Dear Ralph, Help! I need advice

March 23, 2007

Veteran organiser Ralph Adam helps you with your conference conundrums

Q: I've agreed to organise a conference with limited funds, but am at a loss about the catering. Can I leave it to the venue?

A: No. Catering needs a lot of attention. Don't underestimate the importance of meals and breaks: delegates may forget the content of papers but are sure to remember the food. Inspecting the catering well before your event is essential. See the menu (try to get ideas of service and food quality by being there when a meal is in progress); observe decor, layout and capacity.

Decide on a seated or buffet-style service. Plated or sit-down meals are cheaper, less labour-intensive, have a higher perceived value and are easier to control than are canapes or buffets.

Avoid food that is awkward to eat - noodles or spare-ribs, for example - and strike a balance between ordering too much and too little. For buffets and tea/coffee breaks, provide several serving points and keep them clear of walls to make access easier; label any item whose nature or contents are not immediately obvious and avoid large plates: they encourage delegates to eat more. Remember, too, that the fancier the food, the greater the potential problems.

Meals for those with special diets will have been pre-ordered: ensure staff know who they are for and that others don't have last-minute envy. Costs can be cut with simple food and lots of tap water. People eat less if you give them breakfast (which also gets them in early), plus pre-meal snacks and coffee. Ensure that you know how many meals are being charged for (if 150 are booked but only 100 eaten, you'll pay for 150).

Avoid wine at lunchtime: it encourages people to stand around talking and makes them sleepy. If you do serve wine, women generally prefer white and men red. When costing for drinks, allow for spillage, but watch that bottles are opened as needed and that unopened bottles don't disappear.

Give the catering managers a budget and take their advice on food. They will know what works best.

* Q: I'm organising an international conference with several hundred delegates.

To cut costs and help the environment, would running it as an e-conference make sense?

A: E-conferences are an attractive idea. They use everyday tools such as audio, video and web technology. You can communicate from your own workplace in real-time, share documents, hear papers, take part in web seminars and do most of the things that happen at "normal" events. It is also more environmentally responsible and saves the cost and inconvenience of being away from home. Universities have used e-conferencing for interviews, teaching and administrative meetings.In the late Nineties, it seemed e-conferences would replace traditional meetings. However, they work well only if one person is speaking or where several people need to study a document; they are less effective for events involving many speakers. In addition, set-up costs can be high, requiring specially trained staff and complex equipment. Technical problems are another risk.

In general, e-conferencing is successful for events lasting a few hours, but you lose the serendipity: a delight of big conferences is the range of topics and the unexpected discovery of work outside one's own area, as well as the informal networking and the chance to bounce ideas off others, initiate projects and discuss book deals. One might compensate for the environmental costs through energy offsets.

However, the latest "tele-presence" technology teleports speakers, Captain Kirk-style, into remote lecture rooms, giving the impression they are actually there.

* Q: Which is a better venue for a residential academic conference: a hotel or a university?

A: Consider your needs. There are three main possibilities: hotels, conference centres and universities.

Hotels have a more upmarket image, but few are designed for conferences.

Conference centres tend to score on facilities but don't always have sleeping accommodation. Universities, on the other hand, are geared to academic events, have the right "intellectual" atmosphere but can be isolated, spread out and rooms may not be of high enough quality.

Wherever you go, access is a key issue. Ensure that your venue has excellent transport connections (close to local buses, near a main rail station, airport and motorway), that it has adequate parking and is suited to physically and visually disabled delegates. Also, ensure that catering, meeting rooms and sleeping accommodation are all close and easy-to-reach from one another: try the journeys out yourself - preferably on a wet night.

Check that fire exits are clear and that, if you choose a hotel, delegates can eat separately from other residents. Otherwise, service will be slow and you will have less control.

Other things to look for include the number, size and position of rooms (smoking and smoke-free), quality of room-service, bathroom facilities, cleanliness, TV quality, availability of lavatories, cost of phone calls, broadband/wi-fi availability and number/speed of lifts.

If you have any further queries, email Ralph at

Both sides of the coin

Uniting academics and real-world practitioners can result in a beneficial exchange of ideas

Social scientist Ellie Lee specialises in organising conferences that unite academics and real-world practitioners. "Academics can learn a lot from people in different areas but with overlapping interests. People respond incredibly well when academics communicate their ideas," she says.

Lee, senior lecturer in social policy at Kent University, has been on both sides of the social sciences fence. She worked for five years in family-planning advocacy before starting to study for her PhD. In that time, she organised a conference at Oxford University's New College on the 30th anniversary of the Abortion Act. "I was trying to do a bridging conference where you had academics - primarily social scientists - lawyers and also service providers, campaigners and policymakers. It worked really well," she says.

Lee is currently organising a conference at Kent in May - "Monitoring Parents: Child-Rearing in the Age of 'Intensive Parenting'" - again for academics and non-academics alike.

She says that as such conferences have a specific focus, responses to requests to attend from big names in the field are usually good. "There is quite a thirst out there from people working in universities to stray from the well-worn path of normal conferences. A lot of people are interested in differently framed events focused around themes. Discussions can be very productive."

Lee advises anyone planning such a cross-over event to be bold and ask prestigious people in and out of academia to attend. She suggests making use of your university press office to help get media coverage for the event and the ideas it will be addressing and, above all, set up a website giving details of the conference, an online application form and related resources.

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