Organising a research conference? Some tips to help you rise to the challenge

4 minutes read

Organising a conference can be quite the challenge. But it’s also an amazing opportunity and a rewarding experience.

Putting together a successful event doesn’t have to be an uphill struggle. Just remember three golden rules: plan ahead, surround yourself with a great team, and know why you are doing it!

Here are a few tips to help you in this adventure.

1. Failing to plan is planning to fail

Don’t rush into the logistics. Before you start booking the venue and calling caterers, take some time to prepare for your conference. This will save you a lot of stress and prevent last-minute surprises.

Picture what you want your conference to look like. Who will attend? What type of event will it be? What kind of experience do you want to offer to the delegates?
Then get into specifics. How many attendees will there be? How many submissions will you receive? How many days will it last?

If you can, get in touch with previous organisers to collect information from the previous years. It will help you set a realistic budget.
And remember that it’s impossible to anticipate every little thing. There will always be some issues you didn’t expect and that’s okay. Just plan for this as well.

2. There’s strength in numbers

From programme to logistics, finance and to marketing, organising a conference involves multiple aspects which all require expertise. Surrounding yourself with a good team will help you carry out the different tasks more efficiently without being overwhelmed. It will also allow you to focus on the main goals: great content, good speakers, and engaged attendees.

Choose your team carefully. Look for enthusiastic, organised and driven team players he organising committee shouldn’t have too many members, to keep decision making and coordination smooth. Jonathan Khan finds three is a good number. It all depends on the size of your conference and how much time you have on your hands.

Learn to delegate. You can assign committees to several areas of responsibility: logistics (venue, accommodation, A/V, catering, transportation), technical programme, keynote speakers, finance and sponsors, registration, marketing (communication, PR, website, social media…). On top of the core organisers, you can enroll volunteers to help you on the day of the conference or with smaller tasks. Students will often see it as a good opportunity and happily help.

If you have the budget, consider hiring a PCO or a conference office. Being an academic, event management is not necessarily your forte. These professionals are experts at organising academic conferences. They’ll provide most valuable help especially with the logistic side of things.

3. Embrace technology

There are so many ways you can leverage the power of technology.

First of all, use good-quality conference management software to collect, review and accept submissions, build your schedule and register delegates. Yes, we are biased, but we can’t stress enough how much time it will save you!

During the conference, make sure all the rooms have the adequate A/V equipment and that it’s working! And remember, this is the 21st century! Pretty much everyone carries a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet and will want to have access to internet. Wifi can be a major issue at conferences. Make sure you check in advance with the venue that they’ll provide wifi with enough bandwidth.

You can also make use of mobile apps to enhance delegates’ experience. There are many apps out there, to help attendees network, navigate the conference, create their own schedule, etc.

4. Choose your speakers carefully

Finding the right keynote speaker is crucial but can be tricky. A good keynote speaker will attract delegates and set the tone for your research conference.

Think about what kind of speakers and presentations you want. Aim for diversity. Invite both well-known researchers and junior researchers, and try to have a good gender balance.

Make sure you have a plan B in case your speakers cancel!

5. Keep them posted

You need to craft an efficient communication plan. Implement a strategy on what content you’re going to share, when and to whom. On your website, publish interviews, blog posts, pictures, programmes, speaker announcements…update your content regularly to build some excitement.

Keep in touch with your delegates and your speakers. You can use tools like Mailchimp to send mass emails to your delegates. Make sure they get all the necessary details and instructions about your conference: venue address, dates, guidelines, contact details, registration advice, and so on.

Good communication is also important during the conference. Add signs to point the attendees towards the presentation rooms, the registration table, the lunch areas or the restrooms. Make some announcements during the day to inform delegates of the unfolding of the event and have volunteers and members of staff available to answer questions and guide delegates.

And don’t forget to say thank you! Send an email to delegates and a written note to speakers, members of the committee and volunteers to thank them for their contribution.

6. Facilitate networking

Networking is one of the main reasons why researchers attend your conference. Your job is to help them meet interesting people.

How? First of all, make sure you allocate enough time for networking opportunities and discussions. Don’t cram your program with presentations – build plenty of breakout and coffee sessions to allow delegates to breathe and chat. And choose an appropriate set up for the “social” rooms: have sofas and chairs for people to sit and converse.

Organise social events such as parties, cocktails and dinners.

You should also consider running some experiments to promote participation such as the organisation of “unconferences” and making use of cool mobile apps to encourage networking.

Conclusion

Organising an academic conference involves a multitude of tasks, most of which have nothing to do with academia. You’ll need to be organised to keep up with all of them. If you’re organising a conference for the first time, seek some advice from past organisers or professionals (and download our free planner!).

As long as you manage to get your ducks in the row and keep our tips in mind, you’ll be on track for a successful event!