Conference organiser’s handbook
Your first job is to take fundamental decisions about the conference’s scope, language, city, core organisers, date, name, target audience, size, and sponsors. You should have an answer to each question about eight to nine months before your conference.
Will your conference be national or international in scope? That really depends on who you want to reach, both as speakers and as attendees.
If you want to offer a podium to local talent, or if many front-end developers in your country are uncomfortable with English, it makes sense to do most or all of the conference in your own language. You may still invite a few international speakers who’ll speak in English, but you won’t attract any foreign attendees. People dislike paying for a conference where they can’t understand most of the sessions.
If your main point is to attract international speakers and attendees, you should do your conference entirely in English, and require local speakers to speak in English, too. Mixed-language conferences don’t work for attracting foreign visitors, even with live translation.
If it’s allowed as a session language the local language will become the dominant one during the parties to the point of being used for announcements. That shuts out foreign attendees and speakers quite effectively.
Of course the local language will also dominate the party after an English-only conference, but at least all attendees will have the “this is an international conference” feeling and be nice to foreigners and switch to English. Besides, people whose English is bad will not come to such a conference, so pretty much anyone will be able to communicate with anyone else. That’s important.
If you go international, make sure that anyone related to the conference speaks English, even the catering and venue people. If a toilet malfunctions or an attendee has a nut allergy, anyone must be able to communicate this fact to the staff at hand instead of having to come to you for translation. You’ll likely have better things to do during the conference.
You should organise your conference in your own city, and that that city should be a well-known tourist destination in its own right and have an airport.
It is very important to have an intimate knowledge of the surroundings, and to be fluent in the local language(s). Suppose a speaker is robbed of his laptop, an attendee gets ill at the conference, or a projector turns out not to work and the technician has no idea what to do. You should be able to handle such emergencies immediately and swear at people in the local language.
If you live in the host city you can much more easily compare venues, pubs, and restaurants, because you can visit them well in advance, basically at any moment that you like.
Besides, your friends live in the city, too, and they’ll be able to help you. A friend of mine is a walking directory of pubs and restaurants, so a simple SMS sufficed to find a venue for an impromptu pe-party for Fronteers 2010, or an unusual and memorable restaurant for the Fronteers 2009 speakers’ dinner. I also know a hotel manager who could explain the hotels’ view of conferences, and that was very useful in the early days.
You can’t beat local connections. Make a list of friends who might be able to help you.
The exact choice of cities matters greatly if you aim at attracting at least some visitors from abroad. If your city is a tourist destination, people will come much easier. Your conference will likely be close to a weekend, so attendees can take one or two nights extra in the hotel and do some touristy stuff.
If you hold your conference in a smaller town, likely without its own airport, that very fact will likely make it more national in scope. It might deter some speakers and attendees from coming: they’re more likely to impress their friends when they can offhandedly remark they’re going to Warsaw or Athens, rather than to Maarssen or Écully-la-Demi-Lune.
So basically you should live in a capital or other major city in order to put on an international show.
It’s likely that you organise the conference with one or two others. If you don’t yet, make sure you do. You can’t run a conference all by yourself. I discovered that valuable lesson during the organisation of Fronteers 2008.
The first thing the core organisers should do is sit together and decide who’s going to do what. This handbook will list all jobs that need to be done; go through it and give each job to someone.
In general it works best if you roughly divide the work into five portfolios:
Administration and location affairs are the heavy portfolios because they deal with everyone who will be at the conference and with the boring little details that nobody really wants to arrange. Do not take on both portfolios under any circumstance! Instead, make sure that one person handles location affairs and another administration. They may even delegate some sub-tasks to others.
Usually a core organiser that handles a heavy portfolio can also handle a light one; or there can be a third organiser that handles the lighter (but generally more visible) portfolios.
Don’t get too hung up on the exact portfolios; it’s perfectly fine to split off some tasks and give them to somebody else. For Fronteers 2008 and 2009 Krijn did administration and marketing, except that I created and controlled the budget. I did location, speakers, and sponsors, but I delegated hotels to Vasilis and wifi to Wilfred.
We already had the Fronteers website and CMS, so we didn’t have to create one from scratch. If we had had to, we’d probably have delegated this job to someone else, too.
For your first conference, assume at least 8 to 12 weeks of full-time work. If something major goes wrong it’ll cost you even more time. Of course you divide this work among the core organisers and spread it out across about ten months.
Subsequent conferences take less time, especially if you have found a good venue, hotel, or ticket sales systems. Finding all of these can take a lot of time.
Unfortunately, sometimes core organisers bow out, or don’t do nearly enough work, and somebody else (likely another core organiser) will have to step in. That’s annoying for you, because you’ll likely have to figure out what has and has not been done before you can effectively step in. Also, if the organiser had an outward-facing job, whoever he talked to has to understand that someone else has taken over, too. All in all this takes time that’s better spent on something useful.
There’s little to be done about organiser defection, but keep it in mind when dividing the work. Give the most important work to the person(s) that are most able to work independently and take decisions when they must.
In order to keep the damage to a minimum, make a habit of cc-ing all other core organisers on all important and medium-important mails. If someone drops out you’ll at least have a rough idea of where things stand.
You should plan your conference in season, which runs from mid March to late June and early September to late November. Especially in Europe, attendees don’t go to many conferences outside season because they’re on summer holiday or preparing and recuperating from Christmas.
Will you do a one-day or a two-day conference? The choice is yours. When in doubt, go for two days. That seems to become the norm for international conferences.
A two-day show will give those who come from further away more value for their train or plane ticket. Organising two conference days instead of one will cost you twice as much money and the ticket price will rise accordingly. But it is not twice as hard: you don’t have to negotiate with two venues or hotels; just with one.
A conference should be held on a Thursday and Friday or a Monday and Tuesday. This allows attendees to play the tourist, too. In general Thursday/Friday conferences are better because they allow attendees and speakers to recover during the weekend. Considering the amount of beer that flows at a typical conference this is not a luxury.
If you’re going for one day only, it’s Friday. A conference on a Monday is ... unusual. I don’t think I’ve ever visited one.
Some US conferences run over the weekend, but this is very uncommon in Europe. Conferences are work, for the organisers, the speakers, and even the attendees. Hence they should take place during the week.
Your conference needs a name; find one. Pick an English name even if the conference is national in scope. It allows foreigners to talk about it, and that never hurts.
You must know your target audience. Fortunately you already do: you’re putting on a show you’d like to see yourself. Chances are that your peers agree with you and will buy a ticket.
Marketing-wise, you know which social media and blogs your target audience frequent. Use the media and approach the bloggers. Local bloggers are especially valuable: they’ll reach your home audience for you, and will likely be as enthusiastic about a conference in their own city as you are.
In general it’s best to start with about 250 to 300 attendees. That’ll give you a budget you can work with, while it’s still quite achievable for a first-timer. You’ll need marketing in any case, but it’s easier to reach 250 people than 500.
There’s still plenty of time to grow your conference later, in the second or third editions. First you have to know how large the market is and how effectively you can reach it.
If your conference is international in scope you can expect between one fifth and one third of your attendees to come from abroad.
Chart the financial risk you take. Suppose you have to cancel the conference two months in advance because of disappointing ticket sales, how much money will you have spent? You likely won’t get that money back.
Here in Amsterdam the deal is pretty good: I only need to pay part of the formal venue rent, and that rent is low when compared to catering and technical costs. If either of the Fronteers conferences had been cancelled two months beforehand, we would have lost about €2,000. That’s acceptable.
But it may be that hotels and caterers demand deposits, too, in your city. I just don’t know. Always ask during negotiations.
Will you accept sponsors? This is a tricky question. On the one hand, you can use the money, especially when you don’t have any yourself and the venue asks for a deposit. On the other hand, sponsors want to influence your content.
Many first timers assume they must have sponsors in order to not make a loss. I don’t know your budget, but I do know that the importance of sponsors is somewhat overrated, and I encourage you to create a budget without any sponsor money, just to see if it’s possible to keep the ticket price within reason.
Do not give speaker slots to sponsors, unless the person they propose is actually an experienced and well-known conference speaker in his or her own right.
Most sponsored speakers are not very good, partly because they are on stage because their boss told them to, partly because they try to sell products that nobody’s really interested in, and partly because they are not as focused as professionals speakers are on making a good impression on organisation and attendees.
A Fronteers 2009 sponsored speaker sent someone else because he had a cold. Point is: about four other speakers also had a nasty cold, one speaker had hurt her back pretty badly, and one speaker went on stage with pneumonia (although he didn’t know that yet). Compared to that the sponsored speaker’s cold was definitely small fry. Still, he didn’t turn up because he had no stake in the conference.
Don’t give sponsored speakers a short 10-minute slot somewhere, either. The problems are exactly the same, and your attendees will not see the slot as part of the regularly scheduled programme, but as an annoying interlude.
If you can’t give them speaker slots, what do you return to the sponsors for their money?
Displaying their logos on the conference website and in the booklet is perfectly safe. Attendees will note the fact and will not be disturbed by it, because they know the content is still the actual content they want to see.
Sponsoring the party is a fairly popular one, too. Just ask the company to put money for four beers per person on the tab, display their logo somewhere, and everybody will be perfectly happy.
They can also put something in the goodie bag, if you have one. Sometimes these gifts are even genuinely useful, although often it’s some kind of brochure that will be briefly glanced at and then forgotten. Odd as it may sound, most sponsors are not very good at filling the goodie bag. That’s not your problem, though.
Ask every sponsor what they’re going to deliver for the goodie bag. It’s not much use to anyone if three sponsors give pens and none notepads. Sometimes sponsors give you something else than you agreed on; that’s their problem. Don’t put it in the goodie bag if it duplicates something given by another sponsor.
Sometimes sponsors will ask for exhibition stands. This is a tricky subject that depends on the layout of the venue. You should decide early on if you’re going to allow stands, and then stick to that decision.
Sponsors want a nice bit of space that’s big enough to hold the stand plus two or three people, and in addition they want to stand somewhere where they’ll get a lot of attention. The ideal spot is between the auditorium and the catering. Thus, whenever people go from one to the other they must pass the sponsor stands.
Whether that setup is possible depends entirely on the venue. Keep an eye open while visiting potential venues. Only allow sponsor stands if you have specific spots in mind after visiting the venue. If you can’t find any good spots, don’t offer stands.
To give you a general overview, here’s a generic conference organisation timetable. Don’t get too hung up on the 8-5-2-months scheme; it’s perfectly all right to time your actions somewhat differently.
Don’t count July, August, and December for these purposes. Your target audience is on a beach somewhere or preparing for Christmas. Any communcation will be ignored.
Before you can lure attendees to your conference, you need speakers. Before you can invite speakers, you need a date. Before you can set a date, you need a contract with a venue. So finding a venue is your first priority. Speakers come next, and then marketing and ticket sales.
About 8 months before the conference you should sign the paperwork for venue and speaker’s hotel. You should invite your most important speakers as soon as you have dates. International speakers tend to plan their conference schedules long beforehand. Although you can always try, you shouldn’t be surprised if their travel schedules are fixed six months ahead.
Ticket sale should start about five months before the conference. That implies that the back office and website are ready for action. You’ll also need to provide speaker and venue information, as well as hotel suggestions.
End of early bird. Ticket sales soar. You generally want to announce one or two more well-known speakers for extra marketing effect.
After early bird ends ticket sales slump to a plateau that will remain static until the next phase.
Speakers should finalise their bio, photo, and session description. (Some will be weeks late, but don’t worry. They’ll come through in the end.)
You are stressed.
Ticket sales start to pick up again. Attendees and speakers will start to mail you with questions that you answered weeks ago in an info mail that nobody read, and the administration has a daytime job in handling them.
The caterer will want to know the final number of attendees, the hotel the final number of nights, neither of which you can’t quite provide yet. The printer requires the final texts for the conference booklet.
You are stressed out.
Some of the things that should have been arranged two weeks ago still aren’t done, the final badge list has to be sent to the printer, the goodie bags and their content need to be prepared, the venue or caterer or a sponsor or a random person will have unexpected questions that may be important.
Besides, actual speakers and attendees will actually begin to actually arrive to, you know, actually visit your conference! Better have everything in order and impress everybody with your smooth execution.
You are very stressed out.
You were born under the sign of Conference Organiser. The stars see a serious wifi problem in your near future. Also you will spend a lot of time on something unforeseen.
You are extremely stressed out.
You sleep profoundly. Nobody expects you to communicate. You deserve your rest.
You send Thank You mails, pay invoices, and calculate the conference result. You are happy (even if you made a small loss).
Take off the entire week. Make sure you have absolutely nothing to do. You’ll badly need this recuperation time.
Read the previous paragraph again and do it. Really! It’s important!
Start thinking about next year.
Now that you have a concept it’s time to start worrying about money and marketing.