You crack open your “How to Organize a Conference” manual and glance at the table of contents. One look is enough to get any conference director’s heart racing. Well, it would be enough, if your conference management process came with a manual in the first place.
Not only is your (theoretical) to-do list extensive—you’ve also got time and budget constraints to balance alongside diverse, sometimes-ambiguous objectives on the way to the finish line. In this way, conference planning may have more in common with an obstacle-laden Spartan race than a straightforward marathon.
While it would be nice to have a neat and tidy manual to walk you through the many steps of the conference planning process, you have the power to make your own. Prudent upfront planning is part of the battle. The rest is about staying agile and efficient so you can accomplish more with less on the way to the finish line. Whether or not that conference planning checklist ever made it to your inbox, there are a handful of tactical steps you can take to streamline the course that lies ahead and develop a roadmap you can rely on for years to come.
Table of Contents:
- Start With Generous Goals
- Remove Front-End Friction
- Integrate Back-End Systems
- Automate Review and Scheduling
- Collect Data (and Learn From It)
- Reuse the Foundation Next Year
Conference Management: What Does It Take?
Conference planning and management is a nebulous space, but it can be generally grouped into six, roughly chronological (but certainly overlapping) categories. Here’s a brief overview of the demands you’ll need to address within each of those six categories:
- High-Level Planning
- Identify conference objectives
- Anoint a committee/leadership team
- Set a budget
- Select a location and date
- Delegate planning tasks among the team
- Establish a timeline for progress
- Gathering Participants
- Market the event (email, print, web, social media)
- Announce and distribute the call for papers
- Personalize invitations for notable speakers/attendees
- Collect registrations & abstract submissions (and send confirmations)
- Assemble a segmented guest list
- Nailing Down Arrangements
- Put together a team to liaise or oversee each aspect
- Research, contact, and vet providers for everything—suppliers, vendors, hotels, airlines, transportation, onsite operations, catering, venue decorations, technology, and AV equipment
- Construct attendee folders or kits (booklets, schedules, gifts, maps, handouts)
- Review of Session Proposals
- Train reviewers for consistency on scoring rubrics or other assessment processes
- Conduct multiple rounds of review (if required)
- Comment or request edits as necessary
- Send out acceptances and rejections
- Finalizing the Conference Agenda
- Group accepted abstracts into sessions
- Organize sessions into a cohesive schedule (with breaks, transition time, no conflicts)
- Incorporate “tracks” of related sessions for topical interest
- Distribute it online, through email, and in print
- Debriefing (After the Conference)
- Request feedback from attendees, speakers, and staff
- Track and review notable complaints or suggestions
- Study any collected analytics for patterns or insights
- Create a list of to-do’s and changes for next year, as well as things to investigate further
All of this will take some time (a year or two, in many cases). However, don’t let the exhaustive list give you a headache. Each of these broad objectives has several technologies and strategies you can leverage to reduce waste and simplify your process. Take a look at some of these high-impact steps below:
1) Start With Generous Goals
It may seem counterintuitive at first, but really, sometimes more is less. This is true of both time and money. If your end-goal is to reduce the hours (and funding) it takes to manage your conference, provide a generous buffer upfront.
- Play the Long Game: Think the planning process will take six months? Give it a year. A generous timeline reduces the inefficiencies of cramming for a closer date. Less stress and urgency when resolving unanticipated delays (which are usually inevitable) will keep your team more organized and rational. While you may spend a few more months planning, you’ll spend fewer overall hours on each task.
- Overestimate the Budget: Setting a budget takes some research. And it’s hard to get right—45% of planners cite budget as the top overall challenge. There are big-ticket items like the venue and hotel bookings, but also a litany of smaller ones. Many budgets suffer from a thousand paper cuts as minor expenses stack up (gifts for volunteers, printing, taxes, gratuities, etc.). To avoid this, budget for 10% or 15% more than you expect to spend. This will give you some built-in room to make cuts, compensate for issues, and invest in solutions. When you plan for overruns, you save time problem-solving them later.
The extra time and money you invest in your initial plan will keep you agile, more focused, and involve less crisis management down the line. It’s a “tortoise and the hare” situation. And if you do end up with extra room in the budget in the end, your conference can only get better, as 33% of event planners would use additional budgets to invest in enhancing the attendee experience.
But what if you’re having trouble drumming up a large enough budget? Sponsors can be a good option! After all, the most popular types of events that B2B companies sponsor are conventions, conferences, seminars, and thought-leadership workshops.
STREAMLINING SIDE NOTE: Large events use conference centers and hotels. However, if you have a smaller conference planned, you could try using some online venue directories to speed up your search for a cost-effective location and quickly filter down to suitable options. Try sites like these:
2) Remove Front-End Friction
Your participants will benefit from a streamlined experience just as much as your staff. All of your user-facing systems and communications should focus on making it as easy as possible for attendees and presenters to organize themselves.
- Slam Dunk the Call For Papers: If you get the call for abstracts right the first time, you’ll prevent the need for troubleshooting and follow-ups later. Use a structure that promotes action, spreads it across a variety of channels, and streamlines the abstract collection process with technology. First impressions and concise instructions are essential. The more impactful that first touch is, the less continued attention it will take.
- Use an Online Form Builder: Spreadsheets and emails have handled registrations for a long time, but they can’t compare to the conveniences of a well-integrated digital form on your website. A customizable form could collect abstracts, registrations, and minimize the record-keeping and paperwork usually involved with compiling a guest list. You’ll also know that user data is more secure. A user portal for abstract submissions gives presenters the power to self-manage—they can log in to make their own edits at will.
- Collect Everything Upfront: Don’t stop at registrations and abstract submissions. Your form should accept media uploads (perhaps for graphical or video abstracts) and also include a payment gateway to collect registration or submission fees. Save time by eliminating extra steps.
- Optimize Your Website: The internet is the primary source of live event information for almost two-thirds of people (64%), according to research by Google. Over three-quarters (79%) use smartphones to look up event info. And since technology friction can dramatically slow down your registration and submission process, it’s critical that you spend time modernizing your website. For starters, ensure it has:
- User-friendly navigation
- Only a few required clicks to get to your customized registration/submission forms
- Integrated widgets, forms, and user portals that match the look and feel of your brand
- Responsive design for all devices
3) Integrate Back-End Systems
Conference management is, by and large, about being the primary bottleneck for large quantities of data and decisions. Technology plays a critical role in streamlining these duties—but the problem is that it often fragments your data across many platforms.
Research has shown that software for automating and managing events like conferences has been ranked as the most critical technology needed to achieve a successful outcome. However, ASAE reports that, for most associations, data is spread across so many different systems that it becomes difficult to control. Other associations say their info is stored in spreadsheets, which are manually managed and thus more prone to errors.
The answer, then, is to focus on versatility and integrations when selecting a conference management software. You’re going to want:
- A Central Platform For Most Tasks: There’s an app for everything, sure. But the cornerstone technology of your conference management process should handle the majority of your needs on its own. Fewer platforms equal smoother sailing—it’s that simple.
- APIs That Integrate All Systems: Your conference may make us of an AMS, a CRM, a custom SQL database, MailChimp, a helpdesk database, and more. Streamline all that fragmented data by syncing it all to a central system with APIs. One login, one place to look up what you need, one spot to make updates.
- Mobile-Friendly, Cloud-Based Software: We use mobile devices more than we’d like to admit. It’s easier for everyone (attendees, reviewers, admins) when the system they need is accessible on any device, at any time.
- Unify Communications: There are tidal waves of correspondences involved in conference organization. Pick a conference management system that can automate, personalize, and integrate email messaging within the platform so that you reduce effort switching back and forth with your email platform and filtering for chains relative to the conference.
4) Automate Review and Scheduling
Reviewing and sorting abstracts for your session list is among the most time-consuming parts of managing your conference. And yet, it’s also the most critical step in ensuring your conference is valuable to your attendees. Here are a few pointers to make the process move more quickly:
- Plan Efficiently: The goal is to hit deadlines without trouble. Careful planning goes a long way, and it’s better to be preventative than reactive.
- Streamline Review With Technology: You can’t get around the fact that human reviewers need to spend time evaluating submissions. But handing over a printed stack of abstracts and setting a deadline doesn’t make life any easier. Use a comprehensive abstract review platform to streamline the evaluation process. It can tie into your online submission form, filter based on eligibility rules, and structure multiple rounds of review around custom scoring methods.
- Consider Auto-Scoring: You might try auto-scoring software for grading simpler traits, so human reviewers can focus their time on the more complex areas.
- Build Your Agenda Online: Get rid of the whiteboard and sticky notes. Building sessions and a schedule can become easier with an abstract management system that feeds approved abstracts right into a digital session and schedule builder. Digital tools can auto-add related abstracts, publish sessions in an online gallery, and automatically avoid scheduling conflicts.
- Feed the Agenda to an Event App: 91% of event planners say that adopting a mobile event app produced positive ROI. Setting up the app is quicker and simpler if it integrates with the abstract management system and syncs itself with your online agenda. It also cuts costs for printing and shipping. Guidebook found that printing paper programs for attendees can cost twice as much—and you can’t make instant changes, communicate with attendees, facilitate networking, or track sponsor ad interactions on paper.
5) Collect Data (and Learn From It)
Analytics are the first-cited solution for improving the conference experience. This may be why 86% of associations invest in tech tools to put better data management processes in place. Anecdotal insights from staff are useful, but hard data is better. Computer-centric platforms are ideal for tracking user behavior, gathering feedback, and automatically aggregating data.
Ideally, you’ll be able to streamline the data-gathering phase of conference management with tools or platforms that can give you real-time updates on things like:
- Open, click, and response rates
- Dropoff points (during form submission, for example)
- Reviewer progress
- Feedback or survey responses
Insights from these kinds of automated analytics are vital to improving the process for future conferences (and streamlining your “debriefing” stage). 30% of attendees will look up your future events after they’ve attended one. Strive to impress them even more the second time.
6) Reuse the Foundation Next Year
So, you’ve made it this far. The conference has finished. However, you’re not quite done streamlining yet.
A lot of build-out goes into the initial setup of technologies and tools to streamline your conference management process. Conference management systems will save you more time than they take, but the returns are even better the longer you use them.
Untold hours are saved when the custom registration and submission forms, scoring rubrics, contact lists, and multiple rounds of review are all stored in a reusable program template that you can tweak and use again next year. Once the assembly line is up and running, it only takes maintenance and upgrades to keep the wheels spinning.