Smoothie operators

March 19, 2004

From energising drinks to golf links, Olga Wojtas collects pointers on how expert organisers make a conference an unmissable event.

Gone are the days when the criteria for a successful conference were offering one decent paper and making sure the coffee arrived on time. With academics increasingly short of both time and money, organisers are having to fight to get their attention.

For one-off events, it is essential to have an eye-catching title. Anything "revisited" will make the heart sink. The University of East Anglia had the right idea with a conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer called "Blood, text and fears".

Location is another crucial factor, but don't despair if you're not in a major urban centre. That can be a draw in itself, as long as you can flag up the ease of access, perhaps by budget airline.

As for timing, that will depend largely on your keynote speakers. According to Karene Aitchison, sales and deputy business manager of Stirling University's Management Centre, first get two or three potential dates from your speakers and then check these with prospective venues.

Summer and Easter are traditional conference times: make sure you do not clash with other events in your discipline at home or abroad. And there may be local events you can capitalise on to attract delegates. Rob Davidson, who runs a masters course in conference management at the University of Westminster, says one of the best-attended conferences he went to was at Strathclyde University. It ended the day before the Scottish Open golf championship began.

The local tourist board is a good source of information about attractions. It can help, for example, by livening up the conference website, persuading local hotels and attractions to sponsor social events and producing freebies for delegate packs. Pens are practical but mundane, while T-shirts are very popular, second only to alcohol. Publishers and equipment manufacturers make good sponsors, and companies often pay for exhibition stands. But Helen Wilson, conference and events manager of the British Psychological Society, points out that sponsors expect large numbers of delegates to see their displays. "The only sure-fire way is to feed and water people in that area," she says.

Delegates must be fed and watered every two hours or so, and Davidson recommends healthy options to keep delegates awake. He also suggests some gentle stretching just before the post-lunch session. Some conferences now have smoothie breaks, although Stirling Management Centre, a purpose-built conference venue, recognises there will always be caffeine addicts. It avoids delaying their fix by giving them a fast-track coffee queue.

Delegates also need time and space to circulate. "If you're restricted to one or two conferences a year, they need to be fruitful for contacts. Any academic thinking of cutting costs by cutting back on [social events] is making a big mistake," Davidson says. But don't get overambitious. He recalls one conference where the first social event involved murder mystery-style role play in which everyone had to stay in the persona of "the femme fatale" and "the wicked gamekeeper" under assumed names. "It was highly embarrassing and people dealt with it by getting drunk."

Information about research interests should be disseminated in advance so that networking is more productive. Another thing to remember is that it is never too early to start planning - two years in advance for major conferences and a year to six months for anything more modest.

If you want to go outside your institution, the conference "trade bible" directories can help in choosing a venue, but always have a look round first. And check the small print for hidden costs, such as higher rates for early starts or late finishes and penalty clauses if numbers drop. For bigger conferences, it may be worth hiring outside help. This will free you to focus on the academic side. The Association of British Professional Conference Organisers can provide estimates.

Aitchison has produced a month-by-month checklist to aid early planning for everything from printing name badges to getting abstracts in.

Lorraine Craig, head of research at the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers, says about 80 per cent of abstracts arrive only two to three days before the deadline. She advises "blasting" as many websites as possible with reminders to contributors two weeks beforehand.

Another tip is not to assume that university residences will be the best option if delegates are staying over. Universities are much more likely than hotels to want a minimum number of beds guaranteed, but they may help broker cheap hotel deals. Craig says RGS/IBG delegates are now offered the choice between staying in a hotel or in a residence. She notes that as academics approach middle age they get grumpy about "padding down corridors in their dressing gowns to go for a wee in the middle of the night". Conferences, Issue No.1
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