Budget bites

March 19, 2004

Organising a one-day event requires an aptitude for securing funding and saturation marketing - and a talent for cut-price catering. In their conference diary, Thomas Nutt, Alysa Levene and Samantha Williams reveal how to feed delegates for less than £3 a head.

It's January 2003 - a full year before our conference takes place - but planning is already well under way. After many meetings, we (Thomas Nutt, Alysa Levene and Samantha Williams) have completed the most important task of any conference committee and come up with a title. We settle on "Bastardy: the British experience. Illegitimacy in history from the medieval to the modern age".

Although we are sensitive to the pejorative meaning of the word "bastardy", we nevertheless feel that it is a historically specific term and so much more eye-catching than its alternatives ("Non-marital fertility: the British experience" just didn't work).

Summer 2003
A full programme of speakers has been finalised, and funds to host the conference have been secured from the University of Cambridge, the Economic History Society and the Royal Historical Society.

October 2003
Alysa moves to Brighton, which means that from now on all organisation has to be done via email. We prepare a poster and send it to numerous universities and websites, such as those of the Institute of Historical Research and the Economic History Society.

A message is submitted to EH.net, a worldwide economic history email distribution list, to publicise the conference. Unfortunately, the list's editor suggests that the conference is insufficiently "economic" for circulation. We reply that the conference is funded by the Economic History Society, with the participation of a present editor of the Economic History Review and a former president of the society.

Our persistence pays off, and the message goes global. Colleagues in Cambridge, meanwhile, complain of our saturation marketing.

November 2003
We are receiving a slow but steady trickle of emails, even international ones, seeking further information and registration forms. Then there is the media interest. BBC Radio 4 gets in touch: it wants to feature the conference on Start the Week with Andrew Marr. We are also asked to write this diary. We are quite sure that the word "bastardy" in the conference's title has got us noticed.

December 2003
At least 75 people have registered to attend - we start to worry about feeding so many. Our long-term planning has paid off, and we are confident that there is little left to do. Then, one of the speakers pulls out because she is due to have a baby at any minute. We suggest that maybe she is taking her research a little too literally, but she is married and thus, technically, not taking her work home with her.

January 5 2004
It's the day before the conference, and Tim Hitchcock, professor of history at the University of Hertfordshire and a participant in the conference, is on Start the Week . Marr, the programme's moderator, has returned from Iraq only the night before and is clearly tired - he makes a reference to "children producing sex". Tim gently corrects him, pointing out that it should be the other way around (that is, "sex producing children").

We have decided that, instead of getting caterers in for refreshments and lunch, we will cater in-house and thereby waive the registration fee for students. That afternoon, we take a trip (with a car and a calculator) to Sainsbury's.

We sit down and plan quantities - water: 70 litres; orange juice: 20 litres; biscuits: minimum of 150 and maximum of 300 (the economy range contains about 72 biscuits per pack. We buy five); milk: 12 pints; coffee: 200 servings; tea: 200 bags (we agonise over whether to buy fair-trade tea and coffee, but as these come only in small quantities, we opt for economy over principles and buy the supermarket's own brand); fruit: 75 pieces.

We print off the final timetable of papers and a list of delegates, and we put notices up so that delegates can find the venue.

Conference day, January 6 2004
Alysa oversees registration, while Sam and Tom race to Marks and Spencer at opening time to buy 80 packets of sandwiches. Unpacking and cutting the sandwiches proves to be a burden, but we manage to feed and water our delegates for less than £3 a head.

The day runs smoothly as our chairs keep speakers to time. We have the inevitable technical glitch: the PowerPoint link cuts out every few minutes for no obvious reason, frustrating those speakers using maps, tables and graphs. To accommodate 11 speakers, coffee breaks and lunch are a little hurried.

We see the less glamorous side of organising a conference: pouring tea and coffee and collecting rubbish, rather than schmoozing with all the impressive scholars we have managed to get in one room. By the end of the day, we have filled many large bin liners. Oblivious to this, the speakers, chairs and delegates comment on how well organised and how enjoyable the day has been. Everyone knows more about bastards than they did before.

Pre-dinner drinks in the Castle pub, followed by the conference dinner. The ladies' loos are blocked and women have to use the gents'. Tom kicks off the post-dinner roundtable discussion to groans from some, but the discussion soon flows, along with the wine. Someone remarks that the two "F's" have not been mentioned - "feminism" and "Foucault". It is agreed that the peak in the stigma of bastardy in early and mid 20th-century Britain has probably now died away. We wrap up the discussion only on realising that more than 12 hours have passed since the conference started.

Post-conference, January 2004
We organisers crave a rest, but the conference does not stop for us at the end of the day. We still have to claim back the costs from our funders, and keeping track of the finance has been laborious. Organising a one-day conference has involved an incredible amount of work, and we are glad to have shared the load between the three of us. And then there is the book: we hope to edit a collection of essays, based on the day's papers. Better start writing those proposals...

Thomas Nutt and Samantha Williams are historians at Cambridge University. Alysa Levene is research associate in the department of social and policy sciences at Bath University. "Bastardy: the British experience" was held at Cambridge on January 6. Conferences, Issue No.1
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