A professional conference organiser doesn’t come cheap. Here’s why they’re worth the fee.
A professional conference organiser (also called a professional congress organiser, a PCO, and a conference manager) specialises in planning and executing conferences on behalf of academics, researchers and associations.
Planning a conference means having broad shoulders. From plenary speakers and delegates to sponsors and exhibitors, a lot of people count on you to successfully plan, promote and host your conference. But what happens when your plenary speaker pulls out the week of your conference? Or your AV supplier goes AWOL the day before? A professional conference organiser has seen it all before and, crucially, knows just what to do to keep things on track.
Here are some of the services a typical professional conference organiser might offer. Many of them will manage more or fewer aspects of the conference depending on your needs and their particular services.
Negotiating contracts with suppliers
Can you go through venue contracts with a fine-tooth comb, spotting problematic words like “exclusive” (which means you can only use potentially expensive in-house suppliers)? Do you have strong negotiating skills and solid relationships with event suppliers built on previous experience and mutual trust?
A professional conference organiser can research solid conference suppliers, compile quotes and then supply this information to your organising committee for a final decision. The PCO acts as the main point of contact for your committee and can manage all communication and ensure each supplier provide their service at the agreed standard. This removes a great deal of time in researching, requesting information and communicating back and forth with suppliers. Instead, your PCO becomes the one point of contact for you and your suppliers.
Once your committee has agreed on a conference budget, you can hand this over to your PCO and they’ll take care of budgeting each element of the conference. That means negotiating the best prices, managing expenses and taking care of bookkeeping and tax adherence. This streamlines your conference financials and keeps them all in a centralised place (which will come in handy during the post-conference evaluation).
Marketing and promoting
Ask any newbie conference organiser and they’ll tell you that one of the biggest struggles they encounter is promoting their conference to interested researchers. A professional conference organiser will take care of marketing and promoting your conference to attract authors and delegates. The service may include website design and content maintenance, social media management, PR and media releases to relevant publications. Utilising the marketing and communication skills a PCO can offer can greatly assist in spreading the word about your conference.
Managing your conference management software
If you want them to, your PCO can also handle setting up and running aspects of your conference management software. Your committee will still be in charge of which topics authors can submit under, and how the review process works, but your event pro can then send reviewer invitations, configure your registration form and build your book of proceedings. So that’s more time for your committee to spend on ensuring your conference has a high-quality technical programme.
Managing your conference contacts
Almost every one of your conference contacts – from your plenary speakers to your reviewers – will have a long list of priorities that come ahead of your conference. People often don’t have time to fully read things. Or they park an important email and then it disappears down their inbox and never gets actioned.
If you’re organising the conference by yourself, expect that you’re going to have to walk people through a lot of stuff. (And sometimes you might just end up doing it for them – like selecting a reviewer’s speciality topics, or registering on behalf of a plenary speaker.) Here’s where a PCO can be invaluable in keeping on top of who’s been asked to do what, sending timely reminders, and stepping in and completing tasks when it’s appropriate.
Reporting and evaluation
When your conference is over, it’s absolutely essential to complete an end-of-conference report and evaluate its success. This allows your committee to identify areas that are working well and areas that need improvement for next year. This hugely assists next year’s chair and can help ensure your conference continues to improve in the long term.
A PCO can provide you with data and an evaluation of each aspect of the conference. They’ll also likely give you their own feedback on how to improve next year’s event.
Professional event planners are natural problem solvers. They have fantastic contacts, strong relationships with suppliers, and when things go wrong, they roll up their sleeves and get stuff done. Almost all events hit roadblocks along the way, when yours does, you’ll want a pro fighting your corner.
Hiring a professional conference organiser
Researchers are great at doing research, not at planning events. If you’re expecting more than 50 delegates, give yourself a break and hire a PCO to do the heavy lifting. And if your conference has a tight budget and you don’t have the luxury of hiring the full services of a professional conference organiser, consider hiring someone (usually a university conference office or PCO) to manage logistics in the run-up to and during your conference.
Here’s a handy conference planning ebook, the outlines the workload involved in a typical research conference in a 12-month step-by-step task checklist.