Steps to planning a conference: Step-By-Step Guide
6 Actionable Steps to Organising A Conference
So, you’ve decided to plan a conference. Quite a task!
Planning a conference from the ground up requires a tremendous amount of forward planning and information gathering. At the very minimum, you should start planning the conference at least six months prior to the event, for larger events, planning should start a year in advance, if not more.
You must have hundreds of questions on your mind. Where do you start? How do you find the right speakers to invite? What are the best dates for possible attendees? Which venue will best suit your needs? How much must you budget?
The reality of planning a conference is that, without any experience, you can lose a lot of time over-thinking each little detail while overlooking more important issues.
To make the process simpler for first-timers, at Event Affairs we have prepared this comprehensive guide on how to organise a conference. The result here is a conference planning guide, focussing your thoughts and energies towards asking the right questions at the right time during the planning of your event.
Ready to start arranging that conference?
Step One: Conference & Event Planning 101 Basics
Start planning your event well in advance to give yourself enough time to organize everything. At the very least, you should start the planning 6 months in advance.
Ensure you have a clear agenda/purpose for what you’d like to achieve at the conference.
Find out what your budget is for the conference as this will affect many factors such as the number of guests you can invite, the speakers you can bring on board, or which venues are a feasible option.
Put together a guest list for the conference.
Decide on a date(s) for the conference and determine whether these dates are flexible.
Goals and Purpose of Your Event
- Who is your target audience for the event?
- What do you hope to accomplish?
- How will you gauge effectiveness?
- How does this event complement your strategic plan?
- Do you have a rough agenda in mind?
Time and Location
- What is the date of the event?
- Will it be a local event or an out of city event?
- Where would you like the event to take place?
- How long will the event be?
- Are there any competing events or sports events that fall on the same date?
Take into account all your costs, so that you don’t end up with nasty surprises along the way. For example:
- What is your total budget?
- How many guests are you looking to invite?
- How many speakers do you plan to invite?
- Have you allocated budget to the following?
- Venue and décor
- Catering and beverage
- Entertainment and equipment
- Travel, accommodation and Speakers
- Do you need to put deposits down?
- Do you require permits and emergency services?
Event Agenda and Logistics
- Do you have a rough agenda in mind?
- Over how many days will the event run?
- How many members of staff will you need to manage the event?
- What internal resources will you require, i.e. computers, posters, etc?
- If travel is required for speakers and staff, who will handle the logistics?
Step Two: Conference Logistics
Once you have strategic overview of your event in place, it is time to move on to the next step which entails a more logistical view of every step.
Source a suitable venue keeping in mind the following:
- Allocated budget
- Seating arrangement/style – will you have schoolroom, theatre, u-shape, banquet-style etc.?
- Are you restricted with the location of the venue i.e.: can your participants travel, or will the venue need to be located within a specific area/proximity?
- Will there be associated activities: gala dinner/team building/any activities associated with the conference other than the usual tea breaks?
- You may need additional smaller conference rooms for an event office or for storage of your branding, goodie bags etc.
Additionally, have you considered the following:
- Are you able to hire the venue exclusively or will other events be taking place there at the same time?
- Does the venue provide technical requirements such as staging, lighting, sound equipment, audio visuals?
- What catering is provided, or do you need to outsource this?
- Does the venue provide pens, paper, water on the tables and mints/sweets?
- Does the venue have enough tables and chairs?
- Do you need labour to help you set up anything that isn’t provided by the venue?
- Will you need storage?
- Are holding rooms for performers required and available?
- Is a coat-check service available?
- What are the setup/breakdown hours?
- Have you arranged site visit(s) with all service providers to ensure proper space layout?
- Review contracts with the venue and all service providers
Furthermore, the below aspects are worth considering:
- Are you familiar with the event venues site plan in the event of an emergency?
- Have you identified public service requirements (police, fire, paramedics, traffic services etc)?
- Is your event going to be indoors or outdoors? If outdoors, have you got a backup venue/plan in case of adverse weather?
- Will you need a marquee or a Bedouin tent?
- Does the venue have adequate parking?
- Does the venue have security? If not, do you require security for your event and what kind of security?
- Does the venue have adequate bathroom facilities?
- Does the venue have adequate power, or do you need to bring in a generator?
- Will a janitor be on site during the event to maintain the restrooms and dustbins?
- Review the cancellation policy to be sure you know what’s at stake if you have to cancel for any reason. Is the deposit (or a portion of it) refundable?
- Make sure you are protected if the venue can’t deliver on any part of the contract. For example, if adverse weather causes a leaky roof in the room you wanted, and you have to move, can you get some of your money back?
- What is your budget per head?
- Does the venue offer kitchen facilities?
- Have you considered attendees dietary requirements such as kosher, halaal, gluten intolerance, vegan and vegetarian?
- Do you require bar structures and food stations?
- Where can caterers park and off load?
- Will you need a water source?
Guests and Speakers
- Have you sourced your MC and speakers?
- What are their costs including travel and accommodation requirements (if necessary)?
Ensure you refer to the agenda of the conference on a regular basis to ensure you stay true to what you are trying to achieve
Some items might need to be outsourced dependent on the venue chosen or activities associated with the conference:
- What technical equipment needs to be sourced other than what (if any) is provided by the venue? Keep[ in mind that some speakers prefer lapel microphones and others prefer handheld, wireless microphones so cross check your requirements with what the venue provides.
- What are your decor requirements?
- Do you need any floral arrangements on the tables and/or on the stage?
Photography & Videography
- Do you need to photograph or film your event? If so, source and book a photographer and videographer with experience in capturing your type of event – there are many different types of photographers and videographers with different specialities.
- Will you require public liability insurance?
Generally speaking, for a full day conference, you will need:
- Welcome snacks and tea & coffee
- Mid-morning tea break with pastries/snacks
- Afternoon snacks and tea & coffee
Additionally, have you considered the following:
- Arrange site visit(s) with all service providers and ensure proper space layout
- Identify signage placement (informational and directional)
- Become familiar with the event venues site plan in the event of an emergency and identify emergency exits
- Identify public service requirements (police, fire, paramedics, traffic services etc)
- Will guests need to register at the event? If so you will need to arrange a registration table and registration staff.
- Is the venue easily accessible?
- Does the venue offer parking?
- Is the venue wheelchair friendly?
Brand your Event
- Determine your theme. Your theme will determine the decor, catering, and entertainment that’s most suitable for your event.
- Name your event.
- Create an event logo (if relevant). Your event logo will be printed on promotional items and marketing materials.
- Standardize colour palettes, fonts, and images. To ensure that your message and marketing is consistent, standardize these elements across the board, and create toolkits that your marketing team can reference.
- Write a hashtag. A hashtag may be your primary means of social media marketing. Your hashtag should be cause-centric and catchy.
Providing your event attendees with some kind of giveaway is a nice way to thank them for supporting you at your event. Depending on your company or organization, you might be able to give away an existing product you already have or seek sponsors for giveaways, so you don't have to spend additional funds on promotional items for one-time use. But don't let keeping costs down lead you astray — what you give away reflects on your organization. It's better for mission-driven businesses to give away nothing than to use promotional items in conflict with your values and principles.
Step Three: Attendees and Speakers
Once you have seen to all the logistical elements of the event it is now time to focus on the attendees and speakers to create a successful event.
Event Invitations and Programmes
Create an invitation for the conference and send this out to your guest list with an RSVP date. You can send out an e-invitation that is linked to a website for RSVP responses, or an email embedded invitation with an email address link that people can respond to via email.
- Ensure to include dietary requirements and any other information that is relevant.
- Remember to check all suppliers’ contracts, especially the hotel/venue, to find out when they will require final number of guests. Ensure your RSVP date is at least two weeks before this date to allow time for follow-ups with guests that haven’t responded.
Additionally, have you considered the following:
- Create a provisional timeline/programme for the conference
- Confirm your MC and speakers and create a briefing document to send through to them. Once confirmed, arrange their travel and accommodation and send all details through to them.
Communicate all important information to the hotel or venue regarding the conference including but not limited to:
- of guests invited and date of final RSVP’s
- Conference rooms to be booked
- Accommodation (if relevant) to be booked
- Technical requirements
- Confirmed deliverables from the hotel
- Menu confirmation with dietary options for vegan’s, vegetarians, halaal, kosher & gluten intolerance.
- Beverage confirmation
Communicate all important information to the external suppliers you are bringing on board:
- Venue location
- Setup and breakdown times
- No of guests invited and date of final RSVP’s
- Confirmed deliverables from each supplier
- Any theme, colour scheme or branding information they will require
- Uniform or any specific details related to your expectations
Keep your budget updated to make sure you don’t have any surprises or panics.
Medical Care, Health & Safety
- Make sure you minimise/eliminate the risk of accidents and/or injury by using reputable suppliers and not taking any short cuts.
- Make sure there is an emergency plan in place regardless of the size of your event and that all service providers and staff are made aware of this plan.
- For bigger events or outdoor events with infrastructure such as staging, marquees etc, you will need emergency services on-site at your event, as well as a safety officer.
- How will people get to the event? Make sure you communicate what transport (if relevant) is available, as well as what parking is available and at what cost.
- Will you need to put up signs in the surrounding streets to make the event easier to find?
Catering & Beverages
- Ensure all guests needs are accommodated with the catering and beverages keeping in mind religious dietaries such as Halaal, Kosher, catering preference and allergies.
- If bringing in outside catering, ensure you get their kitchen requirements as well as their certification. Also ensure a kosher and/or Halaal caterer has a certificate.
- Ensure the bar company or venue provides all the bar equipment required – glassware, bar equipment, ice, beverages, garnishes, bar staff.
In short, review all the elements listed above. But also:
- Meet with venue manager a few days before event
- Do they have your schedule?
- Do you have their staff contact numbers in case of an emergency?
Plan in detail
Create an event plan with all the following information:
- Where will everybody be on the day? What will each person be responsible for doing?
- Have you set up all the admin (forms/paperwork) that will be needed on the day?
- What will happen if it rains?
- Do you have enough time, materials and people for setting up and clearing up?
- Confirm Performers and their performance schedule
- Confirm performers’ technical requirements (stage, audio and/or visual components
Step Four: Event Reminders
Once you have all your final RSVP’s, communicate this information to all your service providers.
Confirm the timeline/programme and send out a final event sheet, with every detail pertaining to the conference, to all service providers so every part of the puzzle is working off the same schedule. Include the event brief/theme/purpose, all timings, menu and beverages, contact details of all service providers and their relevant contact person, your contact details and all the specific information pertaining to your conference.
A week before the event, check the weather and make sure none of your plans are inhibited by adverse weather.
Send an event reminder to your guests regarding the conference and provide any ‘on the day’ information they may need such as meeting points for transport, parking, hotel address, venue name, timing etc.
For peace of mind, call all service providers to ensure they have received all relevant information and check whether they have any queries.
Contact your MC and speakers and ensure they are happy with all the arrangements and find out if they have any queries.
Step Five: Conference Week
Have a copy of the event sheet with you at all times.
Be on-site for the setup to ensure your service providers deliver everything they are supposed to and to make sure the venue gets setup to your specifications and requirements
Do a run through/rehearsal with the technical team, MC and speakers; do a sound check with the entertainment (if relevant), and make sure the technical team is fully briefed.
Run through the timing and expectations with the venue/hotel and reiterate any details such as food allergies and beverage requirements.
Keep a close tab on timing throughout the conference to make sure everything runs smoothly and according to the schedule.
Ensure you consistently communicate with all relevant service providers throughout the conference.
Be one step ahead of the schedule i.e.: have speakers mic’ed up 5 – 10 minutes before they go up on stage and ensure the technical desk has their slides ready, communicate timing in terms of the tea breaks and lunch with the venue or caterer before the fact so they have time to prep if the schedule changes
On the day
- Oversee the setup and breakdown of the event
- Take charge and be one step ahead - don’t wait for something to go wrong, pre-empt any issues or disasters and sort them out before things go wrong.
- Communicate with all service providers throughout the day/night to ensure they are aware of any changes or concerns
- Make sure all service providers are running according to the schedule
- Make sure all bathrooms are cleaned regularly and dustbins are emptied
- Do regular walk arounds to ensure all service providers have everything they require and are attending to their responsibilities
Step Six: After the Conference
After the event, send out a thank you to your MC, speakers and your guests for attending the conference. You can also thank your services providers if you were happy with their service delivery.
When sending a thank you to your guests, share any presentations or a take away message regarding the conference.
Consolidate your budget with the final invoices from suppliers.
Pat yourself on the back for executing a successful event.
Congratulations! You are now well on your way to getting your conference on the road. Now you have a thorough and practical guide to assist you in creating a timeline and a team of helpers to put your schedule into action.