This survey summarizes some of the basic tasks and steps for the preparation and organization of events and provides hints on what not to forget.
The document is focused on the tasks of the Local Conference Organizer (LCO). Please have a look at Phases of a Conference for more information for the program chairs of a scientific meeting.
Conference Date and Location
- When deciding on the conference date, please consider the following:
- Is there a conference with a similar theme taking place somewhere else at the same time?
- Gather information about holidays, other conferences, fairs and events in your city. If a lot is going on, it might be hard for the participants to get hotel rooms at reasonable rates and travel deals with decent fares.
- If more people want to attend than expected, does the location allow to handle this?
- Consider the distance between the different rooms / locations. Remember that attendees might want to change from one talk / room to another during a session.
- Is it possible to provide free internet access at your event location? Does it scale with many users? Frequently, the local network infrastructure collapses with several hundred participants.
- Clarify the safety conditions (max. number of persons) and the precautions concerning fire security.
- Is the location accessible for handicapped people?
- What internal resources and what kind of technical support can be provided (at what price?).
- Does the location have binding contracts with suppliers? If not, find the best local suppliers.
- Check at what time before and after the event the venue rooms are at your disposal.
- Are these rooms accessible at any time?
- How much do extra rooms cost if you need for instance a room for a spontaneous meeting of an interest group.
- Are the required transport and lifting gears available?
- Where is the technical equipment usually kept? Which safeguard has to be considered?
- What kind of electricity supply exists? Where are the sockets, do you have all required socket and/or power adapters (e.g. for the laptops/equipment of the presenters)?
- Do you have to pay extra for electricity, water, light, support?
- Where and how do you control lighting and public address systems?
- Is it necessary that the local fire service has to check the installation?
- Are certain materials forbidden? If yes, which?
- Remember to promote your event. It is important to find the right balance between attention, costs and efforts.
- One key aspect is certainly the conference website. We always recommend hiring a professional designer for your website.
- Send invitation e-mails to authors and participants of the preceding events (but don’t “spam” them!). Synchronize such tasks with the conference chairs.
- Start with the preparations early enough, as authors need time to prepare and write their submissions and to plan their trips.
- Plan the PR during and after your conference in time. You should send out press statements and invite journalists. Good PR is not only important for the success of your event, it also makes the work of the organizers of the follow-up event easier.
Calculation of Costs
- Create a financing plan to calculate the costs and revenues of your event.
- Usually it is helpful to get the plan of the preceding event.
- Typical costs to consider are:
- the event location,
- the proceedings,
- public relations,
- social events (excursions, dinner, etc.),
- coffee and drinks during the coffee breaks,
- invited speakers (travel and hotel expenses),
- designers, website, software,
- materials (computer, phone, printer, paper, flip chart, copier, etc.),
- staff (cloakroom, night watchmen, catering, technical emergency team, etc.),
- other personnel and costs for the student volunteer programme (see below),
- prints (conference program, reader, tickets for meals and special events, agenda booklet, badge blanks and holders, special handouts and announcements, banquet menus and programs if separate, etc.),
- prize money (best paper award),
- banking fees, credit card transaction costs,
- usually at least 10% of the budget should be considered for unexpected costs,
- taxes: do the participants have to pay VAT / GST or is your conference VAT exempted? Ask a tax expert about your case and the laws in your country!
- your finance department might have specific guidelines with regard to tax regulations or invoice requirements that you must follow,
- decoration (flowers, banners, etc.).
- Potential savings
- Talk to organizers of previous events and try to figure out where money could be saved and extra expenses might improve the event.
- Get several quotes, e.g. for different evening event locations. The prices can differ enormously.
- Look for local, regional or European subsidies.
- Can your university / organization provide some of the required services (for instance printing the booklet)?
- Sponsors are often indispensable to finance a conference. It has been proven very useful to offer different “sponsoring packages” with appropriate compensations (e.g. advertising space in booklets, programmes and mailings, exhibition space a the conference, free entry for employees of the sponsoring company).
- Find a sponsor for one of the evening events and name it after the sponsor.
- Sell conference souvenirs, T-shirts, mugs etc. but ask for the required number during the registration process, so you won’t have a surplus.
- Beverages: Renounce dry snacks, choose house wine, control the empty wine bottles, limit the free alcoholic beverages and arrange/display prices for participants who want to buy extra alcoholic beverages at the evening event, order pots of coffee/tea and bottles of water for self-service.
- Food: Limit the choices, buffets are usually less expensive than served meals, provide also filling side dishes, set a budget.
- Ask the participants if they are going to take part at the evening events, even if the events are included in the conference registration, to plan the required food and beverages.
- However: Do not provide insufficient drinks, food and services.
- Define different participants groups: Usually students and people from academia have a lower budget than industrial participants. Remember that some people will have to be invited.
- Define different time discounts: this motivates people to register in time and will provide early information on the total number of participants.
- Usually an early registration should also require an early payment. As you have many costs for the preparation of the event, try to get the payments as early as possible. If people don’t pay after a deadline (common are 4 weeks), they will lose their discount.
- You should define the available options for your registration form, before participant registration starts. Example: Do you only want to offer “full conference registration”, or are you also going to offer day tickets, extra tickets for the conference dinner (e.g. for accompanying persons) and special events like workshops, tutorials, excursions?
- Do you have to charge VAT? This depends mainly on the tax laws of the country where the event takes place.
- Please note that if you have to charge VAT, this usually applies to all participants (also from overseas) as they “consume” the “service” in the country and it is not “exported” to their home countries.
- Identify the required payment options in time! It can take weeks to get all the required documents to open the bank account and/or the credit card merchant account.
- Bank Transfer: If you are within the EU and/or expect mainly participants from your country, you should offer bank transfer, as this is usually the cheapest payment option.
- Credit Cards: If you expect many participants from overseas or the US, you should offer credit card payments, too. To accept credit cards you need an “acquirer account”. For electronic credit card processing, you also need a merchant (e-commerce) gateway. Both cost setup and monthly fees. Furthermore, credit card processing fees are about 3-7% of the transferred amount. Please note that credit card payments may be cancelled by the participant up to 60 days after payment and that some people use stolen cards numbers to get in for “free”, e.g. an invitation to the country where the conference is organized.
- PayPal, Skrill and Stripe are a comparably cheap options to receive credit card payments.
- Cash: Do only offer cash payments for people who register at the conference site or shortly before the event, otherwise you face the risk that these people do not show up and – of course – do not pay.
- Cheque Payments: Are still common in some Anglo-Saxon countries (UK, USA, Canada, Australia).
Communicate Regularly with all Involved People
- Do not only send mails to promote your event, also send reminder mails to the persons registered in the system for submission deadlines, review deadlines, and payments.
- Consider breaks between the sessions (see below).
- Try to synchronize the talks in the different sessions so people might switch between sessions.
- Have a look at the available rooms and the size of the rooms in time. Try to figure out how many people are going to attend at the different sessions (for instance by providing questions on the main interests of the participants on the registration form). Consider the expected participant numbers when you assign the sessions to the rooms.
- If a speaker does not show up or cannot do the presentation, have a backup plan. This is especially important for the main sessions.
- If not obvious, provide extra signs for the bathrooms.
- For an ordinary break 30 minutes is fine (45 minutes if you offer finger food), for lunch breaks usually 1.5 hours are appropriate.
- During breaks always offer beverages (also water, tea and coffee) and smaller snacks like cookies (better: small pastries) and fruits.
- Remember that some guests may have special dietary requirements (e.g. for vegetarians, people with religious restrictions or medical restrictions like allergies)
- Exhibitions: An exhibition (art, design, etc.) which fits to the conference programme is always a welcome diversion. If you place it close to the catering, the participants will enjoy the breaks even more.
- Rule of thumb: Catering is always the one thing people will remember about an event if it is not satisfying.
- Have an opening reception with snacks and drinks to welcome all participants.
- Every conference should offer at least one social event, where participants can get together in a less formal setting.
- If your event lasts for several days, find sponsors for extra social events hosted by them.
- Offer excursions, trips, and/or guided tours to allow participants to see interesting locations close to the venue. Try to offer excursions that suit the subject of the conference.
Student Volunteers (SVs)
- For most events a student volunteer program brings many benefits: They help at the registration desk, take pictures, are in the session rooms to check if everything is running smoothly and help participants whenever they have a question (“Where are the restrooms?”, “When does Session B5 start?”, “Where and when can I prepare my talk?”)
- The costs are low compared to the value for the organizers: usually they get a free registration, free lunch and/or a special evening event. Some larger events even offer accommodation for SVs.
- The registration desk is the first place participants have to go to, so put up signs for people to find it.
- As a rule of thumb: You should have one regular desk for pre-registered participants per 75 participants during the main arrival time. So an event with 300 participants should have 4 regular registration desks AND one desk for special cases, i.e., for persons who did not pay or need to change their registration data etc.
- If possible, open the registration desk already the afternoon before the event starts, so people can check in early. First, this works as test run for you, and secondly it reduces the stress during the main registration phase.
- Prepare as much as possible! Pack bags with all the things people are going to get when they arrive. Print all name tags (but let the participants put their name badge into the cover themselves).
- Order the name tags by surname or by user ID. The latter has the advantage that you can simply add tags for later registrants at the end.
- If people have not already paid when they arrive, prepare to receive payments by cash (have change!), credit card or similar. It is useful to know where to find the next bank / cash point (ATM).
- Print out statements with attendance confirmations that have to be signed by participants who paid very late and on which they confirm their payment.
- Provide your staff and student volunteers with information about network access, breaks, bathrooms etc. People also ask the “obvious” things that are written in the conference leaflet.
- Have extra maps and programs at the desk available (at least on request).
- Separate network access for the registration desk is advisable, as many participants at the event might slow down internet access severely. Also think of FAX and telephone, however, today mobile phones and e-mail can replace these devices.
- Have backup information about the participants, e.g. printout of all lists. If the computer network fails, this might be very helpful.
- Have a list of all important organizers with mobile phone numbers at the desk.
- Student volunteers can help attendants when they are looking for a specific place to go. If they wear colourful T-shirts with the conference logo, everyone will recognize them.
Participant Support (Travel and Accommodation)
- Provide information on how to travel to the conference location. If possible, arrange special rates with an airline for the participants of your event.
- In most cases, it is not advisable to make the hotel reservations for the participants. It may give you a lot of trouble in case of cancellations and changes. It is usually far easier to contact the tourist board in time and to negotiate special rates for some hotels and give this information to your participants.
- Exception: It might be appropriate to help the invited speakers with their hotel reservation, especially if the organizers pay for it.
- Acclimatisation: Foreign participants will appreciate the location much more if you inform them in advance about customs and traditions and of course about sightseeing possibilities.
- Try to act in an environmentally-conscious manner, we have only one world!
- Remember that you might need to provide interpreters for certain sessions.
- Provide Signposting: Description of how to get to the venue ( ‘How to Find Us’), registration desk, car parks, bus stops, taxi stands (with phone number), social event location, bathrooms, etc.
- Always remember: „After the conference is before the conference“. Either you or others will organize another event and may benefit from your experiences.
- Distribute questionnaires at the conference, or use an online tool to get feedback from the participants.
- Things to Analyse:
- Achievement of objectives
- Revenues and expenses
- Evaluation of the participants
- Opinions of your team
- Ups and downs
- Return on Investment of all involved parties
- Material to Distribute:
- Photos of the conference and the social events
- Thank-you letters to helpers and organizers
- Press reports and conference statements
Keeping these points in mind can help you to successfully organize a conference, meeting or educational event while avoiding any pitfalls.
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