Your foolproof conference planning checklist

11 minute read

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Our conference planning checklist will show you how to get a handle on the mammoth task at hand.

 It usually takes event planners 12 – 14 months to organise an academic conference. At the outset, it’s totally normal for the sheer volume of admin that lies ahead to feel a tad overwhelming. But with a proactive team, the right software, and a well-developed plan of action, you should be confident in your ability to pull off a great event, without having to burn the candle at both ends. Having a comprehensive checklist to guide you can alleviate a lot of unnecessary stress in conference planning. Once you break down the gazillion tasks you need to accomplish into specific time frames, everything seems – and usually is – far more manageable. Working systematically through a checklist will also provide you with a reference to revisit at the end of the conference. It can help you determine what was successful, and where there is room for improvement for future events.

A wise man (with great project management skills) once said: There’s no time like the present. So, on that note, let’s get cracking!

Your conference planning checklist: By month & task

conference planning checklist

Photo by Anete Lusina

12 – 14 months before your conference: Timeline, committee, & website

  • Build your timeline. Factor in enough time to complete each stage of your conference planning, then add some wiggle room around deadlines. You’ll thank yourself later.
  • Decide if you’re hiring a pro. If it’s your first time planning a research conference, we highly recommend you consider the services of a professional conference organiser (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. If your keynote speaker pulls out the month before your conference, or your AV supplier goes AWOL the week before, a PCO knows exactly what to do, as they’ve seen it all before. Note: If you’re planning to do it all without the help of an event pro, you’ll need to add normal event planning tasks – like sourcing your venue and buying gifts for speakers – to your conference planning checklist. 
  • Get your committee on board. Every successful research conference needs an active organising committee. 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 delegates. So, form your committee now and make sure each committee member understands their specific role and responsibilities – before, during, and after the event.
  • Build your website. If you’re a meeting planner within a membership association, it’s important to create a clear distinction between your association website and your conference website. Your association website should act as a focal point for your members, and promote your organisation’s work across advocacy and education. Your conference website, on the other hand, should be squarely focused on showcasing your event and converting visitors into delegates. Regardless of whether your conference website is a micro-site within a larger organisation website, or it’s flying solo, it needs to be user-friendly.

10 – 12 months before your conference: Budget & software

  • Draft your budget. Managing your finances is vital, so create your draft budget now. Then adjust it as you secure funding and sponsorship. Don’t forget to consider things like fixed costs vs variable costs, tax, and budgeting for contingency. We’ve created a budget template to help you get started.
  • Investigate funding pots. The tourism budgets of many countries include funds for conferences with international delegates. When you’re considering a location, check if/how the local tourist board can help. Also check if associations or organisations within your field offer any kind of funding.
  • Pursue sponsorship opportunities. The money you bring in from registrations won’t be enough to cover your conference planning costs. So, you’ll need to look into sponsorship packages to help cover the difference. 
  • Sort your conference planning software. While a lot of generic event software boasts some conference features, these can be flimsy at best. And if you’re planning an academic conference, the software you use will probably look quite different to that used by your event-planning peers in the non-scholarly space. So, when you’re comparing packages, just make sure the platform you’re considering can handle all your needs. Features of a single, connected, all-in-one system for planning a research conference should include: abstract management, programme building, delegate registration, and mobile app, with an integrated virtual platform to support online events. And it goes without saying that all this event tech should be backed by humans, not bots. Making a great first impression on delegates through your abstract management software will help build your event reputation, and this has knock-on effects for all other aspects of your conference. At Ex Ordo, our abstract management isn’t simply an add-on, it’s the system’s core functionality. 
  • GDPR compliance. The EU takes its General Data Protection Regulation law very seriously. GDPR rules and regulations apply to anyone who processes the personal data of EU citizens. Because you’ll be handling the personal info of authors and delegates, if any of these folks are EU citizens, by law your software needs to be GDPR compliant.
  • Download task management and project messaging tools. There are some great free apps that can 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.
conference management system

9 months before your conference: Submissions

  • Define your formats. Before you can think about sending your call for papers, you need to decide which formats you’ll be accepting. These could be abstracts, extended abstracts, or papers. For example, will you have a maximum word count, or formatting conventions? What extra info do you need from authors? This could include things like: file uploads, anti-plagiarism statements, and copyright transfers. Make sure to include these in your guide for authors.
  • Decide how you’re collecting submissions. If the idea of managing submissions manually seems a bit old school and laborious, software that includes sturdy abstract management capabilities will be a game-changer for you and your team. Just make sure the software you’re considering has a customisable submission process, allows authors to make their own corrections, lets you track reviewers’ progress, and has an online conference platform integration.
  • Work out how many reviewers you need. Inviting enough reviewers for your conference is pretty important. Overloaded reviewers are not happy reviewers. And unhappy reviewers tend to withdraw their offer to review, or go MIA entirely. When they do, you’ll be left scrambling to replace them, or off-loading their submissions onto other reviewers. Use this reviewer calculator to work out how many you need.
  • Determine how you’ll match submissions to reviewers. Most of the conferences we work with agree on a list of submission topics. Reviewers then select the topics for which they’re best equipped to review. You also need to decide if you’ll allow nepotism in submission allocation. Nepotism happens when an author and a reviewer share an affiliation, such as a country or organisation (e.g. university). Preventing nepotism means that reviewers cannot be assigned to submissions if they have the same affiliations as the authors. 
  • Clarify your review process. Single or double-blind review? Single-blind means the reviewer knows who the author is, double-blind means they don’t. In both cases, the author doesn’t know who the reviewer is. How will reviewers score submissions? Reviewers on Ex Ordo conferences generally score on criteria like: technical merit, readability, relevance, originality, and format.
conference planning checklist

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

8 – 9 months before your conference: Call for papers

  • Email your call for papers. To make sure your message hits its mark, make it catchy, informative, and scannable. Your call for abstracts should immediately make it clear what the conference is about, and who is organising it. The key details of the conference should be the first thing recipients see. If you have a rough idea about your conference schedule, or if you have plans for invited speakers, it would be well worth mentioning these as any kind of special events (even social events), or guest lectures, which could help attract potential authors and delegates. If your conference is partnered with an academic journal, or sponsored by an affiliate, these are all things that you may want to include.
  • Consent to communicate. GDPR requires you to include an unsubscribe feature in every email you send to your mailing list. If a potential author or delegate opts out of your mailing list, and you continue sending them unsolicited emails, your conference could be fined. Not being a pesky spammer isn’t just good practice, it’s the law.
  • List on conference announcement sites. Virtual and hybrid have extended the reach of conferences further than ever. Scholars from all corners of the globe can now participate in your event, and every day, around the world, new people emerge who are interested in your field. Conference announcement sites are a great way to expand the digital presence of your ideal call for papers. These websites allow you  to upload details of your conference under relevant categories. Once you add your event, researchers and academics who are browsing the internet, or who’ve registered an interest in your research category, get an alert about your conference. They can then access your website to submit their paper, register, or just find out more.
  • Ask other conferences to help promote yours. If a conference with similar topics to yours exists (and you’re not competing for delegates), ask if they’ll share your flyers in their delegate packs, and if you can give a short address at their event.
  • Write a media release for relevant publications in your field. To do this, you’ll need to make your announcement newsworthy, keep it concise, and include a quote from the chair. You may also want to post this on any relevant listservs, which are moderated mailing lists used by academics and researchers.
  • Promote on social media. LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook can be a great way to reach interested researchers. Decide which social media platforms you’re going to use, devise a social media content plan, choose someone to manage your accounts, and start posting.
  • Ask your conference sponsors to help promote it. They want people there as much as you do. Ask them to encourage business partners to attend, send your announcement to their contacts list, and promote on social media.
conference planning checklist

Photo by Alena Darmel

7 months before your conference: Registrations

  • Build a limited-access pricing model. Rather than selling all-in registrations, sell separate tickets for events. For example, offer delegates a basic fee that admits them to every session, and add optional charges for events like workshops, social outings, and meals. This gives delegates more freedom to design around their needs.
  • Ask authors to RSVP. When you send letters of acceptance, ask the authors of accepted submissions to RSVP before they register. This can give you a good idea of numbers before official registrations start rolling in. Then, if you have a list of second-round submissions, you can decide whether to accept or reject them, based on your RSVP numbers.
  • Offer payment options. A good chunk of your fees will ultimately come from funding, bursaries, and grants, as opposed to your delegates’ own pockets. But, if you force people to pay by card, they’ll need to wait to claim it back. This can put a stress on their finances. So, give them the option to pay by invoice as well as card.
  • Publicise grants and bursaries. Many early-career researchers (ECRs) can’t afford to attend conferences without a travel grant. If your conference offers any grants, you need to establish what your conference defines an an ECR. Will it be post-doctoral researchers only? Or will you include senior lecturers who are undertaking the first stages of their research careers? And what about students and scholars who are at the undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate level? Creating clear criteria and making info like this readily available can save would-be delegates hours of funding research. You could also consider offering subsidised childcare, or allow early-career researchers to volunteer in some capacity in lieu of paying fees.
  • Harness the power of early-bird registrations. If you have budget constraints and find yourself having to pick between a physical or online event, doing a big push on early-bird registrations can help clear the path for clearer decision-making. You will be able to gauge how much interest your delegates are showing in an in-person vs virtual conference. This, in turn, will show where you should be allocating the bulk of your budget and resources moving forward.

2 months before your conference: Programme & book of proceedings

  • Build your programme. Bear in mind you’ll be making loads of changes and tweaks as your event takes shape. If you plan to have a hard copy of your programme, signing off on the final print layout can go down to the wire. 
  • Recruit your session chairs. They will manage the Q&A session after each presentation, and make sure sessions run on time. Note: If your conference has a hybrid format, make sure your session chairs are tech-savvy, and capable of fielding questions from your virtual audience to physical presenters.
  • Collect camera-ready submissions. These are corrected drafts, ready for publication.
  • Compile your book of proceedings. This is the official record of your conference, and includes: a front and back cover, foreword, sponsors, table of contents, full list of abstracts or papers, abstract images, page numbering, and an author index.
  • Invest in a mobile conference app. It will give you the opportunity to offer delegates an interactive version of your programme and book of proceedings, and allow you to connect with them in a more immediate way. A mobile conference app will also help your delegates navigate the conference, pick their agendas, get crucial updates from you and your chairs, network with other attendees, and more. These apps are quickly becoming a pillar of conference success and of the delegate experience.

6 – 8 weeks before your conference: Printing & branding

  • Contact your printers. If you’re planning traditional printed poster presentations mounted on display boards for your poster sessions, as opposed to e-posters that’ll be displayed on screens, now’s a good time to send off the print-ready files. The same goes for the printing of your on-site signage, book of proceedings, programme, certificates of attendance, and conference feedback forms.
  • Contact your branding house. It’s best to get your order in early for conference swag, to make sure there’s enough stock of the promo products you want branded.

1 week before your conference

  • Send your delegates final info. This should include anything they need to know regarding the programme, and how to download your mobile app. 
  • Deliver your conference materials to the venue. Arrange for delivery and storage of printed poster presentations, on-site signage, book of proceedings, programme, certificates of attendance, and conference feedback forms.
  • Confirm your registration desk and information point setup. Make sure these will be staffed by friendly, helpful people. Arrange facilities for accepting payments, if needed.

3 days before your conference

  • Deliver final conference materials to the venue. This includes things like: name badges, lanyards, stationery, delegate packs/swag bags and any items that go in them.
  • Send your delegates an official welcome email. Include info about: parking and permits, airport transfers, the venue WiFi password, the conference hashtag to use in their social media posts, and details of the welcome reception.
  • Check the AV equipment. This includes conference laptops and presentation files. Make sure everything is working as it should. 

1 day before your conference

  • Mount poster presentations. If you have printed poster presentations, mount these on display boards. Also mount conference signs and directions inside and outside the venue.
  • Update your online programme. If there are any late withdrawals, do a final reshuffle of your programme.
  • Deliver thank you gifts to the venue. These could be for: keynote speakers and VIPs, as well as session chairs and volunteers.
conference planning checklist

Photo by Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent

Day of your conference

  • Set up your registration desk. Make sure you have the delegate list, name badges, lanyards, delegate packs, and payment facilities, if needed.
  • Hold a pre-conference meeting. Brief your session chairs and volunteers on emergency procedure announcements. Make sure there are enough volunteer stewards on hand to man the registration desk and point delegates in the right direction. 

End of your conference

  • Clear the venue of all conference materials. Be as sustainable in your efforts as possible. Ask delegates to hand in any items that they won’t have use for after the event, which can be reused or recycled, e.g. name badges, lanyards, etc. If they wish to take their poster presentations home, provide them with eco-friendly, heavy duty cardboard art tubes. Arrange for all other conference materials to be couriered, or disposed of responsibly.
  • Hold a meeting with your session chairs and volunteers. Review any issues that might’ve arisen during the conference, and/or identify any aspects which could’ve been done better. You may want to also discuss next year’s conference and choose a chair.
  • Distribute and collect your conference feedback forms. Or circulate them via your mobile app.

After your conference

  • Send a thank you email. To keynote speakers, VIPs, session chairs, and delegates.
  • Collect any outstanding payments. Review all invoices for accuracy, and arrange payment.
  • Review your delegate survey. Also analyse the end-of-conference report from your conference management software.
  • Compile your post-conference report. Consolidate all the budget and financial information, evaluation results, tech reports, and meeting notes. Include suggestions and recommendations for the incoming chair.
  • Prepare a full report. For submission to funding sources, and for internal use.
conference planning checklist

Photo by George Milton

Paula Gruben

In late 2020, Paula and her wee clan left South Africa for greener pastures, choosing to settle in the Emerald Isle (hey, the name says it all). When she's not photo-journalling about émigré life in Éire on Instagram under the pseudonym 'The Tokoloshe and the Leprechaun', she keeps our Ex Ordo community connected through content that informs, empowers, and inspires.