VI. The conference

Conference organiser’s handbook


During the conference itself you’ll focus on the general flow, and make sure everybody else knows what to do.


You need the following personnel for the conference:

One core organiser should have no specific jobs during the conference. The active organisers will be tired to the bone once the conference is over, and one weekend is not enough to fully recuperate. If one core organiser is on a very light schedule during the conference itself, he or she is somewhat more awake than the others in case of emergencies during the weekend, and should take care of the aftermath in the week after the conference.

You want a floor manager that has experience in organising and very detailed knowledge of the conference, so in general a core organiser should take this job. The other jobs can be done by either a core organiser or a volunteer.

Doorman is the most boring job; 95% of the time he has nothing to do. Usually the job is rotated through the runners so that every volunteer has to spend only two sessions at the registration desk.

Floor manager

The job of the floor manager is to deal with unexpected issues. In general he has little to do 80% of the time, but is quite stressed the other 20%. The floor manager has no other jobs: if there’s a problem he should be able to devote himself to it entirely without sacrificing other things he should do.

Every conference has its unique problems. At the start of Fronteers 2008 it turned out that one auditorium had no projector. It was my job to shout at the venue staff until the problem was fixed.

At Fronteers 2009 the auditorium turned out to become quite hot from 300 geeks with their devices, as well as assorted spotlights. I spent most of the second day trying to get the temperature down. I had to convince the venue that the side doors had to be opened (they were afraid the sound of our conference would disturb others in the building), and I had to keep attendees sitting in the cold draft from closing them again, That’s the sort of problem you are supposed to handle as a floor manager.

You also have the final say in timekeeping.


The volunteers are typically young, typically students or enthusiastic professionals, who feel that doing a bit of work in exchange for a free ticket to your conference is a pretty good deal. You need to select them some months ahead. Volunteers are yours for the conference, and for the afternoon and evening before.

They help with registration, including the preparations the day before, and are available to answer questions from attendees. During the session they’re runners: they run to everybody who wants to ask a question and hand them a cordless microphone. Finally they guide the attendees to the parties.

One volunteer should be MC; it’s his or her job to announce the speakers, keep time, and do the break, lunch, and party announcements. The MC should be fluent in English and a decent public speaker; he’ll be on stage talking to everybody, after all.

The day before

The day before the conference you prepare everything you’re going to give out to your attendees: goodie bags and badges. Ideally you do so at the venue; you can fill the goodie bags and leave them there until the next day. If that’s impossible, find a spot nearby or make sure everything fits in one car and will be brought to the venue the next morning.

Call up the volunteers for this work; it’s what they signed up to do. Besides, not all volunteers will know all others, so this is a good time to make introductions and start to create an esprit de corps.

Preparing badges and goodie bags isn’t that much work; in general it takes six people about two hours. Making sure everything is at the venue (or wherever you work) is actually more work.

You need the following the day before the conference:

Put each badge in a holder and sort them alphabetically for ease of use the next day. Do not attach the badge holder to the lanyard yet. You do that when you give out the badge the next day. (Try making neat rows and columns of badges with lanyards attached. You’ll see what I mean.)

Put one booklet and one of each sponsor goodies in the bag. T-shirts, obviously, should be given out only after the attendee states his or her size.

Organisers and volunteers should take their own badges.

Speakers’ dinner and pre-party

Then you go to the speakers’ dinner, and the pre-party heats up somewhere. In general the speakers should also go to the pre-party after dinner; guide them there.

Take the speakers’ badges with you to the dinner and give them out. That saves the speakers one additional step the next morning.

Conference day

If the conference starts at 09:00, the doors should open around 08:00. Attendees must have time to grab their badge, goodie bag, and a cup of coffee.

If the doors open at 08:00, the personnel must be present at 07:30 in order to prepare the registration desk. Make sure the venue knows about this. If they can provide you with coffee, all the better.

On day 2 you and the volunteers can come in at 08:00, too. You have no special jobs to do before the start of the conference.


About 80 to 90% of the attendees turn up in time for registration. This can cause quite a jam at the registration desk. Make sure there’s one desk attendant per 100 attendees of fraction thereof, and the process will run smoothly.

Typically the badges are sorted alphabetically, and sometimes it makes sense to set up two registration desks, one for A-K and one for L-Z (or whatever). Put up signs so that attendees understand the system. Also tell them whether the alphabetical order is by first or by last name. (Do I go to the “P” or the “K” desk? Usually they’re different ones.)

Give each attendee a badge, a lanyard, a goodie bag, and a t-shirt in their size.

Should attendees identify themselves? Some conferences require that. Fronteers never has, and we’ve never had any trouble because of it. If you require it, make sure you say so on the site and in your last mail.

Registration is not an issue on day 2; only about 2-3% of the badges are unclaimed by then, and one volunteer can easily handle this.

Master of ceremonies

The first one to speak is the MC. It’s his job to welcome the audience, treat the housekeeping rules, and announce the first speaker.

Beforehand, the MC should ask how much time the speaker wants to speak, and whether the speaker will take questions during the talk or after. Thus the MC knows roughly at what time the speaker should end his presentation and move on to either questions or the end of the session.

The MC warns the speaker 10, 5, 2, and 1 minute before the allotted end of speaking time. He should keep on doing that until the speaker acknowledges the message non-verbally.

If necessary the MC should take charge of the questions-and-answers procedure, but most speakers are quite capable of handling that themselves.

The MC should prepare one question for every speaker in case aren’t any spontaneous questions from the audience. Usually this one question starts up the Q&A process and everything runs smoothly from then on.

The MC is responsible for the end of Q&A; usually by saying “Last question” about two to three minutes before the session end time.

At the end of the session the MC thanks the speaker and announces either a break or the next session.

If a break is announced, the MC names the next session’s speaker and starting time. If there are non-obvious lunch counters, the MC should point them out at the end of the third session.

If the next speaker comes in directly, a few minutes will be spent fiddling with laptops and microphones. The MC has a role in this — see below.

Speaker change

At the start of her session the speaker goes to the stage with her laptop. A venue technician will equip her with the microphone. She connects her laptop to the power and the monitor. This usually takes a little while.

The speaker usually has a handheld cordless presenter to click through her slides, but it is useful to have an extra one just in case. Similarly most speakers with Macs have their own VGA adaptor, but it never hurts to have another one available.

When the speaker is ready she notifies the MC, who announces her. Then her session starts. If she uses sound she should generally notify the technicians in advance, but they generally ask.

After her session ends the speaker turns to Q&A, and after that she addresses the audience one final time. Then she’s done, but usually a few attendees come up to ask a few more questions.

This informal talk is quite important to your attendees, and you should facilitate it. The problem is that if the next session starts immediately, the outgoing speaker has to disconnect her laptop and move off stage. Ideally, the MC gently leads the speaker and attendees off the stage, then gathers the speaker’s stuff and makes way for the incoming speaker. Thus the outgoing speaker can spend a few more minutes with her fans.

The runners

There’s a distinct cultural difference between the US and Europe, and it’s this: in the US, the average attendee dares to go to a fixed microphone and ask a question — they even queue up for it. In Europe this does not happen because people are too shy. That’s why the runner system is very important in Europe, but distinctly less so in the US.

A runner is a volunteer who brings a microphone to attendees who want to ask a question. The trick is to bring the microphone to the right attendee as fast as possible.

You need roughly one runner per 100 attendees or fraction thereof. At the start of Q&A the runners position themselves at the back of the auditorium and spread out. Thus they’ll be able to see both the speaker and raised hands in the audience. The speaker will usually pick a hand, and the runners should see both the speaker’s gesture and the raised hand. The back is the perfect vantage point.

The runner hands the microphone to the attendee, who asks his question. Runners are not responsible for long-winded droning — the speaker will deal with that.

Some say the runner should take back the microphone as soon as the question is done, but at Fronteers we let the attendee keep the microphone until the speaker is done with the question. Regardless, some attendees will return the microphone immediately, as if it’s toxic waste.

Even if he takes back the microphone immediately the runner should stay with the attendee until the speaker has answered — maybe the attendee wants to react. After the answer is fully done the runner returns to the back.

Rreserve some corner seats in the back for the runners.


Although the MC generally handles the details of session timing, the floor manager handles the overall timekeeping of the entire conference. Most experienced speakers can time their session pretty well, but there’s always one less experienced one, or maybe someone becomes too enthusiastic and runs ten minutes over time. Or maybe someone is finished ten minutes early. Anything can happen.

If a session is too long or too short, just do what comes naturally, but end the next break on schedule. If you don’t, the whole conference schedule may start to shift, and that can be a problem if you have to leave the venue by a certain time.

So if a session runs ten minutes late, you just make the next break ten minutes shorter. People will generally understand, and twenty minutes for a coffee break or fifty minutes for lunch should be enough for 90% of your attendees.

If a session ends early this is less of a problem. Ask the next speaker to take her time and fill five extra minutes. And nobody will mind a break starting a few minutes early.

However, there’s an important exception to this rule: lunch. The catering personnel usually plans lunch quite tightly: they want the food to be nice and hot when the attendees come to the counters, so there might be a problem if the third session ends ten or fifteen minutes early.

Q&A to the rescue. A good MC can stretch the Q&A time considerably, and even if he can’t fill the entire time until the official start of lunch, he can always win ten minutes or so — enough for the floor manager to warn the catering and the catering to heat the food faster than planned.

So the breaks give a one-track conference enough padding to survive a minor timekeeping problem. Unfortunately it’s harder for a two-track conference, especially if a speaker overruns and there is no break after the session.

If you floor manage a two-track conference, go to both auditoriums five minutes before the end of the sessions, and check the MC’s timekeeping. You can’t allow one track to run even five minutes over time: both sessions have to end simultaneously in order to allow people to switch track.

Conference slides

Prepare conference slides. They are the default slides that the audience sees when no speaker laptop is connected to the projector, as well as during the breaks. The conference slide should contain:

Put the slides on a computer and ask the technical staff to show it as default. They’re used to such requests, and can determine the correct slide by the session start time.

Add one extra slide with a map of the route from venue to party.

Twitter wall

It’s not uncommon to show a Twitter wall during the breaks, or some other way of showing your attendees what’s being said about the conference. That’s fine, but only during the breaks. A Twitter wall should not be shown while a speaker is on stage.

At one conference I saw one of the top speakers starting to answer a serious question when suddenly the audience burst out laughing. That was not because of anything the speaker said, but rather because a funny and irreverent tweet appeared on the Twitter wall behind him. This was not a good moment, neither for the speaker, nor for the audience, nor, in the end, for the organisation. It’s in order to avoid this kind of occurrence that a Twitter wall should only be shown if no speaker is actually on stage.


At the end of the last session the MC takes the stage again to thank everyone, points out the existence of the party, explains how to get there, and mentions free beer.

Generally you have little to do at the party; except maybe keeping track of the bar tab. Take it easy, but don’t get too drunk on day 1: you still have to be at the venue at 08:00 sharp the next day.

You have told the pub your budget for the party, and you should ask the party personnel to notify you just before that budget is spent. If that happens early (say, before 21:00), seriously consider adding some extra money to the tab — if you have any left.

Free beer equals a good time, and if they have a good time attendees will be enthusiastic about the conference and come again next year — with their friends.

Besides, if people don’t have to pay every single order takes half a minute to a minute less because there’s no searching for small change and such. That matters if 300 people try to get beers at the same time.


I advise you to call all organisers together at the end of your conference and have an evaluation straight away. Sure, everyone is bone-tired and would rather go home or beerwards, but they also have all little problems fresh in their heads, and if the conference was good they’ll also have an extra boost of energy that will allow them to survive the evaluation.

Go through the various stages of organising in order, ask everyone for their feedback, and make a list. Concentrate on things that went wrong just before or during the conference. This is not the time to make changes to the concept: there will be plenty of time for that when you meet again to plan next year’s event.


Now that the conference has been wrapped up there are a few small tasks to do in the aftermath.