Friday 27 April 2012

My top ten things to consider when organising a conference

I just organised and hosted an NGS conference for 150 people in Cambridge which was well attended, had interesting talks and received positive feedback. It was a lot of work getting everything organised so I thought I’d put together my thoughts on the whole thing as a reminder of what to do next time and also mention some things I learnt during the process. The tips below should be useful for national meetings of 50-200 people.

If you are going international or much bigger then get more help, and lots more money!

First and foremost in my recommendations for event organisers is plan well and plan early!

Here are my top ten tips, there is some discussion about a few of them further down the page.
  1. Don't forget the science!
  2. What is your meeting about and who is the target audience?
  3. How long will the meeting be and what sort of format will you use?
  4. Who is going to organise it?
  5. Who is going to speak?
  6. Where will the meeting be held and what are the facilities like?
  7. Can you get sponsorship or do you need to charge a registration fee?
  8. How will you advertise and organise registrations?
  9. Who is making name badges?
  10. Get some feedback after the meeting!

1, 2, 3: The science and the audience are your most important considerations. Make sure you have a good understanding of what the audience are expecting to get from the meeting. Your own experience of good (and bad) conferences will help. Understanding the focus of the meeting will also help determine the probable length of your meeting. A lot can be accomplished in half a day, more than one and a half might mean two nights accommodation and that can put people off coming.

4, 5, 6: Organisation is key, get this wrong and the meeting might not be as successful as you'd hoped. Are you going to organise it yourself or will someone in your lab, or you might even have an administrator who can help? Will the meeting be in your host institution or somewhere else, what sort of rooms do you have available and is there a pub nearby for afterwards!

7, 8, 9: Meetings cost money and people need to be told about them. If you can get sponsorship then do, many companies would love the opportunity for a captive audience. Charge more for a stand or the chance to give a talk, between £100-£1000 for a stand and as high as you can for a talk. You could also offer companies the chance to sponsor an academic speaker and cover their flights and accommodation, this goes down better with audiences. Registration fees can cost more to administer than they raise in revenue, speak to your finance officer about them first. We used Survey Monkey for registrations, users can answer questions about session preferences and food requirements and everything is delivered back in a simple spreadsheet format with email addresses for a confirmation from you to your attendees. Don't underestimate name badges. Making 200 yourself without knowing what a "mail merge" is would be hard work.

10: Get some feedback. I used Survey Monkey again to ask several questions about the 3rd CRI/Sanger NGS workshop (all the results are here). First and foremost was did people think the meeting was good (91% said yes)? Would they come again (90% said yes)? I also asked about their background and experience, as well as the aspects of the meeting they liked best to help shape the next years meeting. Leaving space for some free text comments was good as well, some people gave very useful constructive criticism. 

Other things: I used a spreadsheet in Excel to keep track of the meeting, what the times were for each session, who the speaker was, had they confirmed, did I have a title, what were their contact details, etc. You can get a copy here.

A hard thing to get right is how much to over-book your meeting or under-cater it. You can bet there will be no-shows on the day and a registration fee will help prevent speculative registrations. But inevitably some people won't be able to make it. I would aim for filing the room allocated next time but only catering for 75% of the numbers to keep costs reasonable.

PS: Remember to ask people to switch of their mobiles. I was at a meeting where a phone rang loudly for a while before the current speaker realised it was theirs!


  1. Hey James, some great tips there - especially about getting feedback for future events - on these lines, I suggest you have a look at the mobile app Evenium ConnexMe, which allows you to launch surveys during the actual conference, showing the results live on screen - or not if you prefer..your participants can also post comments directly through the app directly to you or onto the screen..could be something you may be interested, have a look!
    Best, Sophie.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.