Every physical, virtual, or hybrid scholarly event needs an active conference organising committee. To pull off a stellar event, you’ll need a team of committed individuals with vested interest in your conference goals.
In a busy scholarly events space, a strong conference organising committee lends you credibility. It gives your event greater influence among your community, and provides a wider reach for identifying quality topics and speakers.
Conference organising committee members are there to provide expertise on content and topics of interest to your community. Ideally, your committee should be made up of the type of experts your conference aims to attract as attendees. So, what roles should you be looking to fill? Let’s dive in.
A quick note… The conference organising committee roles below are the most common we’ve seen so far. However, depending on the organisation, you may see these roles called by different names. Regardless of what names you assign, every committee member needs to understand their specific role and responsibilities – before, during, and after the event.
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The general chair is the figurehead of the conference organising committee. They represent the committee with both internal and external bodies and are usually appointed by the steering committee.
A general chair is often responsible for approving the agenda and any requests for items to be discussed by the committee. During meetings, the general chair should ensure that any discussion is fair and inclusive. They should also ensure that clear summaries of each discussion are provided, enabling decisions to be made and actions to be assigned.
Finally, it’s their responsibility to give all committee members a top-level view of how the conference fits in strategically with the association’s other activities. They’ll need to make everyone aware of budgetary restrictions to curb excessive blue-sky thinking and keep the programme grounded in reality.
Quick tip: It’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel. Once a general chair is appointed, which usually happens 12-18 months prior to the conference, they should talk to the previous chair. The previous chair can fill them in on what they included in their budget, how many abstract submissions they received, if they broke even, etc. While costs may have changed slightly, the previous year’s budget is a great starting point to work from.
The secretary is responsible for arranging meetings in conjunction with the general chair, preparing agendas, taking minutes, monitoring attendance, ensuring action points are communicated, and keeping a record of committee business.
Quick tip: Prevent problems with communication from snowballing. We’ve put together a handy list of the best conference apps to keep your committee members engaged in the planning process and help them stay on target. In terms of hyper-visual task-management, we recommend Trello. And in terms of project messaging, you can’t go wrong with Slack. We use both extensively for our own work at Ex Ordo.
The programme chair ensures that a well-balanced, high-quality technical programme is organised and presented at your conference. Together with the programme committee, they are responsible for deciding on the theme and planning the programme for the conference. And together with the general chair, they develop your conference’s call for papers/abstracts. They take responsibility for the peer review process and will likely be the one sourcing suitable abstract management software.
Quick tip: Leverage your human capital. Within your programme committee, you have a wealth of combined education, training, knowledge, know-how, and skill sets to draw on. Don’t let these brilliant minds, who’ve worked tirelessly behind the scenes on the peer review process in the months leading up to your conference, go to waste on the day. As programme chair, you could request that interested parties serve as session chairs during the event itself.
In conferences where there are 100 submissions or more, managing the entire peer review process can be too much for one person to handle. Depending on the size of the conference, the programme chair may appoint people to a programme committee, to help manage the peer review process. Programme committee members also take responsibility for distinct parts of the peer review process, or thematic areas known as tracks, within the conference.
Quick tip: Appoint track chairs. If your programme is broad in scope, the programme committee may separate it into tracks, and appoint track chairs. Each track can have its own deadlines and reviewers.
The publicity chair takes responsibility for promoting the conference to potential authors, delegates, and wider media. They’re usually responsible for developing media releases and communicating key messages about the conference. They manage the conference’s social media accounts, and may work with the programme chair to develop the call for papers. They could also take ownership of conference branding, and oversee the creation of the conference book of proceedings.
Quick tip: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While some aspects of your marketing campaign may need to be built from the ground up, others may simply need a refresh of their current digital presence. For example, even if you decide on a total or partial rebrand of your conference, you probably already have existing social media pages, with a number of followers, which can just be revamped in line with the new branding.
The local chair looks after the practical side of conference arrangements. They find and suggest venues, manage the delegate registration system, and make sure suppliers and logistics have been taken care of. They may also be responsible for the conference website.
Quick tip: Thank your committee members publicly for their time and effort. A good website will introduce the members of your conference committee with their bio and headshot. Not only is it a great way to give each one recognition for their contribution, it also helps demonstrate your conference’s authority, and earn your prospective attendees’ trust when they visit your website. For non-members of your association and/or those unfamiliar with your event, seeing that respected people in their field are involved can reassure them of the level of quality they can expect from your conference programme.
The digital chair or ‘tech chair’ is responsible for creating the digital strategy for your conference, and project managing web/digital initiatives. They will have a good understanding of technology options and be able to assist with (or even lead the charge on) building your conference tech stack. .
Quick tip: Cover your digital bases for all eventualities. Too many conference organising committees have faced the panicked last-minute changes from physical to virtual events. So a word to the wise – even if you’re planning a physical event, you should definitely invest in a platform that provides virtual conferencing software. It means you’ll be covered in the event of unexpected glitches with your in-person plans. And, if it syncs with your chosen conference management software, even better. Forewarned is forearmed. Trust us on this one.
The finance chair takes charge of creating a conference bank account, arranging conference insurance and deposits, creating a conference budget, managing expenses, and creating financial reports.
Quick tip: Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Trust your digital chair’s recommendations for the proposed technology items in your conference budget. The company you choose to partner with for your virtual conferencing software needs has to be robust and reliable. Critically, they should be agile enough to grow with you during any seismic shifts in the events landscape – a challenge many of our customers faced during fluctuating lockdown restrictions over the course of the pandemic. So, if you invest wisely now you could avoid heaps of hidden tech costs down the line.
While the following people don’t sit on your conference organising committee, they can help you pull off a top-notch event.
The steering committee is usually responsible for appointing the conference’s general chair, and may need to approve who will be appointed as programme chair. They steer the strategic direction of the conference, acting as advisers to the general chair and programme chair, assisting them with the overall organisation and financial planning of the conference, and helping them to make decisions, especially around the conference venue and date, the budget, and the overall technical content of the conference.
Session chairs manage the Q&A session after each presentation, and make sure sessions run on time. They’re usually recruited a few months before the event.
Quick tip: Find tech-savvy session chairs. Make sure they are capable of fielding questions from your virtual audience to physical presenters.
Professional conference organiser
What happens if your keynote speaker pulls out the month before your conference? Or your AV supplier goes AWOL the week before? A professional conference organiser (PCO) has seen it all before and, crucially, knows exactly what to do when things don’t go as planned. So if you’re not an events pro, and it’s your first time organising a conference, we highly recommend you consider hiring the services of a PCO. For a fixed fee, and sometimes also a fee per delegate, they will look after the admin and logistics of planning your conference, and ensure that everything runs like clockwork. From what our customers tell us, a good PCO is worth their weight in gold.
Next steps for your conference organising committee
By no means an exhaustive list, this covers the basic structure of what your conference organising committee should look like, and the general roles and responsibilities of each team member.
Once you have selected your committee, the team should have an induction meeting to discuss the committee’s processes, expectations, and boundaries. Accountability and responsibility are important, so ensure each committee member has a clear understanding of how they fit within the plan. This will help you avoid duplication of work and stepping on toes.
And, if you’re looking for an extra boost on the event tech part of the conference puzzle… here at Ex Ordo, we build tools that make your job as a conference organiser easier. We specialise in conference management software for academic and association events.
“Ex Ordo has helped us stay on top of things and allowed the organisation committee to concentrate on the technical work related to the conference rather than on the organisational details. The tool presents a minimalistic set of available options to simplify our life, while all the non-standard options are still available in the background. The support team is simply fantastic, always helping to reduce our workload.” – Jean-François Dufour, Clinic Director and Full Professor of Hepatology, University of Bern, Switzerland