How to Plan Your Conference With Less Pain and More Gain

Robin Henry

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THERE is an alliterative saying I learnt in the Air Force: Prior Preparation Prevents Pretty Poor Performance.

The 6P Rule is central to many things, especially those requiring structure and excellent organisation. Why? Because if you don't get it right, every one of the participants will know you have dropped the ball.

The first necessity is to know exactly what you want; will you provide lunch, include accommodation, include freebies such as brief cases, package the conference with discount airfares, hire cars and a trip to a local tourism venue? What about spouses and partners, will they be included? Once you know exactly what you want . . . and it's a sound idea to contact several venue providers to ask what they will do for what cost, make sure you have a written agreement about:

  1. what you want
  2. when you want it
  3. where it will happen at what cost
  4. who will carry out the various roles/activities
  5. what will happen if something goes wrong (contingency plan)

Once you have agreed what you want and the venue provider has agreed to provide it, you are on your way. Or are you? You aren't, because there is much more to do . . . like communicating with the intended participants . . . the reason for the conference.

You need to be explicit in what the conference offers, how people nominate and pay, when it will start and so on. In fact what you should do . . . mentally, is think through the various ways and options for people to attend. Go through each step and ask yourself, ‘What happens here, how will it be handled?'

Imagine yourself writing a cheque to pay your nomination . . . where will you send it, what will happen once it is received? By doing this mental thing, you can identify ‘fail points', which may prevent embarassment and inefficiencies somewhere down the track. For example, incorrect payee details on a cheque will require you to contact the sender and have another cheque raised . . . all valuable time and resources wasted.

Make sure participants are fully aware of what they are expected to do and what you, the organiser will do. Don't allow any room for errors.

Some specific points to watch for are:

  1. When you arrange food, such as lunch and morning and afternoon tea, make sure you know what size and composition the food portions are. If necessary get photos - ask for descriptions or have a look at what you are buying. It's easy to buy sandwiches for 250 and find that the last 50 people don't get a sandwich because the first 200 took too many. Nothing is more off-putting to clients than missing out on food or receiving what they consider small portions. Make sure you know what you are paying for and that you get it on the day (quality control!)

  2. Ensure everyone knows where and when sessions are and how to find them (provide a map) or written instructions

  3. If spouses and partners are accompanying members, consider arranging some discounted prices for meals, car hire, trips etc - you can ask for a commission

  4. If you are presenting, make sure you know what technology will be available and that your version of software is compatible - have a contingency plan for technology just in case it fails at the critical moment. Tell other presenters what is available

  5. Some of the little things matter; catering for vegetarians, ensuring water jugs are sitting on something that will absorb condensation so that participants don't get droplets of water on their paperwork or clothes, seat comfort, adequate breaks, good airconditioning or heating, no distractions from outside noise etc

  6. Finally, when people book their attendance, send them a letter confirming accommodation, specific events for which they are booked, timings, and give them a contact number of someone who can handle last minute cancellations, changes or problems that arise

The secret to successful conference organisation is good planning and meticulous attention to detail. If you aren't a ‘detail’ person, think about hiring a conference organiser who is or get a conference planning checklist and use it.

Copyright 2006 Robin Henry | First published Jan 2006

Robin Henry is an educator, human resources specialist and Internet entrepreneur. He helps small and home-based businesses and individuals improve performance by applying smart technology and processes and developing personally. He runs his business Desert Wave Enterprises from his home base at Alice Springs in Central Australia, although at present he is working in the United Arab Emirates.


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