6 minutes read

The big client Qs to ask

Single- or double-blind? Oral or poster? The conference-planning questions every PCO should ask their client (before the planning process has even begun).

There are certain questions every professional conference organiser (PCO) should ask their client before they begin the conference planning process. Asking the right conference-planning questions will fill in the gaps in your knowledge, help you steer your client in the right direction, and avoid problems later down the line.

From the support I give research conference organisers every day, I’ve learned that although PCOs ask their clients all the right event-planning questions, they often don’t ask them the right conference-planning questions. Research conferences live in their own world and use their own language, so the questions you need to ask about them are different from the usual event-planning questions you would ask a client. (Disclaimer: some of the PCOs I work with ask their clients all the right conference-planning questions too.)

If you don’t know all the steps in your client’s submissions process, for example, how do you identify problems with their submissions timeline?

Or if you don’t fully understand how their review setup should work, how can you figure out if it’s workable or not? These questions are especially important if you’re using an abstract management system like Ex Ordo, as you’ll probably be managing some of these steps on behalf of your client.

Conference-planning questions to ask your client

These are conference-planning questions every PCO should ask their client, right at the beginning of the planning process.

1. How should the submissions process work?

  • When do you want to open submissions?
  • When do you want to close submissions?
  • What type of submissions do you want from researchers? And in what format?
  • How many submissions are you expecting to get? (This will be a deciding factor in how you handle them. If they’re expecting more than 50, I recommend you use an abstract management system.)
  • Do you need camera-ready copies of submissions? 

Help your client’s submissions run more smoothly by…

How you handle submissions will impact (and be impacted by) the rest of the conference. So begin with submissions and, once your client gives you a greater overview of the whole process, come back to submissions and fill in any gaps. For example, if you’re using abstract management software you’ll need to know how your peer review will work before you open submissions. And if the conference’s accepted submissions will be published in a book of proceedings, it’s important they all follow the same format.

Set up your submissions system correctly and it’ll make the rest of the process much easier, believe me!

2. How do you want peer review to work?

  • When do you want to open peer review?
  • When is your close peer review?
  • Do you want single-blind or double-blind reviews?
  • How many reviews should each submission get?
  • How many submissions should each reviewer be allocated? (Keep in mind that reviewers will be giving up their time for free, so steer your client away from overloading them.)
  • Do you want a single or two-stage review process

Help your client’s peer review run more smoothly by…

Peer review can work in many different ways, so it’s difficult to give generalised advice about it. But what’s really important is that you factor in enough time for all the stages of review your client wants. 

It’s also important you make sure reviewers aren’t overwhelmed with submissions. If reviewers have too many submissions to complete they’re more likely to miss deadlines. I’ve seen conferences where the client tried to get reviewers to review 120 submissions each. Trust me, you don’t want to be that conference.

3. How should presentations work?

  • Will you have oral presentations? (Where the researcher has a speaking slot.)
  • Will you have poster presentations? (Where the researcher has a physical or projected poster and wall space, and discusses their work with passersby.)
  • Are you collecting presentation material from presenters before the conference? (If they are, factor this into your timeline.)
  • What AV equipment do you need for the different presentations?
  • How long will each presentation be?

Help your client’s submissions run more smoothly by…

To encourage consistency, provide researchers with a template for powerpoint presentations. But be aware that researchers often work on their presentations right up to the last minute. So even if you’re asking presenters for their material in advance, it’s a good idea to set up a presentation drop-off desk onsite at the conference so you can check their presentation is in the right format before their session begins.

4. How will your conference timetable be set up?

  • How many sessions are you expecting to have?
  • How many delegates are you expecting to attend these sessions?
  • How long will each session be?
  • What equipment do you need for each session?

Help your client’s timetable be built more smoothly by…

Find out as early as you can from your client how many sessions they’ll have and how many people they’re expecting to attend each session – this will help you source the right venue and ensure you have enough rooms.

Give each presentation a code so that each presenter can easily find where their poster is located or when their oral presentation will take place.

5. How do you want the conference announcement to work?

  • When do you want to announce the conference? (Research conferences are announced by a Call for Abstracts – also called a Call for Papers or conference announcement email or letter.)
  • Do you have an email list of researchers to send your Call for Abstracts to? 
  • What information should go in the Call for Abstracts?
  • Are there particular conference announcements sites (like PaperCrowd) or listservs (academic messaging boards) you want the conference added to?
  • Are there any research publications who might publish the announcement?

Help your conference announcement go more smoothly by…

Researchers get sent a LOT of Call for Abstracts, so yours needs to be compelling. We’ve created a Call for Papers template that can help you write your client’s.

6. How do you want to handle acceptance and registration?

  • When do you want to open registration
  • When do you want to send acceptance notices to successful researchers? 
  • When should you send rejection notices to unsuccessful researchers?
  • How do you want delegates to register?
  • Will your conference have workshops that delegates register for? (If yes, make sure you have a registration system that allows this.)
  • Will your conference have social events that delegates register for?

Help your client’s conference acceptance go more smoothly by…

Ask researchers to RSVP when you send them a notice of acceptance. Then you’ll get a good idea of who will isn’t coming and can notify researchers on your acceptance waitlist. This helps reduce the risk that you’ll have fewer people registering that your client expected, but it adds more time to your acceptance process, so factor this in.

And make sure any early-bird prices are still available when you’re sending acceptance notices.

7. Do you want to publish a book of proceedings?

  • Will your conference have a book of proceedings? (This is also called a book of abstracts or book of papers.)
  • What will be included in the book? Abstracts? Full papers?
  • Will the book be hard copy or digital? (This will have a big impact on your budget.)
  • When do you need the book? To include in delegate packs at the conference or after the conference?
  • Do you also want a programme book? (This is much shorter than the book of proceedings, and contains the timetable, keynotes speakers, sponsors and pages for taking notes.)

Help your client’s book of proceedings go more smoothly by…

The book of proceedings is the official record of your client’s conference and, depending on how you approach it, it can be quite a big spend. You likely won’t have control over whether your client wants a printed book or decides to keeps it digital, but it’s important you get a clear answer on this early on.

Another cost-saving approach is to set up your abstract management system to receive camera-ready submissions (copies of submissions that are corrected and ready for publication). This will save the cost (and time) of proofing and formatting the book.

Running your client’s research conference

All the answers you get from your client will impact how you collect and sort submissions and how the conference timeline is set up. For example, is there a contingency if you need to extend the submissions or review deadlines? Will the timetable be completed in time to create a book of proceedings? If there isn’t contingency, it’s often the PCO who gets the blame!

So don’t leave asking these conference-planning questions until your client is ready to announce their conference. We’ve created a spreadsheet of these conference questions (and more)  to help you get all the info you need from your conference client.

(Click the image to download)

Download it and bring it to your client meeting, so you get as much information as you can from them, right from the start.

Jelena Đerić
Jelena’s third-favourite job was working as a PCO in Zagreb. Her second-favourite job is supporting Ex Ordo’s customers to have happier conferences. But her absolute favourite job is feeding people mouth-wateringly good food. (Live your dream, Jelena.)
Ex Ordo
Abstract Management
Collect abstracts and papers, allocate reviews, accept and register participants.