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How to run a successful conference

Anyone who has worked behind the scenes knows running a successful conference involves months of planning, preparation and hard work.

Conference planning requires a significant investment of time, money, energy and brainpower. There is also the inevitable on-the-spot trouble-shooting and problem solving that takes place on the day – perhaps a speaker doesn’t turn up on time, or the projector decides to malfunction at the worst possible moment.

If you are currently in the planning stages of your next conference, here are a few helpful tips to make sure your event runs as smoothly as possible.

  1. Know what type of event you’re creating:

First of all, be clear about the type of event you want to create. Knowing your conference type will play a huge role in determining things like your program format and structure, choice of venue and ticket price.

There are five main categories that conferences generally fall into.

Tribal community events:

With these events, the primary purpose is to bring together people who share a common bond over the work they do. The program is typically about sharing experiences and techniques, professionally motivating the guests, and celebrating the work they do.

Networking events:

These events are about getting different people together in the same room for the purpose of making business connections. The program plays second fiddle to the social activities, where guests get together to meet and greet, see and be seen. For a networking event, longer breaks and receptions are more important than a lot of informational sessions.

Trade show events:

These are essentially an assembly of pop-up shops for the purpose of selling and trading. The trade show floor is significantly more important than the sessions, which are usually sponsor-paid infomercials.

Educational events:

These are where the attendees come to learn new techniques and skills. They have a heavy emphasis on who the speakers are and the topics covered. The social elements for networking at these events are played down, but still present. Most practitioner conferences, for example, are educational.

Academic events:

These are events where researchers, academics and experts are invited to present and discuss their work, and are aimed at getting publishing credits. Each presentation is generally followed by a discussion where attendees exchange their reactions and critiques.

  1. Figure out a theme:

Once you have nailed down your conference type, it is important to formulate a unifying theme for your conference. This could be an overarching question or statement that lets your attendees know what they should expect from the event. Your theme should be abstract, and open to interpretation – it should be broad enough to leave room for a wide range of topics and speakers.

Having a theme will help you to unify your ideas, source appropriate speakers, and market your event to the right people. It will also help you come up with a snappy title or tagline for your conference.

  1. Choose the right venue:

Your choice of conference venue says a lot about your company. Look for a place that reflects and reinforces your company’s brand identity, compliments the theme of your conference, and is easily accessible for all attendees.

You may like to choose a venue that gives your guests a much-needed change of scenery. Consider holding it in a conference venue in regional Victoria at a picturesque winery or vineyard – somewhere that is easy to get to but is a comfortable distance away from the hustle and bustle of the city.  You may also be able to incorporate some fun team-building and social activities into your program, such as food and wine tasting.

  1. Consider a conference package:

Many venues that specialise in corporate events will offer conference packages that can be tailored to suit your conference type and the needs of your guests. These packages can include accommodation and catering options, as well as technical support and equipment for your event (data projectors, screens and electronic whiteboards, markers, flipcharts etc).

  1. Think about speakers very early on:

Good speakers have a tendency to get snapped up quickly. If you want your top choices, make sure you secure them as early as possible.

  1. Hire a technical team:

Having professionals organise all of the equipment, set it up and be on hand to make sure it works on the day can be hugely reassuring. Some of the most common things that go wrong are minor technical issues – microphones not working, laptops not connected to the projector. Having a skilled person there to fix any issues as soon as they arise is invaluable.

  1. Plan your running program:

Your program needs to offer the right balance of education, entertainment and downtime. Here are a few tips:

Keep sessions short.

Keep your talks and activities short and sweet to keep your attendees engaged throughout the day. In general, you should try to keep each session down to 30 minutes or less. When you’re scheduling, keep in mind that almost everyone will go over at least a little bit (no matter how long you give them) so allow for some leeway in between each session.

Schedule plenty of breaks.

No matter how short you keep your talks, your guests are still going to get restless, or want to get up and use the bathroom. You don’t want them doing this during your talks, so it’s important to give them plenty of breaks to get up, stretch their legs, grab a coffee, chat to other attendees and check their phones.