Planning a Conference

Planning a conference can be an incredibly rewarding activity, but it can also be incredibly difficult. There are people out there who are professional meeting planners, people whose job it is to plan conferences (perhaps you are one).

However, in my experience as a professional speaker, having spoken at many conferences, I have found that oftentimes the person planning the conference is not a professional meeting planner. They may be an employee of an organization who just happens to be tasked with planning the conference – someone who volunteered for it, or perhaps they were told they had to do it, but it’s not their primary job function.

For an association which often has volunteer committee members, there is usually a conference chair whose job it is to plan a conference, but that is not their normal work function. It’s just something they’re taking on as part of their role for the association. Maybe they love doing it, maybe not. But it is still a large task that has to be done in addition to all of their normal life and work activities.

Although I am a speaker and not a professional conference planner, I have a lot of experience in the events industry. I put together this short article to help you if you are planning a conference.

Here are some things you can think about to help make your life a little bit easier:

1) Planning a Conference Template

Use a conference planning template. You don’t have to do it from scratch – it’s all been done before. This sounds obvious, but the number of times I have seen individuals and committees and organizations start from ground zero rather than using the resources of the people who have come before them is amazing. If you are part of an organization that has done a conference before, reach out to the past committee members or person running it and ask them for their conference template. They might have a checklist. They might have sample contracts, room setup guides, all sorts of things. Start with them.

In addition, use the internet. Pretty much anything you’re trying to do has probably been documented before. Simply type “planning a conference template” into Google. You will be amazed at the results of checklists, PDFs, and spreadsheets that will come up. These can save hours and hours and hours of your time because somebody has already thought through all the things you need to do.

2) Planning a Conference Budget

Planning a conference budget is the hardest thing for many people to do. Usually, if you’re excited about planning a conference, there’s a good chance you’re more of a people person and less of a numbers person. That might be a gross generalization, but in my experience that’s been the case.

Having a budget is critical because you cannot make plans, you can’t start hiring venues, speakers, etc. until you have figured out your budget.

Again, the best way to start your budget is to look at past budgets. It may be different, but it’ll give you an idea abut two things:

  1. All the different items you will need
  2. The general idea of prices you can expect to pay for those items.

If you’re starting from scratch, creating a budget can be a daunting task. As with the planning template, go to Google, type in “conference budget sample,” and that will also provide you with some helpful ideas.

Next, even if you have someone else’s template, you should think through the conference from today all the way until about a month or two afterwards. Think through every single thing you’re going to have to do. Some of them will have costs associated with them, such as mailings, printing up promo material, renting the venue, hiring speakers, etc.

Make a list of everything that’s going to have a cost, and what you think that cost will be. Some of them you’ll have a good idea about. For example, if you know that you have 5000 people on your physical mailing list, you’ll have a good idea of what it will cost to physically mail them.

Some of them, however, you may struggle with. So if you’ve never hired a speaker before, you may have no idea what to budget for that. In these cases, here are a few things you can do:

  • Start with the numbers you’ve seen in previous budgets.
  • Err on the side of budgeting a little higher for the unknown costs simply because costs have a tendency to balloon. That gives you some buffer.
  • Your numbers don’t have to be set in stone at this point. You can put in your best guess and then research the prices you’re uncertain of, like venues, speakers and food. Replace the estimates when you have a better feel for the actual cost.

This is a giant pain, but the better conference budget you have in advance, the easier life gets as you move forward.

3) Planning a Conference Timeline

Conferences have a lot of moving parts to them. A lot of things need to be done, some of which need to be done way in advance. Through the budgeting process, you’ve already thought through everything that needs to happen for your conference. Now start putting timelines on those items.

It helps to think backwards. For example, if you know your conference is on May 15th and you want to start promoting heavily three months out, then that has to happen in February. That means that you need to have all your speakers lined up by mid-January so you can put your promotional materials together. Well, if you’re going to have all your speakers by January, you need to have all your speakers’ submissions in by December so you have time to review and decide. Keep working backwards.

When you have a realistic timeline, you’ll be amazed at the things you need to start working on now, even though the conference may seem far away. Again, just like with the budget, the more detailed your timeline, the easier your life will be once you have these deadlines in place.

4) Planning a Conference Checklist

Along with the template, one of the most useful tools in planning anything, be it a conference or any other endeavor, is a checklist. Once you’ve got this activity list, make a checklist out of it. That way, at a glance, you can see what is coming up, what you have to do, and what else needs to be done. It’s a way to stay on track. It’s a way to offload all those little details from your head onto a piece of paper or a computer. (I highly recommend a computer file simply because paper gets lost, and this conference checklist is going to be your lifeline as you plan this event). Similar to the other things we said, look on Google. You can easily find many, many options and samples of conference checklists.

If you’ve never planned a conference before, hopefully this gives you some helpful ideas. If you have planned a conference before, hopefully you were able to pick up an idea or two that may help you in the future.

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