Your foolproof conference planning checklist

12 minute read

Your conference is approaching and there’s lots to do. Use this conference planning checklist to help.

You guys have busy jobs, heaps of responsibilities, and already overstretched task lists. What you don’t have is days to spend on conference planning admin. But with some planning, a proactive team and the right software, you can organise a great conference – without the late nights. 

Whether it’s building a realistic event budget or delegating important tasks to the right people on your organising committee, your conference planning checklist will help you make sure you’re not missing a beat.

Most academic and association conferences take around 12-14 months to plan. But don’t panic, use this conference planning checklist to delegate and check off your outstanding organising tasks. 

Here, we skip the event-planning side and focuses on managing the “research” side of a conference. This is for two reasons: it’s a huge part of the planning process, and it’s what we specialise in at Ex Ordo. Happy days. 

Conference planning checklist: 12-14 Months before – Timeline, committee & website

It usually takes organisers 12-14 months to plan a conference, so start now. 

1. Build your timeline. Use the conference timeline in our free ebook to help you build yours. Factor in enough time to complete each stage of conference planning, and then add some wiggle room around deadlines. You’ll thank yourself for this later.

2. Decide if you’re hiring a pro. 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 plenary speakers – to your conference checklist. But if you’re expecting 50+ attendees, I recommend you hire the services of a professional conference organiser (PCO). 

3. Get your committee onboard. Thinking about doing everything yourself? Stop right there. Every successful conference needs an active organising committee.  So form your committee now and agree who’s responsible for the following conference planning tasks:

  • Creating a conference website and promoting it
  • Selecting venue and making local arrangements
  • Sourcing conference software
  • Announcing the conference and collecting submissions
  • Registering your conference with the body governing continuing professional development
  • Communicating with authors, reviewers and delegates
  • Selecting and coordinating reviewers
  • Inviting and managing keynote (aka plenary) speakers
  • Registering delegates and collecting payments
  • Building the conference programme
  • Publishing the conference proceedings
  • Financial accounting

4. Build your website. Whether it’s a simple website or a bespoke design, you need a digital destination to send people to. Use this checklist so you don’t forget any important info.

  • Homepage. Conference name, date and location. Logo and image. Opening summary. Sponsors. Important deadlines and social media links.
  • Welcome. A welcome from your chair inviting submissions.
  • Committee. An introduction to your committee, including bios and photos.
  • Conference topics. Themes, topics, special sessions, panel submissions etc.
  • Keynote speakers. Their bios, pictures and links to their social profiles.
  • Presenter guidelines. Oral presentation timings, AV equipment available, instructions, and specifications for posters.
  • Travel and accommodation. Info on public transport and accommodation. Programme. Release a draft programme when your keynotes are confirmed and flesh it out as you go.
  • Registration. Fees, payment methods and Ts & Cs, plus a link to your registration system.
  • Visa information. Any info international delegates will need, plus your visa invitation letter request process.
  • Sponsors. A showcase of your sponsors and sponsorship packages. Accessibility info. Any info for delegates with accessibility requirements, plus contact info for when they have a need that’s not addressed.
  • Funding opportunities. If you provide funding to help certain groups of researchers attend, set out the criteria here.
  • Deadlines and dates. This should include details on everything from when submissions close to when early-bird prices end.
  • Call for papers. Reproduce your call for papers in full.
  • Guide for authors. Guidelines on how to submit and a link to your abstract management system or submission form.
  • Contact. You may want to list different contact info for queries related to submission, sponsorship, registration, accessibility, etc. And include a link to sign up to your conference mailing list.
  • Previous conferences. Previous iterations of your conference

Conference checklist: 10-12 Months before – budget & software

5. Build your budget. Even though the goal of planning a research conference usually isn’t to make a profit, managing your finances is still vital. Create your draft budget now. Then adapt it as you secure funding and sponsorship. Here’s a budget template you can use. 

Don’t forget to consider things like:

  • Fixed costs vs variable costs
  • Tax
  • Budgeting for contingency

6. Investigate funding pots. The tourism budgets of many countries include funds for conferences with international delegates. When you’re considering a location, check how the local tourist board can help. And check if associations or organisations within your field offer funding.

7. Pursue sponsorship. The money you bring in from registrations won’t be enough to cover your conference planning costs. So pursue sponsorship packages to help cover the difference. 

8. Sort your conference planning software. The right software can eliminate a lot of late nights, uninspiring work, and admin stress. Which means you can focus on your #1 priority: planning a great conference. Lots of generic event software boasts some conference features, but these can be flimsy at best. When you’re comparing packages, check that the software can handle your needs. Good software should have the following features.

  • Abstract management. Authors submit online, the system ensures submissions meet mandatory checks (like word limits) and sorts them by topic and presentation type. Then it helps you allocate submissions to the best reviewers, saving you hours of work.
  • Delegate registration. A good registration system will help you create a merchant account for a short period of time and get paid fast. (A really good system will also help you avoid the hefty markups that come as standard with lots of online payment providers.)
  • Programme building. With hundreds of authors, topics and timing conflicts, building your programme can feel like assembling a puzzle. A good builder will help you create parallel sessions, check for conflicts, and share it on mobile so you don’t have to print a thing.
  • Tech support. Overlooking tech support is the sort of mistake rookie organisers make once. (And only once.) Sometimes, things go wrong. When they do, it’s good to know there’ll be a person – not a chatbot – on hand to untangle you.
  • Mobile conference app. An app makes navigating a large area and a complex technical programme easy. It will also allow delegates to send private messages and public posts. And if a session moves, you can send a notification to every delegate’s phone.
  • GDPR compliance. 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.
  • Book of proceedings. Software can eliminate the cost of designing, formatting and printing your book of proceedings. Instead, collect camera-ready (corrected) submissions as part of your submission process, build the book via your software, and publish it online. Bingo.

TIP: Investigate free software options. Don’t forget to consider free software like Slack for project messaging, Skype for group video calls, Asana for project management, Trello for task management and MailChimp for mass emailing.

 

Conference checklist: 9 Months before – submissions process

Before you can think about sending your call for papers, you need to develop your submissions process and set up your abstract management system. Get these ironed out and it’ll be a big task ticked off your conference planning checklist.

9. Define your formats. These could be abstracts, extended abstracts or papers. For example, will you have a max. 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.

10. Decide how you’re collecting submissions. We recommend you use a peer review system, but if you’re only expecting a few, a simple form might do the job. Managing submissions manually can seem like a good idea from a distance. Then before you know it, you’re up till 1am pinging irate emails to authors who’ve ignored your formatting guidelines. Do yourself a favour and source software that includes sturdy abstract management capabilities. It should tick these boxes.

  • Has a customisable submission process. The system needs to be able to flex to match the process you’ve designed or it won’t be much help.
  • Allow authors to make their own corrections. If it doesn’t, you’ll have to step in every time they need to make a change.
  • Let’s you track reviewers’ progress. So you can send reminders to ones who haven’t started (and leave the ones who have in peace).
  • Has a conference software integration. If it’s a standalone system, you’ll need to copy info to and from your registration and programme software. 

11. 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 AWOL 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.

12. Decide how you’ll match submissions to reviewers. Most of the conferences we work with agree a list of submission topics. Reviewers then select the topics they’re best equipped to review for. Will you allow nepotism? Nepotism happens when an author and a reviewer share an affiliation (e.g. work at the same organisation)

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13. Define 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: 8-9 Months before – send your call for papers

Time to announce your conference to the world. There’s just one problem: all 200,000 other research conferences are trying to do the same thing…

14. Send your call for papers. To make sure yours hits its mark, make it catchy, informative and scannable. Your call for papers 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 in the call for papers.

15. List it on conference directories. Directories like PaperCrowd are a great way to get your conference in front of more people. And they’re free.

16 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 fliers in their delegate packs and if you can give a short address at their event.

17. 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 are moderated mailing lists that some academics and researchers use.

18. Start posting on social media. It can be daunting to tackle social media when you already have a million conference planning tasks on your checklist. But it’s a great way to reach interested researchers. Decide which social media accounts you’re going to set up? Devise a social media content plan, decide who’ll manage your accounts, and start posting.

19. Ask you 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.

TIP: Don’t get fined. The EU’s new data protection law, the GDPR, applies to anyone who controls the personal data of EU citizens. If you send your call to researchers who haven’t consented to receive it, your conference could be fined. So ask for consent from everyone on your mailing list. And include an unsubscribe link in every email. It’s not just good practice, it’s the law.

Conference checklist: 7 Months before – set up your registration system

The registration portion of planning a conference is often a magnet for things going astray. So do some prep, test (and then re-test) your registration software, and open registration now – at least a month before you send acceptance letters. 

Give people payment options and a few clever nudges so you’re not twiddling your thumbs, waiting for payments to start trickling in.

20. 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.

21. Give delegates incentives to register early. Use early-bird and late prices to encourage registrations within a certain time period. This way, you won’t be scrambling to raise money close to conference day and you’ll be ready to cover the cost if your caterer raises their prices on last-minute orders.

22. 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.

23. Give them payment options. A good chunk of your fees will ultimately come from funding, bursaries and grants, not from 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.

24. Publicise grants and bursaries. Many early-career researchers can’t afford to attend conferences without a travel grant. If your conference offers any, create crystal clear criteria (e.g. by “early-career researcher” do you mean PhD students? Or everyone who isn’t permanent?) and make them easy to find on your website. And include links to any other grants you know about. Making info like this accessible can save would-be delegates hours of funding research. And consider offering subsidised childcare and allowing early-career researchers to volunteer in lieu of paying fees.

Conference planning checklist: 2 Months before – release final programme

Now’s a good time to build and release your final programme. But keep in mind that you’ll likely be making changes to it right up to the wire.

25. Build your final programme.

26. Invest in a mobile app. The conference tradition of printed programmes with scribbled updates is falling out of fashion. Whether you plan for it or not, delegates will use their phones to navigate your event. Give them a helping hand by investing in a mobile conference app or an online programme that’s navigable from a smartphone.

Conference planning checklist: 8-2 Weeks before – final tasks

27. Recruit session chairs. Session chairs make sure sessions run on time and encourage questions after presentations.

28. Collect presentations and camera-ready submissions. Camera-ready means corrected drafts that are ready for publication. If you’re collecting presentations before the conference, do this now. Or if you’re collecting them onsite, organise a drop-off desk. You should be able to do this via your conference management software.

29. Compile and print your conference book of proceedings. This is the official record of your conference. You may want to publish your book at the conference or wait till after.

30. Configure your conference app. If you’re using a mobile conference app, set it up so delegates can use it to network and create a personalised itinerary before the event.

31. Send info to delegates. Send delegates info regarding your programme and how to download your conference app.

32. Order contents of delegate packs, like:

  • Pads and pens
  • Conference bags
  • Badges and lanyards
  • Certificates of attendance
  • Printed conference programme (if not online)

33. Order onsite signage.

34. Print posters. Arrange for poster presentations to be printed.

 

Conference planning checklist: 1 Week to go

35. Organise registration desk.

  • Confirm registration desk and information point setup.
  • Make sure these will be staffed by friendly and helpful people.
  • Organise facilities for accepting payment at registration desk if needed.
  • Ensure you have receipt books and online card payment facilities.
  • Arrange to bring printers and laptops so you can reproduce badges if needed.

36. Deliver book and posters. If you’ve got a hard copy book of proceedings and poster presentations, organise storage for them and have them delivered to the venue.

Conference planning checklist: 3 Days to go

37. Deliver materials. Send any additional conference materials – like onsite signage, delegate packs etc to the venue.

38. Check equipment. Check conference computers, projectors and any other equipment such as poster boards for poster presentations.

39. Transfer presentation material. Download presentation files and transfer to conference laptops. Ensure that all presentations are working.

40. Check AV arrangements.

41. Send welcome email. Send delegates parking info and permits, info on airport transfers, the venue wifi code and welcome reception details.

Conference planning checklist: 1 Day to go

42. Print delegate list. Hand over delegate list to registration staff.

43. Mount posters. Mount all the posters on poster display boards.

44. Mount signs. Mount conference signs and directions inside and outside the venue.

45. Update programme. Update online programme with any late withdrawals. Then resuffle it as you need to. And finally, so your programme doesn’t end up with more holes than Swiss cheese, check which presenters have registered in the run up to the big day. Chase up the ones who haven’t, and then reshuffle your sessions as needs be. And on the day itself, ask someone at the registration desk to monitor no- shows, then do one final reshuffle.

Conference planning checklist: The morning of the conference

46. Set up registration. Arrange the registration desk: name badges, delegate packs, cash box and card payment facility, delegate lists, etc. Make sure it’s visible and has power.

47. Hold pre-conference meeting. Brief your volunteers and session chairs on emergency procedure announcements and instructions on running sessions.

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48. Hold AV rehearsal. Check AV equipment is working. Ask session chairs to familiarise themselves with equipment and ensure their sessions’ presentations are ready to go.

Conference planning checklist: During the conference

49. Welcome delegates. Welcome delegates, hand out name badges and delegate packs.

50. Complete registration. Complete outstanding payments and close your registration system.

51. Steward the venue. Have volunteers on hand to point delegates in the right direction.

52. Don’t forget to breathe. If you’re stressed and you show it, everyone else will be too. So give yourself a few moments to take some deep, slow breaths. And no matter what happens: don’t run. Walk briskly with purpose. You’re a swan gracefully gliding across the surface. (No one needs to know your legs are paddling like crazy below.)

53. Hold a steering group meeting. Hold a meeting to review the conference. Did it meet its objectives? Were there any issues or anything you could have done better? You may want to also discuss next year’s conference and choose a chair.

Conference planning checklist: At the end of the conference

54. Distribute evaluations. Distribute and collect conference feedback forms, or circulate them via your mobile app.

55. Collect badges. Ask delegates to hand in their badges so you can recycle them.

56. Collect materials. Collect posters and arrange for items to be couriered or disposed of.

Post-conference report checklist: After the conference

No matter how well your conference went, there are always lessons learnt. Now’s your chance to document them. Use the checklist below to help you compile your post-conference report.

57. Send thank yous. Send a thank you email to delegates, staff and volunteers, VIPs and keynote speakers.

58. Collect and review payments. Collect any outstanding payments. Review all invoices for accuracy and arrange payment.

59. Review evaluations. Review the delegate survey and any other evaluations.

60. Compile tech reports. Review the end-of-conference report from your conference management software.

61. Create your post-conference report. Compile your post-conference report from your 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.

62. Take a holiday. We’ve seen chairs try to jump straight back into teaching after organising a conference; it ain’t pretty. Budget some time and give yourself a much-needed break once all the madness is over.

Now go forth and excel at conference planning.

Dee McCurry

Dee moved back from London to help Ex Ordo tell their story. Although she finds it tough to find turmeric lattes and other hipster nonsense in Galway, she enjoys writing about the weird and wonderful world of research conferences.