how to plan a Meeting

A conference is a great way for people with a common interest to get together and exchange the most cutting-edge ideas in their field. Conferences are regular occurrences in academia, many industry fields, multi-level marketing groups, and religious groups, to name a few. If you have decided to organize a conference in your area, you might be starting to realize that a well-planned conference has a to-do list about a mile long. There is the conference venue, participant list, materials, technology and even refreshments to think about and plan. If you are beginning to regret stepping up to plan, slow down, take a breath and know that you have the skills to organize a conference. The key to successful conference planning is to take each task one step at a time, and keep a thorough list of what you’ve done and what you need to do next.

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    Start early. You should begin early stages of planning the conference at least eight months in advance, even longer if the conference will have many participants or is large in scope.[1]

    • Remember, many venues and catering services must be reserved months in advance, and many participants will have to travel and make scheduling arrangements to be present.
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    Form a committee. A conference committee makes all the decisions for the conference, and having more than one person ensures that you have enough perspectives to make decisions on important issues and that you have enough people to actually pull off the details.

    • You will need a conference coordinator, who is the point person for all the major decisions and who will end up giving the most time to pulling everything together.[2]You can also hire an event planner if you have a big enough budget, and spare yourself the headache.
    • If this conference is repeat of one that has been held before, try to get the previous year’s coordinator on the committee. If he or she cannot participate, at least ask for any materials from the previous year to help streamline planning.
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    Write down your goals and agenda. You will need to clearly define what you hope to accomplish with this conference because this will shape the rest of your decisions. Knowing what you want to convey and to who before you begin any other conference organizing eases the stress of moving forward.

    • If you have never planned a conference, it is wise to stick to a small and relatively straightforward plan the first time you attempt it. Practically speaking, that means a conference of one or two days at the most, with no more than 250 to 300 people.[3]
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    Choose the city and the dates. Although you may not be able to choose the specific date and location without more planning, it’s important that you have a good idea of how much time you have to plan.

    • There are likely a lot of constraints on the date that you choose owing to your particular situation, but in general, conferences are usually held during particular times of the year and particular days of the week. In Europe, for example, conferences are usually held between March and June or between September and November; any other time and people are less likely to show up. Similarly, conferences tend to be held from Thursday to Friday or Monday to Tuesday.[4]Find out what the industry norms are in your area before choosing the month and days.
    • The length of a conference depends on how many people you think will be participating, and what all needs to be accomplished at a conference. For a conference of 250-300 people, plan for about two full days.[5]
    • In general, you should only attempt to organize a conference in your own city, and the city needs to have access to a nearby airport, hotels, and an acceptable choice of venues. It’s best, too, if the city is a large metropolitan area that people would want to visit anyhow; people on the fence about attending a conference are more likely to go if it is in a tourist destination.[6]
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    Name the conference. This will help when you begin publicizing, but also helps in planning since you can keep your materials consistent and start building a social media presence for the conference.

    • Choose a name that hints at the goal and/or audience of the conference itself. Look up names of similar conferences to get ideas, but be sure yours is original.[7]


Organizing the Conference

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    Develop your budget. There is no way that you can do anything else without knowing how much money you have to spend overall, and then breaking that down into allocations such as conference venue, materials and speakers’ fees. Stick to your budget, and if you delegate responsibilities, make sure your assistants are adhering to their monetary limits as well.

    • The budget might be influenced by whether or not you want to try to recruit sponsors for your event. Sponsors pay a fee to support the conference, but also get a say in the content of the conference itself, typically including hosting presentations or panels with their own speakers and branding conference materials with their logos. On the plus side, a sponsor pays you up front, which gives you more money to work with as you plan. Sponsors might include local industry leaders or philanthropists, depending on your topic.[8]
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    Establish ticket price and method of sales. Some conferences are free to participants, and others charge exorbitant fees. There are several factors to consider when setting the ticket price and determining how to begin selling tickets:

    • What are the fees associated with conference planning? If it is a small, local conference with little or no fees, it might make sense to not charge people for attending. Another option is to allow people who present to attend free, while others pay a small fee to cover conference costs.
    • Multi-day conferences or those that serve meals typically charge registration fees, which can vary from $30 to several hundred in the United States.[9]
    • Many conferences use a sliding pay scale for people in different stages of their careers. For example, academic conferences typically charge a lower fee for students than for faculty, and also charge a lower fee for members of the sponsoring association than for the general public.
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    Choose your conference venue. When scouting locations, keep in mind the number of participants, the convenience of the location, parking and proximity to public transportation, airports and hotels. Your goal in finding a place to hold the conference should be making it as easy as possible for participants to attend.

    • Check out whether your city has a convention center or hotel with convention rooms. For small conferences, you can often rent a local church or community center.
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    Enlist the help of venue staff. If you have chosen a venue that is known for holding conferences, then tap into this invaluable resource. This is what the staff does every day and should be able to answer any questions or concern and provide advice when needed.

    • Some venues even have an event planner on staff who can handle many of the remaining details of your conference. Even if the planner charges a fee, it may be worth it to prevent this from becoming your own full time job for the next few weeks.
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    Decide on a menu. When you organize a conference, you need to remember that participants will not want to sit all day without eating a decent meal, and many won’t know what is available in the area. Figure out if you will be hiring a catering service to bring in breakfast, lunch and snacks or if the conference venue you have chosen will provide food service.

    • Keep in mind that many people have dietary restrictions, allergies, and preferences that can make planning meals rather difficult. If you choose an experienced caterer, they can create options for vegetarian, nut-free, gluten free, kosher, or other meal preferences.
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    Insist on a walk-through. After you have gotten through the bulk of your conference organizing, don’t leave anything to chance by walking in with the rest of the participants when the conference is set to begin.

    • Go to the conference venue and meet with the staff the day before to be certain that everything is in place and to take care of any last minute details.


Planning the Contents of the Conference

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    Plan the schedule. You already know the title of the conference and have a general idea of the topics. But now you have to decide how it will actually play out. Conferences come in many types, and different industries take different approaches. If you are unsure how to proceed, consider going with a common conference format:

    • Begin with a keynote or opening address. This is usually a speech or presentation given by a huge name in the industry or field — whoever happens to be the most well-known speaker you can convince to come. The keynote can take place in the evening, and then end with a dinner, or it can take place first thing in the morning on the first day of the conference.
    • The remaining day or days of the conference should be divided into shorter sessions. The actual content of sessions is usually determined by who is planning to attend (participants will submit proposals), but you can also plan for workshops, film screenings, or other formats that you know you want to include. Depending on how many people are attending, you can one session happening at one time (which is called “plenary”) or you can have several sessions running concurrently (called “breakout groups”) so that participants have a choice of what to attend.[10]
    • End the conference on a high note, with a motivational speaker or a challenge to the audience.
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    Decide what type of sessions to have. These will vary depending on industry standards, but you might consider lectures, works-in-progress presentations, workshops, policy updates or state-of-the-field addresses, interactive sessions, or open-floor poster presentations.

    • The type of sessions you expect to have will influence how you publicize the conference, so decide early what type of content will be most meaningful to your target audience.
    • Sessions can range from 45 minutes to three hours each, depending on the number of presentations and the content.[11]
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    Plan if you need to include any other activities. Figuring out how to fit other important events into your conference schedule is vital for a successful event.

    • You can also schedule time for organizational business such as business meetings or awards.
    • You can include catered meals or ask attendees to bring a brown-bag meal (generally, only choose the last option if you are not charging a fee for attendance; otherwise, people will expect their registration fees to cover at least one meal). You can also take a break and let attendees get lunch at nearby establishments, if your venue is in town.
    • Decide if your attendees are likely to want any type of entertainment, such as tours of the local area, a night at a comedy club, or a film or theater performance. In some cities and some industries, these are expected, but in others they might seem out of place.


Publicizing the Conference

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    Determine who will participate. There are many kinds of conferences, including academic, religious, and industry, and each of these types differs in types of participants. You need to be sure there is enough interest in the segment you are targeting before proceeding with planning.

    • If you are only targeting a small group, such as employees of your company or members of your church, you do not have to take as many steps to publicize the conference. A simple email or two, along with a mention in the newsletter and/or at administrative meetings should be enough to publicize the conference.
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    Find industry leaders to participate. You need a big headliner or keynote speaker to help convince other people in the industry.

    • Once you have confirmation that big names in the field will participate, you can include this information in your conference materials, such as your calls for participants.
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    Create a conference website. These days it is almost mandatory to have a digital presence for a successful conference. Find an available URL that includes the conference name or a logical derivative of it, so that it will be easy to find. Include all the important information about the conference at the website, and be sure to list the URL on all print materials and advertisements related to the conference.

    • On the website, be sure to include the date, time, and address of the conference venue, and names of any prominent speakers. You can also include information about transportation, lodging, area attractions, and you can attach the conference schedule when it is available, if desired.
    • You can also update the website with a link to register when you are ready to open up registration.
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    Advertise. Start early (up to a year in advance) so that presenters can begin submitting proposals for session ideas. Depending on the size of your conference and your target audience, your approach will differ. Keep in mind where members of your target audience get their information about this industry or group. These might include:[12]

    • Social media, such as the sponsoring organization’s Facebook page and Twitter feed
    • Listservs and e-mail contact lists
    • Trade blogs, magazines, newsletters, or journals
    • Posters, flyers, or other announcements sent to relevant groups, organizations, or businesses
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    Solicit proposals. In your advertising materials, you should also include a “Call for Participants” or a “Call for Proposals” asking for individuals or groups to submit paper, panel, or workshop proposals.

    • Depending on your industry, you can ask for a specific length of the proposal. In academia, smaller conferences usually ask for an abstract of a few hundred words; larger conferences ask for entire manuscripts.
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    Begin accepting registrations. It’s a good idea to have a way for participants to register before the conference, even months in advance, to give you an idea of how many people will show up.

    • Set up a registration website that is linked to the conference website. There are several ways to do this using existing services if you do not have the technical skills to create your own. For example, you can pay a fee to use the services of RegOnline, a company that hosts online registrations for events, compiles them, and sends them to you in a user-friendly way.
    • You can also allow participants to call or fax in their registrations if you have a way to process payment by credit card.
    • If you do not want to do an online or telephone method, create a registration form and upload it to your website as a PDF, then have participants print it and fill it out and mail it, along with a check, to your business address.
    • To encourage early registration, offer a discounted rate for those who register a month or more in advance, a slightly higher fee for waiting to register in the month prior to the conference, and a slightly higher fee for at-the-door registrations.

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