Dear Ralph...

March 24, 2006

Help! I've agreed to organise a conference for my professional body. I've never done one before. What should I think about?

There are two things to remember. First, don't panic. Second, both delegates and speakers should come away feeling happy. So says John Woolley, managing director of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals' Enterprises. Key to good conference management are customer service, effective planning and attention to detail. This means ensuring that everything runs smoothly and that problems are handled with a smile.

A clear brief is essential. It should cover the following:

  • Basics. When and where will the conference be held? What are its objectives? Will there be a theme? Are you expected to create your own committee?
  • Budget. How much is available? Do you need to find extra funding through, for example, sponsorship? What is the break-even number of delegates?
  • Content. Who will give invited papers? Will there be parallel streams and how will speakers, rapporteurs and chairs be selected?
  • Peripherals. Will a tutorial day or exhibition be attached to the conference? How many social events will be included?

The dates and venue may already have been decided. But remember, it is your conference, so it is your responsibility to make it a success. Check for clashes with important events - for instance, football's World Cup final on July 9. Avoid religious festivals.

I'm arranging a three-day meeting in a distant town. How can I find a venue that fits the bill? Need I waste time visiting venues?

Do you want a successful event or an easy life? You can't have both.

The venue you select should fit everyone's requirements. You will probably have to visit potential sites several times; talk to managers, caterers and other service suppliers; walk around as if you were a delegate; and see how the venue handles a similar conference.

Suitable venues can be found via directories, guides, websites, colleagues and professional bodies. Look for somewhere that is easily accessible, with excellent transport links and good parking facilities. It should be convenient for disabled participants and offer easy routes between lecture rooms, catering venues and accommodation.

You need to visualise how different participants will use the buildings. Think about production (stage, seating, signage, lighting, acoustics), catering and socialising (bars, dining areas), facilities (toilets, creche) and accommodation (bedrooms).

I plan to publish the papers from my conference. What's the best format to ensure that they count towards speakers' research assessment exercise ratings?

The important thing is the quality of the research described. The "output" needs only to be "in a publicly accessible, assessable form" for the RAE. Where it is published is of lesser importance.

But while the format may not be crucial, speakers expect to appear in high-status publications. Ensure that the selection process runs smoothly by putting out a well-timed call for papers, creating a panel of referees, arranging for them to receive submissions, organising referees' comments and planning final publication.

I am organising a physics conference. My boss says I need to budget for publicity. Can't I just e-mail physicists and professional websites?

Electronic communication has certainly cut the costs of organising events. But sending e-mails to potential delegates is worthwhile only if you have access to clean, reliable data: the last thing you want is a reputation for spamming. Use your contacts as a starting point and think through how you find out about relevant conferences.

Publicity is best done in two stages: a call for papers and, when the programme has been set, registration. You can do this through posters, a website, e-mail, mailshots, advertisements or inserts in journals. An excellent way of gaining free publicity is to get articles in the press.

Ralph Adam has organised conferences in many countries. With thanks to Kathy Bird and James Heaton for helpful comments.


Richard Evans, professor of modern history, Cambridge University

"Conferences are seriously overrated. A lot of time is wasted in self-dramatising podium displays and there is seldom time for thorough discussion. 'Big names' appear for one session, then go off to do something of more significance elsewhere. Audiences sit passively as speakers read prepared texts.

"Conferences ought to be intense learning experiences. When, at the end of the 1970s, I had the idea of bringing together young British and German historians to discuss the emerging field of German social history, I thought hard about the best way to do this. I set up a series of what became ten workshops, each with a maximum of 35 participants - a core group who took part in all of them and specialists brought in for each topic. All the papers were distributed to participants in advance and each session began with a critical review by an appointed discussant.

"The workshop discussions strongly influenced my approach to history.

"Collections of conference papers are often carelessly put together. I tried to produce collections that added up to more than the sum of their parts. In editing volumes, sometimes in collaboration with colleagues, I dropped weak papers and commissioned others to give each volume more coherence."

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