Conference organiser’s handbook
You must arrange flight and hotel for your speakers, and badges, booklets and other things for your attendees. None of it is very difficult, or takes much work or money, but it still has to be done.
You should communicate clearly with your speakers and attendees, so that at all times they know what to do next. This means putting all relevant information on the website, and sending off emails about one to two weeks before the conference.
Obivously you need a website. This site should contain the following information:
Send a mail with all instructions to every attendee about a week before the conference. Especially note all addresses, times, whether ID is required at registration, and more such information.
Send a mail with all instructions to every speaker about a week before the conference. Note the name and address of their hotel, venue, and speakers’ dinner, and repeat all details of any taxi or pick-up service you’ve arranged. Give your phone number. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself here — as a speaker I find it very useful to get one mail with all information so I just have to hit Print and take it with me.
Make sure that the most important information can be obtained offline; for instance from the conference booklet. It’s fun to do everything online, but if the wifi doesn’t work and foreign speakers or attendees have burned through their roaming data plan, they have no way to get at the information.
Professional speakers do a lot of conferences each year. Since they agreed to come to yours they will put on a professional show, but they are generally rather negligent when it comes to the small details. Caring for speakers is sometimes like herding cats. Except when they’re on stage: then they’ll give an excellent show.
Should you pay your speakers a fee or not? Some speakers require it; partly to avoid being inundated by an immense amount of speaking engagements. If a speaker requires it, try to figure out how many tickets you will sell by this speaker’s name alone, and take a decision accordingly.
Most speakers won’t ask for a fee, though. Some will even refuse if you offer it.
As a general rule, if your conference is commercial you should offer a speaker’s fee. After all, if you make money from the conference, it’s only fair to give some of it to your speakers, who can make or break an event.
If your conference is entirely volunteer/non-profit you should not offer a speaker’s fee. Fronteers is volunteer-driven, so we don’t pay our speakers. Mobilism is commercial, so we do pay our speakers.
Make sure that speakers know exactly whom to communicate with about their sessions, flights, hotel, and minor issues. It’s perfectly fine to have several people in charge of speakers’ affairs, as long as you announce this fact to your speakers as soon as possible.
The only thing you should not do is first communicate with the speakers yourself, and then suddenly transfer speakers’ affairs to someone else. That may create uncertainty, and it could be that speakers send important mails to the wrong person. I’ve seen too often that two or three people talk to me about various aspects of the conference, but by the time I have a question I’m not sure which one of them I should ask.
Mail your speakers about once per two months, just to give an update and remind them of the conference. About one to two weeks before the conference you should send them a mail with important information: flights, hotel, speakers' dinner, conference venue, and possibly something about the local taxis or public transport.
Unfortunately you’ll find out that some speakers do not actually read these mails, but they are generally the most experienced ones who have done everything before.
You could consider leaving an envelope with printed-out materials at the hotel for every speaker. The envelope should contain a rough schedule of the conference and the parties, a map, and maybe public transport tickets. This gives all speakers the information they need.
You’re supposed to pay for your speakers’ flight and to also offer to book the flight for them. Some speakers will let you; others will have complex traveling schemes that they prefer to book themselves. They will send you an invoice for their flight afterwards.
Generally speaking you should budget €250 for a European flight and €900 for a US-to-Europe flight. Most flights are actually a bit cheaper, but the point of this budgeting is that you can afford to buy the slightly-more-expensive flight that saves the speaker a five-hour wait at some hub airport. In general you should optimise the flights for time in transit — within the constraints of your budget.
There are two potential problems with booking flights:
In general you should make your final offer to book their flights about three to four weeks before the conference. That gives them a week to react, after which you can still book a flight without stress.
If they decline, or if you don’t hear from them at all, you can assume they’ll book their flights themselves.
The speakers’ hotel should not be too cheap. Shabby hotels make for great stories (ask the Fronteers 2008 veterans), but in general the speakers expect something sensible.
You pay your speakers’ hotel for two nights for a one-day conference; three nights for a two-day one. You always offer to make further reservations in case speakers want to stay longer, but you make it clear that speakers will have to pay those extra nights themselves.
If you fly in speakers from another continent you may need to offer them an extra night. Flights from the US to Amsterdam generally arrive in the early morning, at around 8:00 or 9:00, at which time the speakers are totally jet-lagged and will want to sleep a bit or at the very least have a room available.
However, the average hotel allows people to check in from only 14:00 or so. I do not want my speakers to be forced to wait for hours in the hotel lobby, so I give them an extra night. Factor this extra night into your budget if you want intercontinental speakers.
You should make the hotel booking months in advance and ask your speakers for their preferences. Some may be late in replying, and it’s not at all unusual that changes in the number of nights occur in the week of the conference itself. Be sure to inform the hotel months in advance that changes will be coming until the very last moment; most hotels are used to this.
Speakers will have to travel from airport to hotel and vice versa. Although leaving that bit of travel up to them is perfectly acceptable, a sort of conference taxi service will be gratefully received by all speakers.
I was picked up by an honest-to-God limousine for one conference, and by a local taxi company that offered in-taxi wifi for another. I like that; it makes my trip a bit less stressful.
For Fronteers we arrange our own taxi service. We usually hire a student or so as a driver, beg my mother’s car, and make a schedule. We make sure the driver waits for the speakers at the gate and directly brings them to the car, which goes directly to the hotel. Speakers like that.
At the day of departure, pick up the speakers about two hours before their flight leaves.
Traditionally you invite your speakers to dinner the night before the conference. Most international speakers know each other; in fact, the only people they regularly encounter at conferences are each other. Thus they want to gossip. That’s the purpose of the speakers’ dinner.
If the speakers get their chance to gossip beforehand they’ll be more likely to talk to attendees instead of each other at the later parties. If there is no speakers’ dinner, they may focus on each other a bit more than seems appropriate during the conference.
It’s perfectly fine to have the restaurant serve a menu; usually they don’t allow groups above fifteen or so to eat à la carte because it’s too hard on the kitchen staff. Make sure there are vegetarian courses or alternatives. Do not require the speakers to pick their menu a month in advance: they’ll have forgotten what they picked by the time the dinner comes around. (True story, that.)
Attendees want to know what they’re going to get at the conference, they want good sessions and good discussions, preferably with speakers, during the conference parties. (Some attendees don’t understand the point of the parties and skip them; this is not your problem.)
Especially in the last two weeks before the conference you’ll receive a lot of mails from attendees with all kinds of questions. It’s important to reply to these mails as soon as possible: that tells the attendees that they’re important to the conference and their voice is being heard.
The core organiser in charge of administration is responsible for replying to these mails. Of course he may decide to delegate this to someone else; but the point is that incoming mails should be handled by someone who thinks it’s fun to help attendees. For Fronteers and Mobilism Krijn is the one who handles that.
Attendees may also communicate by Twitter, Facebook, or other social media. The same rules go: reply to their questions as soon as possible.
Some attendee mails or tweets may seem pretty stupid: they ask for information that’s already available on the site. Still you should reply courteously and quickly: that’s part of your job as a conference organiser.
Occasionally attendees will have special requests. For instance, at one of the Fronteers conferences a few Russian attendees needed our help in getting visas. We sent them a letter that stated they were invited for the conference, and that turned out to be enough.
Some attendees won’t be able to make it to the conference after all, and they’ll ask you if they can transfer their tickets to someone else. In general this should be possible up until a few days before the conference. If you decide to disallow ticket transfers, state so very clearly on the tickets page of your website, and also in the confirmation mail that’s sent after ticket sales.
What the average attendee wants most is to talk to one or more of the speakers. You should definitely provide for that: it will make your conference more memorable, and attendees will be likelier to return next year.
Obviously, the parties are the ideal setting for some speaker-attendee interaction. That’s their main point.
However, sometimes attendees have only a vague idea of who the speakers are, despite their photos in the conference booklet. Therefore it might be a good idea to make the speakers stand out a bit: thus everybody will know who is who.
I tried with differently coloured badges. I hoped that by making the speaker badges stand out, people would be able to identify them more easily, but it didn’t really work all that well.
A speaker once suggested to start the conference with calling all speakers on stage and introducing them to the audience. It seems a good idea in theory, but in practice it’s pretty hard to get all speakers to be at the conference at 8:45 on day 1. Some of them, notably those who’ll speak on day 1 in the afternoon, will still be at the hotel working on their presentations.
I cannot stress the importance of maps enough, so I’ll say it again: give all attendees maps with the venue, the parties, and possibly the hotels you list on your site. This map should be contained in the conference booklet, or else in the goodie bag.
Generally attendees expect three things: a conference booklet, a goodie bag, and a badge.
The conference badge serves as an identification. If the venue has any sort of security in place, only badge holders will be granted access. It’s also common that the official conference party is only open to badge holders.
The badges contain the attendee name and company. Make the names of the attendees very large; it’s by far the most important information. Ideally, even people with not-too-good eyesight should be able to read a badge from about two meters distance.
Resist the urge to put more stuff on the badge. Twitter handles and all that are very nice and well, but there’s no way a drunk attendee in the conference party’s bad light will be able to make out that bit of text.
The badge information should be printed on both sides. All too often, the badge flips around, and if the other side is white nobody (including security personnel) can make out who the attendees are.
Sometimes badges can be pinned to your clothing, but usually you’ll need some sort of lanyard. Sponsors often want to give you these lanyards because they’re the easiest way to keep their logo in view at all times. Ask your largest sponsor first. If sponsors give you lanyards they should be responsible for paying and delivering them to the venue.
There’s a curious problem with all lanyards: they’re too long. Ideally, the badge should be high on the breast of the attendees. It’s much easier to read text at breast height than at belly height. Curiously, lanyard vendors do not understand this principle.
If at all possible, make the lanyards fairly short. This may seem odd to badge wearers: the cord may seem to be a noose, but it works best for actually reading the badges. Or forget about lanyards and give the badges a pin. People will automatically pin their badges on their breast.
Each attendee should be handed a conference booklet that contains essentially the same information as the website. The most important features of the booklet are the conference schedule and the maps. Attendees will constantly refer to the schedule to make decisions, and the journey from venue to party is greatly facilitated if every single attendee has a map at his disposal.
It is traditional to also give the speaker and session list in the booklet.
Finally, the sponsors should get some space here. Their logos should be shown at the very least, and occasionally a conference basically sells a page in the booklet to a sponsor. That’s perfectly fine: if the sponsor page is boring nobody will read it, but nobody wil be put off by it, either. It’s up to the sponsor to deliver useful content.
The booklet needs to be actually printed, and that means that you will have to deliver the final contents about one to two weeks before the conference. Sometimes that’s a problem; especially with last-minute changes in speakers or party venues. That cannot be helped, though.
More and more conferences combine the booklet and badge into one: if the attendee folds out the badge, he gets the booklet. This is a sensible idea since it gives attendees one less item to carry and lose. The disadvantage is that a badge-booklet can contain less information, but leaving out the speaker biographies usually solves that (and, let’s face it, the bios aren’t that important).
Handing out a goodie bag to every attendee has become a tradition; even though I’m not so sure many attendees actually use them. (Then again; I’m not an average attendee, so I may be wrong.)
Pick a bag with decent quality: it reflects badly on your conference if your bags start to wear and tear during the conference itself. Budget about €4 to 10 for the bag itself, the booklet, and notepad and pen. This price does not include the printing overhead costs for the booklet.
The goodie bag should contain the conference booklet, something from the sponsors, and maybe a notepad and pen so that people can make notes. The bag should display the conference logo.
The goodie bag is not a required item, as far as I’m concerned. You can also give each attendee a conference booklet and leave it at that. Sponsors who want to spread material should do so themselves; maybe they can put stacks of their folders on a table somewhere.
If you’re a beginning organiser don’t do t-shirts! It sounds like a fun idea to give every attendee a conference t-shirt, but organisation-wise they’re an absolute hassle, and they’re not that special.
Consider. Not only do you have to design and order the t-shirts, you will also have to make a guess as to the necessary sizes, and how much to order for every size. You will make a mistake here: usually there are too few L and XL t-shirts.
Then the t-shirts have to be given out to the attendees. Your natural inclination will be to do that during registration, but it means that you have to ask each attendee what size he or she has and find a correct t-shirt, only to have the attendee complain that usually L shirts are much larger than this one, and he’d rather have an XL one. This can easily take a minute per attendee, and all the while more attendees will gather in a long queue outside — in the rain. Even worse, your conference might start late.
Another option is to share them out later, but it’s completely impossible to get everybody to queue up after registration. You could just leave the t-shirts on a table somewhere and let attendees figure it out for themselves, but then some will take two and others will get none.
Maybe a separate table with t-shirts during registration is the least bad solution, but here, too, you’ll have a gigantic queue that will stick around until after the conference has started and makes both attendees and volunteers feel hassled.
Don’t do t-shirts. They’re not worth the trouble.
With those details out of the way it’s time to prepare for the actual conference itself.