How to Create a Conference

Hosting a business event is a marathon, not a sprint. 
Here are 10 steps to get you to that finish line in one piece.

How to Create 
a Conference - Douglas Magazine Oct/Nov 2023

BY Dee McCurry, Ex Ordo

Organizing a successful event is all about milestones, resources and workload. You’ll need to budget enough time (and hands) to get everything done. And it’s always a good idea to leave some wiggle room around cost and deadlines.

1. Formulate your event strategy.

Whether you’re organizing a one-off business conference or the 75th annual meeting of an esteemed association, the first step is to outline what you’re hoping to achieve. The events market is busy — and has gotten busier with the lifting of pandemic restrictions. And spending is way up as a growing number of organizations recognize the value that both physical and virtual events bring to their brand.

Being clear from the start on what you hope to achieve will help differentiate your event from the thousands of others out there. Can you express what it is your delegates want and need? Do you understand what motivates your audience? Do you have a unifying theme for the event?

What your audience wants is vital to the decision to go virtual, hybrid or physical. A modern-day event strategy is based on choosing a format and venue that best suits your audience. So, be sure to survey and analyze the needs of your conference delegates or association members.

2. Embrace technology.

Conference software isn’t an add-on. It should be as much a part of an event as choosing a date and venue. It removes tedious manual tasks, allows the team to work collaboratively and will save money in the long run.

But when you can’t inhabit the same room, how do you ensure the team can collaborate? Free software like Slack for project messaging and Skype for group video chats can help prevent problems with communication from snowballing into thorny issues.

And when it comes to managing the 1,001 tasks involved in organizing a conference, software like Asana for project management and Trello for task management can move things forward.

Good-quality conference management software can collect and review submissions, build programs and register delegates. Most conference software will have a cost attached, and it may be significant. But it can’t be stressed enough how much time (and aggravation) it will save. Plus, you can often save money in the long run by not paying for printing.

Even if you’re planning a physical event, you should consider a platform that provides virtual conference software. Too many organizers have faced the panicked last-minute changes from physical to virtual events. 

3. Delegate, delegate.

There’s a vast amount of work involved in organizing an event, so don’t carry it all on your shoulders. Get an organizing committee on board early on.

If you have a small team, each person may be responsible for several areas. But if you’ve got a bigger team, you can assign individual responsibility for details like sponsorship, marketing and logistics. Also consider enrolling students as volunteers to help you on the day.

Look for enthusiastic, organized and driven team players. And to avoid death by committee, make sure everyone’s clear on who’s responsible for what.

If you’re not an events pro and it’s your first time organizing a conference, consider getting help from a professional (a.k.a. a PCO or conference manager). What happens if your keynote speaker pulls out the month before your conference? Or your AV supplier goes AWOL the week before? A professional conference organizer has seen it all and knows just what to do to keep things on track.

4. Think through your budget. 

The goal of a conference isn’t usually to turn a profit — but it’s not to take a loss either. So creating a detailed budget is a vital part of the planning process.

If your conference has taken place in previous years, get as much feedback as possible from last year’s event. Develop as clear a picture of income and expenditure as possible. Recognize that there can be a fair bit of guesswork involved and the budget will shift as conference planning progresses. Start conservative and scale as needed.

And don’t forget that registration fees aren’t the only source of income for the event. Create sponsorship opportunities and investigate if there is government or industry funding available. Just don’t lose sight of the importance of creating a positive experience for your delegates on the day. Don’t skimp on details.

One way to save money when searching for conference technology is to identify a solution that helps you save more money over time. A long-term licence with flexible pricing, like Ex Ordo, can help save money. It will also enable you to have predictable expenses for future events. That’s another stressful task ticked off the list. 

5. (Carefully) choose your venue.

The right venue needs to meet both your needs (enough rooms for parallel sessions) and the needs of your delegates (comfortable, accessible, welcoming). 

Lighting and acoustics are often overlooked when choosing a venue, but they’ll have a huge impact on delegates’ experience, especially with a hybrid event. If possible, schedule your venue scouting when an event with a similar setup to yours is taking place to see the rooms in action.

And as well as looking at the cost of a venue, look for hidden costs like charges for outside suppliers, parking, sponsors and even Wi-Fi.  When it comes to the overall cost, talk through what is and isn’t open to discussion — and be prepared to negotiate. What incentives will the venue throw in? Discounted rates on delegate rooms? Complimentary accommodation for members of your organizing committee? Even small perks like an airport shuttle, free tea and coffee, or discounted packages to send to virtual attendees can add up to big savings.

6. Build a compelling website. 

Your conference website will showcase your event, answer visitors’ questions and allow them to submit, register and stay in touch. And it should get them as excited about your event as you are.

Your website should welcome visitors with strong visuals and the most important event details up front. What is your conference about, where is it located and when is it happening? Put all this info “above the fold” on your home page.

Getting the website live as soon as possible is crucial. So make some key decisions early on, get a bare-bones website up and flesh it out as you go. If your event is taking place virtually, you’ll need to make it as easy as possible to access the event and to enable late registrations (this is the trend with online conferences). 

7. Invite your speakers.

Good keynote or plenary speakers will attract delegates and set the tone for your conference. If you’re organizing a conference for academics or researchers, it’s not the norm to pay professionals. But it’s appropriate to cover their travel and accommodation costs, and provide a small honorarium as a gesture of thanks. If you want to attract a high-profile speaker, you may need to offer a larger fee and perhaps cover their travel costs.

Another thing to keep in mind is diversity. You want the people who are speaking to truly represent your delegates. Maintain a balance, and have a Plan B in case a speaker has to cancel at the last minute.

8. Get your reviewers onboard.

Some conference presentations need to go through a peer review process, which can be a delicate balancing act. Peer reviews usually happen over a few intense weeks, with the majority of reviewers assessing multiple submissions. So reviewing for a conference generally means a substantial time commitment, with an immovable deadline at the end.

So bring enough reviewers onboard to avoid overloading the ones you have. Overloaded reviewers are not happy reviewers. And unhappy reviewers tend to withdraw or go missing. When they do, you’ll be left scrambling to replace them.

9. Build some hype.

Potential delegates are busy people and they’re making choices in a world of 24-hour media messages. So how can you grab their attention? Create a marketing strategy that includes strong messaging through PR, online content and email campaigns. Publish interviews, blog posts, pictures, programs and speaker announcements on your conference website to help build excitement. And bring people into the conversation on social media by creating a hashtag for your conference. Make sure your promotions are running right up to the day of your event to catch latecomers. 

10. On the day of the event:

By the time conference day is on the horizon, the bulk of the work will be done, but there will still be lots to do. Use tools like Mailchimp and other communication software to keep in touch with your delegates and speakers. And make sure they get all the necessary details: venue address, guidelines, contact details, registration info, virtual Q & A advice and so on. Once the event is underway, cover the presentations in real time. 

Take a deep breath, then go forth and conquer!