This year for the SLA Conference (see my review of SLA Conference) I was conference planner on behalf of the SLA Leadership and Management Division, a voluntary role that I started at the conference last summer. My role was to plan educational and social sessions on behalf of the division, and coordinate our kiosk in the exhibition. Although there were some challenges along the way, I’m really proud of the programme we put together. The speakers were all excellent and great to work with. I received some lovely feedback from members who had attended the sessions and gained a lot from them, and the energy from the ones I attended certainly suggested people were enjoying themselves.
The role of Conference Planner is well suited to my skill set in terms of event planning and organisation, communication skills (mostly online communication but lots of it needed), and hosting and moderating events. I learnt a lot about working with organisations and other conference planners to organise larger events (the conference had around 1500 attendees), as well as learning about SLA as an organisation. It was a useful and enjoyable experience, and I was in my element at the conference (I’m so much more comfortable when I have a role to play!). In order to share my experience and support others who take on this or similar roles in future, I’ve listed a few key things I’ve learnt from this experience, and other experiences of event organisation. These are mostly focused on before the event as this is when the bulk of work happens, but there’s also some for during and after too.
- Pay attention to the conference themes
Conferences usually have a specific theme or a series of sub-themes. Deciding on these is usually a collaborative effort, and in my case we had a physical meeting at last year’s conference to discuss the intended content focus (though sometimes it’s set before the planners are involved). Once the themes are defined, it was then up to us as conference planners to consider how our unit would support that. Fortunately for me, leadership was one of the themes of the conference so the Leadership and Management Division was well placed to support that theme. As you are working on shaping the programme, it’s worth checking back to ensure you are sticking to the vision and theme of the event. Of course sometimes you want to have a session or two that are a bit different, but in general you should be using the themes as a guide to the content focus.
- Always give yourself plenty of time (at every planning stage!)
A year or more might seem like a long time to plan a conference, but there is so much to it – even when you’re only looking at one part of the event. All events are different, but follow a similar process. The first stage will usually be the logistics of the event (dates, venue, capacity etc.) and shortly after the focus will be on the content themes. Then you’ll start to sketch out the sessions, and either invite proposals or approach potential speakers/facilitators. There’s likely to be key cut off points for proposals and final details of each session. My experience taught me to have all this information ready in advance of the deadline and give myself an internal earlier deadline for each stage which incorporated a buffer of a week or two to account for delays. This deadline (the earlier one) was the one I shared with people I needed information from to give myself time to bring the information together, and also allow for delays on receiving the information. I almost always needed some of this extra time but it meant I was never late for the actual submission, so I’d recommend working on this basis.
- Think about variety and different needs
As a conference planner, the role you have represents a large number of different people with varying needs. You will of course have some form of bias based on your own interests and approaches, but it’s important to try to consider different preferences too. One way to do this is to ask for suggestions from potential attendees, or just pass your ideas by other people to see what they think and if they have any suggestions for adding or amending anything. Be ready for challenges, and embrace them – the programme is there for the attendees, and some of them may be very different to you. Don’t be afraid to try new things out.
- Consider ways to facilitate conversation between attendees
The content of a conference is of course important, but the conversations are too, and as a conference planner I feel it’s important to try to set up spaces to encourage conversation. I tried to do this within some of the sessions I organised this year and the feedback was positive (I led a session on leadership challenges for example, and the content and discussion was determined by the participants). It’s great to have experts share their wisdom and experience, but there’s a lot to be learnt from the wisdom and experiences of the conference attendees too so I think it’s important to make the most of this and create opportunities for people to connect, whether that be within the sessions or outside of the formal sessions (through socials and during breaks/lunch).
- Communicate regularly (with all stakeholders)
You may be sensing a theme in terms of communication! Most of my time was taken up with communication rather than planning (the planning is the more straight forward bit that happens between the conversations!). It will be different for each event, but I don’t think you can do enough communicating. For SLA I was in regular communication with my contact on the Conference Advisory Committee, the Leadership and Management Board, each of the potential speakers, SLA themselves, and people who were helping with the planning. Keeping everyone informed helped ensure we all knew what was happening and nothing fell down the cracks!
- Accept help when offered
I was very fortunate to be working with a fantastic group of people in the Leadership and Management Division. Some of them offered to support me by helpintg with some of the tasks that were part of my role. The Director of Communications for example was a fantastic source of support in terms of promotion (more on that later), one of the board had previous experience with one of our events so took responsibility for that, and next year’s conference planner was an incredible source of support during the conference (along with other board members who helped out too). Initially I felt guilty accepting their help, but I soon realised that they were offering because they wanted to help, and that it was a win-win situation all round.
- Promote the programme
We had so many activities planned to promote the conference programme, though it still didn’t feel like enough as we knew some people weren’t aware of the programme. Partly this is likely to be a case of information overload, and I’m not suggesting you contribute more to that than you need to, but make sure you have utilised each of the relevant channels to promote your programme – things like websites, blog posts, webinars, flyers, social media, etc. One thing that I think worked well for us (it certainly made things easier for myself and the Director of Communications anyway!) was to have a set of interview questions to ask each of the presenters to answer in relation to their session. Some of the information I adapted from the session blurb, and the rest we did an interview style (by me emailing the questions and them replying to each). Hopefully this was easy for the presenters to answer, and beneficial to those wanting to know more about the session and the presenter.
- Be present
As the conference planner, it can be all too easy to be so focused on the behind the scenes activities that you don’t get to be part of the programme. I’d urge you if you can to be part of as much of the programme as possible. You’ll obviously have some things you need to do during the event that will take your attention away from that (setting up spaces, looking after speakers, checking people are arround to cover roles you need covering etc.) but make sure to do what you can to be present during the programme (and at the exhibition if applicable). This will not only be rewarding to see what you have worked on come into fruition (and especially gratifying when people enjoy it and thank you for your part in making it happen), but it also helps you consider what worked well and what didn’t work so well from your own perspective. This will help not only you for future, but also future planners who can learn from your experience.
- Collect feedback
I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t do this for SLA, and I really regret it. In previous events I’ve tended to collect feedback electronically after the event (by sending email invites out to a Surveymonkey survey), so I didn’t consider the fact that this time I wouldn’t know who had attended our sessions (unless I had asked people to share their names/email address and I didn’t do that either!). I did a headcount so know how many people came to each, but other than the anecdotal feedback at the time and some emails since, I don’t know what people thought. Fortunately next year’s planner is a lot more organised and shared a survey to capture some of the feedback and ideas for next year. I’d definitely recommend thinking how you will collect this information (which I’m usually pretty good at being a natural evaluator!).
- Share your experience
Linked to the above in terms of sharing feedback, but more specifically in terms of supporting future event planners, it’s helpful to share your experience and tips and advice. In the past I’ve usually done this by sharing notes or a report with the committee I’ve been working with, or some sort of handover to the person taking responsibility for the next event. This time I’ve chatted to the conference planner and have shared more publicly through this blog post – I’ll be making sure to share this blog post with some of the people I know will be planning next year’s conference.
Do you have any further tips and advice for people planning conferences? Please add them in the comments if so.