Tee up a big shot to drive bookings

September 23, 2005

If you're organising a conference, get a keynote speaker who'll draw the crowds and won't send everyone to sleep. Overlapping with a golf tournament at the same venue won't hurt either, says Harriet Swain

So fascinating is the subject of your conference that you expect hundreds - no, thousands - of potential delegates to drop everything to attend. Be realistic. "The main pitfall in organising a conference is being overoptimistic and thinking that because this conference is exciting to you it will be to everyone else," warns Rob Davidson, course leader for the masters in conference management at Westminster University.

Deciding early how many people you can reasonably expect to attend is essential because it will affect your choice of venue.

Ruth Raven, conference and events manager at the British Psychological Society, says you should never organise a conference without having done a thorough site visit to assess practicalities such as disabled access and signage and whether the rooms are big enough and have proper ventilation.

Joyce Walker, teaching fellow in history at Aberdeen University, who has administered numerous conferences, says you need to decide early on whether to provide a creche and where you are going to hold a dinner. This all takes time, so you need to start planning well in advance.

Jane Lowe, conferences manager at the Institute of Physics, recommends leaving at least 18 months to organise a multi-day conference - slightly less for one with fewer speakers - and says it is essential to work with a team rather than trying to do everything yourself.

Davidson says you need to check what else is happening at the time you want to hold your event - in this country and overseas - because you could easily overlook a clash with another conference on a similar theme. But there could be advantages to double-booking. He recalls being impressed by attendance numbers at a conference in Strathclyde. Only later did he realise that the final day was the day before the start of the golf Open Championship at St Andrews.

If your conference does overlap with another event that's likely to be attractive to delegates, remember to mention it on the publicity material.

Good marketing is essential. Davidson advises getting hold of databases of people who may be interested in attending and finding out which publications they are likely to read, so you can place ads. "It's just like marketing a product," he says. Think about your conference's unique selling point - a particularly popular keynote speaker or its appeal to a niche.

"No one is sitting waiting for a conference invitation. People are thinking: 'Do I really need to go to this?'"

You also need to bear in mind what sort of location is likely to attract potential delegates and to make clear in the marketing what kind of people should attend.

When you plan the conference programme, Davidson recommends ensuring you have a good balance between plenary and break-out sessions. Plenary speakers should be well known in their field and should ideally be able to look at issues in the programme beyond their talk. "If they can say something controversial, so much the better," Davidson says. He adds they should always be chosen by someone who knows the field well - "never leave that to a professional conference organiser".

Delegates will also want to get into smaller groups to present their papers to people who have chosen a more specialised topic. But Davidson warns that you need to be strict about quality control. While people may be encouraged to turn up with the promise of a chance to deliver a paper, if their presentation isn't up to scratch it will reflect badly on the conference.

He suggests offering poster sessions so delegates can have a presence without boring others.

Raven advises sending out guidelines on what makes a good presentation.

"These should be brief so you are not offending those who have spoken for years," she says. The key message should be the need to keep to the point.

She advises staying in contact with all delegates in the weeks before the conference. "The more information they receive in the run-up to the conference the better prepared they will be once they get there," she says.

Walker advises planning conference packs early and including a book of abstracts if possible. She suggests sending out an information pack a couple of weeks before the event, including a street map, a list of restaurants, details of the venue, a welcome letter and, for overseas delegates, a reminder that cars are driven on the left.

One tip is to send out teams of students to meet delegates at airports or stations at prearranged assembly points and also to get them to share taxis. This gives them an opportunity to make contacts as soon as they arrive.

Students are also usefully deployed giving directions and answering questions at the venue. Raven says having plenty of helpers is particularly valuable for bigger events, "so delegates don't wander around aimlessly wondering where the toilets are".

Lowe says conference helpers must seem to know what they are doing - even if they don't - while Walker advises emphasising to helpers the importance of politeness. "No matter how harassed you are and how stupid the questions asked, you have to be patient," she says. Lowe warns that you also need to be prepared for one-off problems. She adds that people will usually be happy if they have a good social programme and the opportunity to network.

Raven says you have to bear in mind that people will want to chat. "Don't have some rock band blaring in the background," she warns. While some people like to have music and the chance to let their hair down, you should always provide a quieter area for those who don't. And make sure their stomachs are happy, she says, and don't forget the vegetarians. "Whatever the conference has been like, if the food is rubbish, that's what they will remember."

Association of British Professional Conference Organisers, www.abpco.org


Plan early

Be realistic about numbers

Bring in the professionals if you can afford it, and if you can't, have a good conference team

Have plenty of helpers at the venue to give directions

Be welcoming

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