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Saturday, July 12, 2008

From the far end of the bee hive

Organizing conferences is madness: You work on them for months, maybe longer. Then the big day comes and all mistakes that you have made in the last months will become apparent, and now it's too late to avert damage. Some days later it's all over.

Organizing a good conference is extremely gratifying. Organizing a bad one is plain frustrating.

The difference between a good and a bad conference is often planning. Here's a handful of lessons learnt from this week's endeavour:

  1. Visualize the end result. Imagine you are a participant - what do you need (information, material, services)? Imagine a speaker or workshop organizer. How about press? Write everything down.
  2. Put things into a timeline. Where do you have dependencies? Eg. before the registration can open, you need to take decisions on reimbursement. Do everything without dependencies as early as possible - the closer you come to the conference, the crazier things will get.
  3. When chosing a venue, consider implications: How easy is it to get accommodation close by? Are there workshop rooms? A secretariat? A press room? Lots of time was lost this week because some hotels were 40km from the conference venue - without any public transport link.
  4. Set up the conference secretariat first. This allows people to take care of their emergencies. Don't forget internet, printer, copying machine, a spare computer, extension cables and possibly a landline. While you're at it: Use it as your internal communications hub and post all schedules, phone numbers, roles and announcements on the wall.
  5. Allow participants to connect. At the beginning of a conference, people are usually slightly tired and confused. Give them time (and occasion) to understand who else is there, allow them to connect directly, and leave room in the program for this. Rather cut speeches than breaks.
  6. Spread information widely. Not everyone will be in the room when you make an announcement. Put all important information on walls in the conference foyer. Brief your staff thoroughly, so that they can provide information if needed.
  7. Take care of personal needs. Make sure you sleep enough. Encourage staff to take breaks. Provide for water and snacks in the conference secretariat. Have someone (and a car) available to cover unexpected needs. Distribute praise and a smile to other people working hard to make this conference a success.
We had a good conference this week, but it could have been better. I can feel the itch to get involved next time.


Anonymous said...

Ho Wiebke, fancy finding you here.

Thank you for sharing your learnings about organising conferences.

I would really recommend you try attending a training in the "art of hosting conversations that matter" - it'll give you a whole new insight into conferences... (google "Art of Hosting"...



Wiebke Herding said...

Thanks for the pointer, Helen -- 'The Art of Hosting' is definitely on my list of things to learn about. I'll have to see whether I can make the training in Vught (Netherlands) in December.