One of the main goals when planning a conference is for your attendees to walk away with a memorable and impactful experience. Conferences are a way for people to connect and communicate with others in their industry who share the same interests and goals. Effective meeting planning can assist you in accomplishing this. Although not always easy, it is attainable. To assist in the process, I have gathered the top ten tips and tricks for planning a successful conference based on my professional experience as a Certified Government Meeting Planner (CGMP).
- ORGANIZATION IS KEY. If there is one thing I can’t stress enough it’s to be and stay organized throughout the planning process. There are three parts to a conference; pre-planning, the actual conference, and post-conference. Seventy percent of your work will take place in the pre-planning stages before the conference even takes place. You must remain organized or you will become overwhelmed. Use spreadsheets, timelines, notebooks with tabs, whatever helps you stay organized.
- START EARLY. Begin your planning and timeline as early as you possibly can. Venues book up fast, food and beverage negotiations can go back and forth for months, not to mention, your attendees need time to get approval and register for the event. Although the date when you can start planning can depend on contracts and client approval, it is important to make every effort to start as early as possible.
- AGENDA FINALIZATION. No matter how early you start planning, people are going to be looking for an agenda to see if the sessions and speakers peak their interest. Set an abstract submission deadline and create a committee to review and decide which speakers to select. The sooner you can finalize an agenda and a key note speaker the sooner you will see people registering for the event.
- ONLINE REGISTRATION. Do away with paper registration. In this era, there are more online registration options than you can imagine. Use your registration website for registration, hotel booking, logistics, FAQs, agenda, etc. If you are collecting funds don’t forget to set up a merchant account. The reporting options and on-site registration opportunity will make your life easier.
- SPONSORS & EXHIBITORS. If your conference allows for sponsors or exhibitors use them to your advantage. Determine your levels of sponsorship and what benefits come with each level. Whether it’s a networking event, reception, or print materials-use their money to help fund your event while promoting their business.
- SMART COLLATERAL. The signage and materials handed out at your conference can really be a time saver if done right. It will avoid attendees asking conference staff where rooms are, which way are the bathrooms, and who is speaking in which session. The use of proper directional signage is key:
- a. Rooms should be visibly labeled.
b. Agenda should include room numbers and speaker names.
c. Include a map of the venue with all areas of interest highlighted in the attendee packets.
- a. Rooms should be visibly labeled.
- SUPPLY BOX. Have you ever managed a conference and you find yourself in need tape, a stapler, paper clips or scissors? To save yourself time prep yourself with a small box of office supplies-including attendee materials like extra lanyards and name badges.
- A/V. It’s likely that your speakers will have a PowerPoint they need shown on a large screen in the front of the auditorium or room. One of the worst things is having your audiovisual not function properly. This not only delays a speaker’s presentation, it cuts into their allotted time, and makes conference staff look unprofessional. When touring venues ask if there is a designated A/V person assigned to your particular rooms. Get their contact information and keep them informed with what you will need from them. If you have to hire an outside vendor for A/V, get quotes and shop around. Look for customer ratings and make sure they can provide what you need.
- POSITIVE ATTITUDE. There is nothing worse than being greeted by a grumpy, unfriendly person at the registration desk. Make sure staff at the registration desk are upbeat and knowledgeable as they can set the tone for your event. Make the attendees feel welcomed and excited for a great conference!
- POST-CONFERENCE SURVEY. Always send out a post conference survey. Not only will this let you know how you did planning the event, it will let you know if people like the sessions; speaker choices; topics; or events and lunches. Don’t be afraid to ask in the survey what you can improve on. Knowing these things and reviewing lessons learned will make for a better conference the following year! Extra incentive to have people fill out those surveys is to offer a prize for a random entry.
All in all, no matter how much you prepare, something will go wrong. It’s the nature of the game. You can minimize your risk by being prepared, however know that most things can be fixed rather easily if you don’t panic and work with your team to sort out the issues. After the conference don’t forget to reflect on a job well done…and start the planning for next year!
Casey Thayer, CGMP