Under the pressure of organising events, it’s easy to be sidetracked or overwhelmed by the endless to-do list. Here’s how you can design conferences that get people talking well after the event.
1. First, ensure there’s a need for the conference
Putting on a conference is a huge investment in resources so you want to make sure that there is a need for the conference. Otherwise, people can just watch Youtube or join a webinar for the same content. It’s also easy to go over budget and so much competition out there, ensure your one stands out. Ensure your event truly serves your community.
2. If you don’t sweat the details, your delegates will
Every single detail counts. Make sure obvious creative things are done well for a great experience such as the branding, badges, schedules, posters and AV.
The truth is, people are critical and will talk about how well your event is going during the event and beyond. Make sure you have an amazingly curated and diverse lineup. Failure to address ‘little details’ will skew people’s perception of the event.
A great way to sweat the details is to walk-through all aspects of the event from the perspective of different stakeholders well in advance of your event (and during and after as well). Wear the shoes of not only your attendees but also the speakers, sponsors, volunteers, hosts, media, security and the public.
3. Get professional help
No one wants to look amateur so for your very first event or two, work with a third party who runs conferences as a service. The logistics of dealing with things such as venues, menus, AV, internet, room layout, registrations can be a challenge to manage.
4. Ensure you have a team from the start
There are a lot of moving parts involved from speaker curation, speaker hospitality, sponsorships, design, budget, volunteers, content, PR/social, production, ticketing to legal just to name a few. Some of the tasks that are involved require months of notice in advance and you need an A-team to manage some parts of this conference beast. Having volunteers on the floor goes a long way to help direct delegates and ‘mic run’ when its Q&A time.
5. Treat it like a business
Your conference is essentially a business. You need to make sure all your costs are covered plus more. This involves knowing what your rough budget is, working out fixed and variable cost numbers as a living document, constantly comparing actual to projected. And of course, aiming to keep costs down without compromising on quality.
You’ll have people register and not attend. You’ll also have those who haven’t paid and expect to get in for free. People think it’s entirely reasonable to book a ticket, not pay, ignore payment reminders, and cancel at the last minute. This is particularly problematic for limited-capacity conferences that sell out, as you’ve lost the seat and the money.
Free events are perceived as being sales pitches. People expect to pay for value. If you pick a price that’s too low, you’ll scare away a lot of your audience because they’ll be afraid there’s not enough quality investment or they’ll register and may not turn up because it was ‘free’.
6. Make sure your conference is accessible and inclusive
Ensure you ask your delegates when they register whether there are any dietary or accessibility considerations.
7. Sell tickets but don’t ‘sell-out’ to sponsors
Give sponsors space to showcase their products and services but don’t let them run the event. No one likes talks that are full of self-promotion. This is not cool, especially if someone has paid good money to attend the event.
8. Allow plenty of breaks for people to breathe and stretch
Schedule a few breaks for people to network and spend time with each other rather than have lots of talks all crammed up. Breaks also allow for some buffer time in case things go behind schedule which is likely to be the case in any event.
Attendees need to get up, grab a coffee, check their mail, and, yes, go to the bathroom. They also need time to let all those new ideas sink in — by discussing what they just heard.
9. Be prepared to pay or walk away from speakers
Be fair, of course, and be consistent, as speakers can and will discuss what they’re receiving with each other. It’s incredibly important to document your practices, stick to them unwaveringly and publish them (to your speakers) with as much transparency as you feel is relevant to your event.
Some speakers are not going to be willing to speak at your event based on the terms that you’ve structured. You have to be willing to walk away and be okay with finding a different speaker for a particular spot. It’s tough when you get your heart/mind set on a particular speaker and they opt out based on fees, but it’s going to happen.
10. Location, location, location
Don’t blindly assume that a traditional hotel or conference centre is your best bet. Think first about the event’s unique needs and constraints — then look for a venue that meets those needs, including the stuff that happens outside the presentations (i.e., conversations and other unplanned activity).
Secure a venue that offers as much freedom as possible and doesn’t cost a fortune. Most hotels and convention centres require that you use their food and beverage vendors.
The venue has a huge effect on the psychology and feel of an event, so avoid chain hotels and large conference centres in favour of more interesting and characterful options.
11. Conference programming is like a playlist
A conference program isn’t just a bunch of talks. You’ll need to sequence them so they build upon each other and create the momentum that drives the event forward. It’s common for conferences and events to have a theme.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a well-curated and scheduled programme versus an ad hoc collection of talks. It takes just a few minutes to draw up a schedule but can take a few days to get the flow, tempo, and structure right. The bigger the program the more time it can take. And the more worthwhile the investment.
A great conference is like a great playlist. Every song should contribute, and the order in which they are heard should matter. I
12. Make it easy to capture feedback
Ensuring you get feedback from your event is critical but whatever you do, make it easy for people to send feedback. People are likely to provide feedback right after an event. One approach is having evaluation forms ready whether paper form or in digital. You can SMS people the survey or send a push app for them to fill out the survey on your event app if you have. These days, having an event app with an in-built rating system is quickly becoming the norm. Don’t forget to ask your speakers and other stakeholders what they thought of the event.
13. Don’t forget to say thank-you
Never underestimate what a personal thank you means to anyone who contributes to the event. If budget allows, it’s always lovely to send flowers, wine and thank-you cards to sponsors, speakers and volunteers.