How I organised a successful conference for my department

I recently attended a Think Ahead workshop on “how to plan a conference”, then realised I actually got it right the first time… a year ago when I organised my own (with some help of course)!

Do you think it is unlikely that you would organise a conference? Yet PG and even UG students can be asked to help in such an event at any time! Although challenging, if done right it can be a huge boost to your CV and your confidence, not even mentioning potential networking!

TL;DR: planning is everything, work backwards from your deadline.

Now take your favourite agenda! You need to ask several questions ahead of the game:

When is the conference taking place? This is less straightforward that you would think. Sometimes it depends on guest speakers or big shots attending. Make sure you know this or have a few dates with a question mark. Work on it to make it definitive. Also make sure nobody in that field is organising something bigger than your event on the same day/week/month!

Next step is SUPER important:

Start planning as soon as you know the date(s). This will be anywhere between a 18-6 months before. If you have more than a year, then you are really LUCKY. Planning means writing the deadline (D-day) and working backwards to see what you need to do in-between.

What is the theme? You need to agree on something specific enough but not so precise that nobody will come/have anything to say about.

Who is working on this? Are you the only ‘volunteered’ person? Did you start this on your own: then are you certain you can cope alone? (spoiler: you probably need to share the madness!)

Do you have a budget? If yes, how much and is this certain? I had to work without any budget to start with, then we convinced an institution to fund partially the event (Thank you Confucius Institute!). The rest was made up by the price of entrance tickets. Having a budget to start with is game changing!

Where is this going to take place? (And also, how many people do we want to attend?) There is nothing worse than having to change the venue at the last moment. Take other events in town into consideration. Don’t forget health and safety measures regarding the number of attendees.

Who is going to speak? Do you have guest speakers or are you expecting some students to present? This could have an impact on your call for papers, your potential budget, and how to market the event.

Chinese garden conference

OK, you have covered the bases when you answered all of this. Now what happens next?

6 months:

Share a Google drive file with a list of tasks to do and then everyone can decide:

Who will send emails to potential speakers? Who will manage the event promotion? Is there anyone covering social media? Do you have a website for the conference?

If you asked for abstracts you need to select the best applications.

Start spamming! Write (several times) to relevant email lists and websites – keep messages polite and short. This is the challenging part!

Between 6 and 3 months

Start caring about the practical aspect. Will you print a program? Do you have money for catering? For conference bags? Is there anyone ready to give you free goodies?

Start asking for volunteers to help on the D-day (promise free food!). It is time to ask your speakers to confirm their attendance, remind them for abstracts. Sort your hashtag and wifi.

Now you should be able to publish online a detailed program with speaker’s names and provisional times. This will make your event look more attractive and real. Create a ticket ‘selling’ page (even if it is free!) with realistic prices compared to similar events.

Getting real: 3 months

Decide on the catering (be generous, people are more forgiving with full bellies) and order. Confirm all venues details. Hunt speakers’ abstracts and ask how they will bring their presentations, arrival details, attendance to extra events (dinner).

1 week to D-Day

Print anything you need to print. Get familiar with the venue. Update the catering booking according to ticket bookings. Check that you have technical assistance in case the projector dies on you! Check that your volunteers are still coming.

Then: Monitor speakers’ arrivals. Be at the venue first thing on D-Day and check that all is in place. Smile and engage as people arrive, and enjoy!

Thanks to Liyuan Gu & Lishen Feng without whom our conference would not have happened, the department of Landscape and supervisors Jan Woudstra and Alison Hardie for whom we made it happen. It was a success!

Go here for some great tips!

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