How to organise a conference in 10 steps (with templates)

9 minute read

Looking to organise a conference in 2024? Follow this step-by-step guide. Plus, take advantage of a few handy templates.

Organising a conference is a marathon, not a sprint. So, before we jump into the nitty-gritty of how to organise a conference, pour yourself a cup of tea.

Settled in? Great. Let’s talk through the basics that’ll get you to that finish line in one piece.

In considering how to organise your conference, you’ll need to first think through every significant milestone along the way.Before diving in, take a moment to assess each step, the resources required, and the workload ahead. Allocate enough time and manpower for the tasks at hand, and consider building in some flexibility around deadlines for smoother execution.

1. Formulate your conference strategy

Whether you’re organising a one-off academic congress or the 75th annual meeting of an esteemed association, your first step in organising your event is to outline what you’re hoping to achieve. The events market is busy – and has gotten busier with the radical changes we’ve seen in the past few years. Event spending is on the up as a growing number of organisations recognise the value that physical and virtual events bring both to their revenue and their brand.

Establishing clear objectives at the outset of conference planning is crucial for distinguishing your event amidst the multitude of others. When contemplating your conference, it’s essential to consider the desires and requirements of your delegates. What are they seeking and expecting from the event? Understanding this will guide you in crafting a conference experience that resonates with your audience and meets their needs effectively. Do you understand what motivates your audience? Do you have a unifying idea for your event?

What your audience wants is vital to the decision to go virtual, hybrid, or physical. A modern-day event strategy is based on choosing an event format and venue that best suits your audience. So, be sure to regularly survey and analyse the needs of your conference delegates (or association members).

Use this event strategy template to help your team stay focused on what really matters.

2. Embrace conference technology

Conference software isn’t an add-on. It should be as much a part of organising a conference as choosing a venue or dates. It removes endless manual tasks, helps your whole team work collaboratively and will usually save you money in the long run.

You’re all working hard on how to organise a conference, but when you can’t inhabit the same room, how do you ensure your team can share resources and collaborate? Free software like Slack for project messaging and Skype for group video calls can help you stop problems with communication from snowballing into issues that slow the organising process down.

And when it comes to managing the thousand-and-one tasks involved in organising a conference, software like Asana for project management and Trello for task management can help keep you motoring on.

Good-quality conference management software to collect and review submissions, build your programme and register delegates is also an absolute must. Most conference software will have a cost attached, and it may be significant. But we can’t stress enough how much time (and stress) it will save you. Plus, you can often save money in the long run by not paying for printing.

Even if you are planning a physical event you should look for a platform that provides virtual conferencing software. Too many conference organisers have faced the panicked last-minute changes from physical to virtual events. Avoid this by identifying a platform that will have you covered in the event of unexpected problems with your in-person plans. You do not need to act on it unless it is absolutely needed, and if it syncs with your chosen conference management software, even better.

3. Delegate, dammit

There’s a vast amount of work involved in organising a conference, so don’t carry it all on your shoulders, get your organising committee on board early on.

How you structure your conference will likely be influenced by the team you have. For instance, a small team may require each member to handle multiple areas. Conversely, a larger team allows for assigning individual responsibilities such as sponsorship, marketing, and local arrangements. Apart from your core organisers, involving students as volunteers can also assist in the event or with smaller tasks beforehand.

Choose your team carefully. Look for enthusiastic, organised and driven team players. And to avoid death by committee, make sure everyone’s clear on who’s responsible for what.

If you’re not an events pro, and it’s your first time organising a conference, consider getting help from a professional conference organiser  (aka a PCO or conference manager).  What happens if your plenary speaker pulls out the month before your conference? Or your AV supplier goes AWOL the week before? A professional conference organiser has seen it all before and, crucially, knows just what to do to keep things on track.

Use this template to work out your organising committee roles and responsibilities.

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4. Think through your budget and pricing model

Unlike with most corporate or consumer events, the goal in organising a conference isn’t usually to turn a profit — but it’s not to make a loss either. So, creating a detailed budget is a vital part of the conference organising process.

Where to start

If your conference has taken place in previous years, get as much feedback as you can from last year’s chair (if the conference has moved). Develop as clear a picture of your income and expenditure as possible. Recognise that there can be a fair bit of guesswork involved and your budget will shift as your conference planning progresses. So, start conservative and scale as you go.

And don’t forget that registration fees aren’t the only source of income for your event. Create sponsorship packages and investigate if there’s funding available. You can also go through your expenditure and look for areas to save money. Just don’t lose sight of the importance of creating a positive experience for your delegates on the day. If you skimp on stuff like AV, wifi, or a virtual platform, your delegates won’t thank you.

AV costs have risen due to the demands for hybrid platforms, as has the cost of hybrid platforms themselves. It’s widely known that hybrid can be a costly endeavour and it’s important to note that you would be organising two events in one. If you just don’t have the budget for hybrid, it’s worth noting that most conference organisers experienced a decreased cost of organising their events when running virtual. So, it’s crucial to thoroughly think through your budget when you’re making key decisions like this.

One way to save money when you’re searching for conference technology is to identify a solution that helps you save more money over time. A long term license agreement with flexibility in pricing by conference software providers like Ex Ordo can really help you save money. It will also enable you to have predictable expenses over the length of the license for future events. That’s another stressful task ticked off the list. 

Use this template to build your conference budget and this calculator to price your fees.

5. (Carefully) choose your venue

Whatever venue you choose, it needs to meet your needs (think: enough rooms for all your parallel sessions) and the needs of your delegates (think: comfortable, accessible venue or a well-designed virtual event space).

Lighting and acoustics are often overlooked when it comes to choosing a conference venue, but they’ll have a huge impact on delegates’ experience, especially if you’re planning a hybrid event. If possible, schedule your venue visits when an event with a similar setup to yours is taking place to see the rooms in action.

In addition to considering the expenses associated with virtual or physical venue rental, it’s essential to account for hidden costs such as fees for external suppliers, parking, sponsors, exhibition spaces, or even Wi-Fi. When assessing the overall expenditure, discuss what aspects are negotiable and remain open to bargaining. Explore potential incentives offered by the venue, such as discounted rates on delegate accommodations or complimentary lodging for members of your organising committee.

Even small perks like an airport shuttle, free tea and coffee, or discounted packages to send to virtual attendees can add up to big savings for your organising committee.

Use this venue checklist template to help you find the perfect home for your conference.

6. Build a website that does your conference justice

Your conference website will showcase your event, answer visitors’ questions and allow them to submit, register and get in touch. And it should get them as excited about your event as you are.

Your website should welcome visitors with strong visuals and the most important event details first. Think: what your conference is about, where it’s located and when it’s happening. Aim to put all this info “above the fold” on your homepage (i.e. the part of the page that’s visible without scrolling).

Getting your website live as soon as you can is an important part of organising your conference. So make some key decisions early on, get a bare-bones website up, and flesh it out as you go. If your event is taking place virtually, you’ll need to make it as easy as possible to access the event and to enable late registrations (this tends to be the trend with online conferences). 

7. Invite your speakers and authors

Good keynote or plenary speakers will attract delegates and set the right tone for your conference. If you’re organising a conference for academics or researchers, it’s not the norm to pay professional fees to your invited speakers. But you’d usually cover their local and accommodation costs, and provide a small honorarium as a gesture of thanks (if you’re planning a physical event). If you’re organising a virtual event, you can avoid these costs and look beyond your usual target group of speakers with your additional budget. 

And if you want to attract a speaker with a relatively high profile to an in-person conference, you may need to offer a larger honorarium and perhaps cover their travel costs from overseas. So, bear this in mind when you’re making your speakers list.

Another thing to keep in mind is diversity. You want the people who are speaking to truly represent your delegates. So invite both well-known researchers and junior researchers, and maintain a gender balance. And make sure you have a plan B in case a speaker has to cancel at the last minute.

Use this template to help you craft a great invitation for your speakers.

Next up, you’ll need to send a call for papers inviting authors to submit their presentations. Researchers get sent a LOT of calls for papers, and most conference organisers send theirs four or five times, which adds to the noise. So ensure the calls you send are clear and compelling. And don’t forget to list your event on a conference announcement site. Make sure to find a platform with a well organised communication centre to help you manage your call for papers in one place.

Use this call for papers template to help you write your own.

8. Think about GDPR for conference organisers

In the wake of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) implemented in May 2018, conference organisers are compelled to adhere to stringent data protection measures to safeguard personal information. Despite originating in the EU, the GDPR possesses global jurisdiction, affecting any organisation controlling individuals’ personal data, including conference organisers who manage substantial volumes of attendee information. Even conferences hosted outside the EU must comply if they engage with EU citizen data.

In response, conference organisers must meticulously manage delegate data under GDPR’s framework, incorporating innovative strategies to maintain compliance. Here are nine crucial rules for navigating GDPR compliance effectively:

  1. Obtain explicit consent for data usage, avoiding pre-ticked boxes.
  2. Utilise data solely for its intended purpose and for a limited duration.
  3. Ensure conference software is GDPR compliant for secure data processing.
  4. Safeguard personal data through secure storage and handling practices.
  5. Exercise caution when handling sensitive data to minimise risks and penalties.
  6. Facilitate access to individuals’ data upon request, adhering to GDPR-mandated timelines.
  7. Enable individuals to rectify inaccuracies in their personal data promptly.
  8. Honour deletion requests to uphold individuals’ right to erasure within stipulated timeframes.
  9. Notify affected parties and authorities promptly in the event of a data breach, ensuring compliance with GDPR’s stringent reporting requirements.

By embracing these rules and leveraging GDPR-compliant tools such as Ex Ordo, conference organisers can navigate the intricacies of data management effectively. However, seeking legal counsel remains advisable to address nuanced legal implications. With proactive measures and robust data protection practices, conference organisers can uphold GDPR compliance while fostering meaningful and secure interactions within their events.

9. Get your reviewers onboard when you’re organising a conference

If your presentations need to go through peer review, you’ll need to include bringing reviewers onboard as part of how you organise your conference.

Managing your review process is a delicate balancing act. Conference peer reviews usually happen over a few intense weeks, with the majority of reviewers assessing multiple submissions. So reviewing for a conference generally means making a substantial time commitment, often with a big immovable deadline at the end of it.

So, it’s really important that you invite enough reviewers for your conference.

If you fail to enlist an adequate number of reviewers, you risk overloading those already onboard. Overburdened reviewers are often discontented, and their dissatisfaction may lead to withdrawal or absenteeism. Consequently, organisers are left scrambling to find replacements or redistributing submissions, potentially compromising the conference’s peer review process.

Use this template to calculate how many reviewers you need when your organising a conference.

10. Build some hype

Your potential delegates are busy people and they’re making choices in a world full of 24-hour media messages. So how can you grab their attention and build some hype for your conference? Is there something changing in your sector that people are worried about responding to? Or is there a great opportunity that you can help people maximise?

Create a strategy for marketing your event that includes sending some strong messages through PR, online content and email campaigns. Implement strategy on what content you’re going to share, when and to whom. Publish interviews, blog posts, pictures, programmes, speaker announcements, etc on your conference website to help build some excitement.  And get people in on the conversation on social media by creating a hashtag for your conference. With improved accessibility due to online conferencing, make sure that your promotional campaigns are running right up to the day of your event to catch the late registrations. 

Use this event marketing timeline template to help you schedule all your marketing activities.

Use this template to help you create your social media content calendar.

Get your last few bits ticked off to organise a perfect conference

By the time conference day is on the horizon, the bulk of the work will be done…but there’ll still be lots to do.  So get your whole team on board.

You can use tools like MailChimp and the software you’re using to manage your conference to keep in touch with your delegates and invited speakers. And make sure they get all the necessary details and instructions about your conference: venue address, guidelines, contact details, registration advice, virtual Q & A advice and so on.

Use this conference planning checklist to delegate and check off your outstanding conference organising tasks.

Now go forth and conquer.

Dee McCurry

Dee helps shape the new features we build at Ex Ordo. She enjoys thinking through customer needs, and loves finding the words that make a complicated process simple. When she’s not bashing on a keyboard, you’ll find her weaving baskets from willow or drinking fancy herbal tea. Sometimes both at once.