Calamity-free conferencing: how to plan like a professional

A major business event that needs to be professionally run, engage the attendees and come in on budget… What could possibly go wrong? Did we speak too soon?

The truth is that conferencing has the potential to go sadly awry, leaving you feeling like a frenzied lunatic vainly trying to put out fires erupting everywhere, seemingly all at the same time.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can wing your way to a calamity-free conference with diligent planning.

That’s right, whip out those spreadsheets (we know you secretly love colour-coding them) and get ready to write lists; send Ccs and Bccs and check, recheck and double check. And when all of the planning is done… be sure you have a plan B!

It may sound like a mountain of work, but really once you’ve done it well, you’ll have templates to work from for life. And if that doesn’t sound exciting enough, you’ll also have gained a wealth of knowledge, experience and the satisfaction of watching your event unfold smoothly.

So, sharpen your pencils, unpack your pad and get ready to take some notes.

Have a blow by blow plan

Yep. Every single step of the day needs to be planned out and written down. To the last detail. That means you should focus on creating a few basic planning templates. These can also be sourced from the web, but sometimes making your own can ensure they are custom made for your needs, and they work the way your mind does. Choose a platform to share the documents on, like Google Drive or Dropbox, and then you can allow the people on the planning committee access to whichever of the documents they need at any given time. Think of including some of the following in your planning folder:

A suppliers’/speakers’ list

Create a table with at least six columns. These columns will include name, contact details and prices. The next two columns are for you to mark whether they are an unconfirmed supplier or confirmed (and only move them to confirmed once you have it in writing with a specific date and time). The final column is for the alternative suppliers/speakers (see more on this in the next point - always have a plan B).

A budget

Use whichever budget tool or layout that works best for you. Remember to include all the significant costs (see our post on Conference Budgeting for more details) and don’t forget to make provision for a miscellaneous fund of around 5% of your budget for those unforeseen little expenses that lurk in the shadows. Keep referring back to the budget during the planning and adjusting as need be. Keeping a close and constant watch on your money during the planning phase means you’ll always know exactly where you stand and which monies have gone out and which are allocated and awaiting payment.

Daily Agenda

Your daily agenda is crucial. Not only for you but also for your attendees. How intensive and multi-functional the agenda is, depends on your event goals. At its heart, the agenda is there to show what’s happening, when and where. It’s a schedule of the day that’ll tell anyone at a glance which speakers are speaking, what the topic is, when it is due to start and when it is expected to finish. It’ll also indicate the mini-breaks - for refreshments - as well as the longer breaks for meals, trips to the restroom and networking. A layout or map should also be included here for reference during the day.

Save your e-mails

A great deal of your quotes, confirmations and correspondence is going to be done via e-mail. So make sure you keep the relevant e-mails saved. Save any necessary attachments you receive to the planning folder as you get them in. Assigning them straight away means you won’t have to trawl through e-mails at a later date to try and find the information you are looking for.

You may have other documents you’ll need to include, like committee meeting agendas, notes, minutes and other bits and pieces.

Always have a Plan B

Even though you have been diligent and you have moved a vendor or speaker from unconfirmed to the confirmed column. Even though you have a signed contract and written confirmation. This is life, and things happen. Transportation is delayed, your speaker came down with a virulent dose of the chicken pox, the weather forecast predicted sunny skies, and now it’s hailing; ruining your company picnic. To deal with the predictable unpredictability of life, make sure you have a back up in mind. For every service you require, have a stand-in just in case. Keep their details on hand and that way, if you are left in the lurch at the last minute, you can quickly and easily move on to finding a solution, handling the issue and feeling proactive rather than imitating a chicken newly separated from its head.

Be the time master

You are going to be working very hard on event day to make sure things run as close to the scheduled time as possible. This means making sure speakers don’t run over time. There are a couple of techniques you can use to help you keep enthusiastic speakers within their allotted time. Be very clear with your speakers from the very beginning about how much time he or she has. Use a visible timing system to help them keep track of time. Some people use a timer on the table/podium, while simple signs held up at the back of the room where the speaker can see also works wonders. Hold up a green card when they have 5 minutes to go, an orange when they have 2 minutes and then a red when they need to stop. You could also write the time left if you prefer - as long as the speaker will be able to see it at a glance without being distracted. Finally, assign the speaker’s time to 10 minutes, for example, but tell him or her they have 8 minutes - that’ll give you a little room to play with. Additionally, if you have a quality moderator, they’ll be able to shorten introductions or curtail Q&A sessions to bring things back in line if necessary.

When deciding on the timing of sessions, also be sure to allow time for people to network and include activities to help facilitate conversations. Often building connections is a key goal for conferences, so it’s a good idea to factor this important stage into your agenda.

You’ll also need to check with each of your vendors and speakers to see how much time they will need to set up. This time needs to be factored into the scheduling of your events. The AV crew might be scheduled to arrive at 10am, but then it may take them up to an hour to get set up. So it’s critical that you know and include these times.

And finally, on the topic of mastering your time, if you are looking at your agenda and you think your event might be pressed for time, make sure you order catering that will help relieve this pressure, rather than add to it. So, in real terms, chose to have a harvest table rather than more lengthy off-the-menu options if you think you’ll need extra breathing room.

Do a dry run through

If possible at the venue you have chosen, definitely organise to do a dry run through. That way you’ll have a better idea of how the day will flow and what to expect. Better preparing yourself for when the unexpected happens! Know where the facilities are, familiarise yourself with the layout and meet the staff who will be assisting you. Visualise and prepare.

Delegate to a committee

And you don’t need to do it on your own! That’s right - help is here. Get your crew together, set up an event committee and delegate. Make sure communication between members is clear, and everyone knows their responsibilities. It’s a good idea to take minutes during meetings. Very, very clearly include what was discussed, what was decided, and who is to do what by when. Then send a copy of the minutes via e-mail to all members, so everyone knows what going on.

There is no way to organise an event that is guaranteed not to throw even the slightest road bump your way, but with careful planning, clear communication and an A-team crew, calamity-free conferencing is definitely achievable.

The Brahman Hills Team
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