your conference has an environmental theme, then local produce will be important. If people want to network and chat to their industry peers, then a light buffet lunch will allow this to happen.
Think also about dietary requirements – more important than ever before – and how you will accommodate for this in the easiest way possible. Could you offer gluten free or vegetarian as part of the standard choice? These small details mean a lot and show you’ve considered everyone.
8. Create a Project Team – Empower and Delegate
Delegating and engaging staff and volunteers will not only make your life easier, but with multiple people brainstorming you’re also likely to create some fantastic new ideas. Ensure you assign tasks fully and that your team mates are clear on their responsibilities.
A planning team usually consists of two to five people with additional staff as required by the scope of conference. Areas to be considered include agenda, equipment, speakers, logistics, budgets, accommodation, refreshments and communication. Remember to ask your venue if they supply a conference planner as part of the package –as well as saving money on internal resources, their expertise is undoubtedly a considerable help.
9. First Choice Speakers – Looked After Well
Regardless of industry, sector and organisation, the choice of speakers will be one of the most important decisions you make. In many fields – academia and third sector for example - speakers are the star of the show, and both attendance and engagement will be affected by their quality. To ensure you secure your first choice, plan well in advance – see point one – and prepare to be flexible on dates.
Good quality speakers will have invested substantial time and effort into your event, you should extend the courtesy. Speak to your venue and ensure all equipment, stage requests and accommodation where required, offers the same stress-free experience you’d expect in their position. Believe us when we say, that time spent looking after your speaker, will reap its own rewards.
10. Talk to University of Stirling Venues
Our expert team is here to help you, and as one of Scotland’s largest conference facilities we offer a variety of flexible conference packages catering for 20 to 2000 delegates. From advice on room layout and number of breakout sessions, to the planning of menus and testing of your speaker’s mic, we will assist you every step of the way. After all, our objective is clear – to ensure you deliver the very best conference possible.