How To Plan And Run A Great Conference Experience

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Zach Inglis and Laura Sanders are the creators of HybridConf, a really awesome web design and development conference focusing on bridging the divide between the … More about Zach ↬

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Nothing compares to a good conference: the atmosphere of being immersed in a crowd of people who share the same passion as you, the lessons you learn and advice you take in, and the friends you get to meet and the new ones you make. You leave a good conference bursting with fresh ideas. That’s what Zach Inglis wanted to create with HybridConf. Since starting it he has been fortunate enough to receive invaluable pieces of advice from other conference organizers, so Zach wanted to pay it forward with this article and help more of you succeed, too.

Our industry is a great one. It’s filled with a lot of awesome people building a lot of inspiring things and constantly seeking out ways to express just how much they love doing so. We’ve had blogs and podcasts, and right now hosting conferences is the big thing. Ever more people are organizing conferences, arranging meetups and creating memorable experiences. It’s fantastic to see.

How To Plan And Run A Great Conference Experience

Nothing compares to a good conference: the atmosphere of being immersed in a crowd of people who share the same passion as you, the lessons you learn and advice you take in, and the friends you get to meet and the new ones you make. You leave a good conference re-energized — full of zeal for your job and bursting with fresh ideas.

That’s exactly what I wanted to create with HybridConf, and I am proud that we achieved it in our first outing last year. Our guests learned, shared stories, made lasting friendships — even a relationship or two — and undoubtedly had a good time. I felt like I had succeeded in giving back to the community some of the same experiences that I so value from conferences of the past. This year, we’ve switched cities, but our goal is the same: to bring people together in one place where they can discover and share and then leave full of positivity towards the great community we have the privilege to be a part of.

Since starting HybridConf, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive countless pieces of advice from other conference organizers. The advice has been invaluable to me, so I wanted to pay it forward with this article and help more of you succeed, too.

Make Sure That Organizing A Conference Is Right For You

Before delving into a list of tips, I should say that running a conference is incredibly hard, much more than you can possibly imagine, so make sure that it’s really right for you before you start.

If you are going to run a conference, then you will need to be prepared for many late nights, big money worries, a roller coaster of emotions and a prolonged period when your loved ones, social life and free time take a back seat. There’s no escaping that. It’s a huge responsibility and one that will take up a lot of your time, both in physical labor and in constant worrying. It really is a massive amount of work, especially for those of us (like me) who do this on top of a day job. Sometimes it feels insurmountable.

Then, there is the stress from money, because — let’s not beat around the bush here — putting on a conference of a certain size can be very expensive. Add to that the worry of not really being able to control exactly how well the big day goes. You just have to plan and organize and sell as well as you can and keep your fingers crossed. Considering all of this thoroughly, therefore, and whether you really want to commit this much time and brainpower is really important.

how to plan a conference
Organizing a conference is a lot of fun, but requires a lot of hard work, too. (Image credit: James Seymour-Lock)

One of the best ways to counteract the stress is to have a really clear understanding of why you’re doing this in the first place. You need to have a solid reason that you can believe in and that will drive you forward and help you to make a lot of the decisions along the way. My reason was that I was tired of so many UK conferences featuring the same speakers with the non-divergent opinions. After complaining about it on Twitter for so long, I decided that I had to just stop complaining and try to fix it. So, I took the opportunity to make the type of conference that I would want to attend myself.

So, with all of that being said, if you’ve read this far and still want to put on a conference, high five to you! I’m very glad I haven’t scared you away, because later I’ll talk about all of the wonderful rewards that this stress and hard work bring you.

Learn How To Run A Great Conference

This section shares my top tips for getting started with your conference and staying organized along the way.

1. Figure Out The Theme

Having some kind of unifying idea is important. It could be relatively broad and high level — like ours, which was to bring designers and developers together — or much narrower, such as Break’s theme of removing the barriers between different specializations of design, or perhaps a conference focused on a particular technology. JavaScript conferences do incredibly well, in part due to the language being the hottest topic in the industry and because such conferences have such a sharp focus.

The question isn’t whether a theme is right for a potential attendee, but rather whether there is one at all. Having a theme helps to unify your ideas, to get appropriate speakers, and to sell and market to the right people. It will also help you to come up with a name. Pick something simple, punchy and on topic. A mission statement will also help you to stay on track and attract your target audience. Here was ours:

"We care a lot about this industry and we couldn’t find a conference that matched our wants or needs. We wanted something that was both welcoming and awe-inspiring. We wanted a conference where the talks were fresh, and you’d not seen most of the speakers before. We wanted a place where we talked about all aspects of the web, in an easy-to-understand way for even the most novice attendee, yet where seasoned attendees still had lots to learn. Thus, HybridConf was born. We spent almost a year of intense hard work, tears and sleepless nights to help empower people in their goals. We hope you join us and celebrate that the people (including you!) make this industry great."

2. Get A Business Partner, Or Three

Running a conference is a lot of work and emotionally very tiring. Some days you wake up literally paralyzed by fear; other days, you feel invincible. You need to find someone who you can rely on to understand when you get stressed, who can pick up work when you are feeling overwhelmed, who gets excited by your great ideas and who curbs your enthusiasm a bit when you go overboard. Of course, you should provide the same values to your partners. Finding someone you trust to share this experience will be the biggest help you can get.

3. Think About Speakers Very Early On

We chose to hand-pick our speakers. I already had in mind a lot of people who I thought were doing cool stuff and would have something interesting and original to say, so I approached them personally and asked. Speaking experience wasn’t a consideration; I didn’t care whether they were a seasoned pro or a first-timer — and people were incredibly shocked when we revealed who our first-timers were. An open call for proposals might make more sense for you and is a great option. Just make sure that whichever way you choose, you do it early. Good speakers get snapped up really far in advance, so if you want your top choices, secure them as soon as possible.

Try to see whether a desired speaker has any mutual friends. If so, ask the friend to introduce you. Explain your mission to the prospective speaker and see whether it’s a match for them. Our mission, to better the industry, was something many people could get behind. Be honest here. For the people with whom we didn’t have mutual connections, we asked them on Twitter whether emailing them was OK — being respectful goes a long way, and most people are OK with email. Try to capture everything in one email, so that they have enough information to make an informed decision. Make sure to explain the mission, the date, the theme, any compensation you can offer and anything else you feel relevant.

4. Determine Whether You Can Pay Speakers

Although for most conferences it is good practice and a very worthy aim to pay the speakers for their time and efforts, we knew from the beginning that, for the first year at least, paying fees to the speakers would not be possible - we simply couldn’t afford to while keeping our ticket costs low enough to be accessible. However, we pledged to cover all of their expenses, including flight, hotel, other travel and a speakers’ dinner. While we couldn’t pay them for their time, we felt that they should not have to incur any costs for coming.

This year, we decided to share revenue with speakers. If we make a profit, they will receive a percentage of it; if we don’t, then we will pay all of their expenses as before but they won’t get anything on top. This protects us, and it gives them a nice bonus if we do well.

Figure out what you can afford from the beginning. If you can afford to pay the speakers (or if that is a higher priority for you than other costs), then great; if you can’t, then be honest and say so when you invite people to speak. Many people are still very happy to come without expecting a fee. The important thing is to be open from the beginning and not to promise to pay for something that you won’t be able to afford in the end.

You’ll also have to consider a lot of things to take great care of your speakers leading up to and during the event. Dermot Daly has a lot of great advice on this.

5. Pick A Comfortable Venue

Last year, we had wanted to hold HybridConf in the Coal Exchange, an old historic building in Cardiff Bay; unfortunately, they had to close for some repairs, and we had to find a new venue. In the end, we chose Cineworld. It doesn’t have the cool history of the original venue, but you know what it does have? Comfortable seats. And guess what one of the main things everyone talked about was? How comfortable the seats were compared to other conferences.

Your guests are going to be sitting in one place for the better part of eight hours. Pick somewhere butt-friendly. The venue will also have a big effect on the overall feel. The theme you’ve chosen will inform a lot of your decisions. Do you want a spotlight on the speakers or warm lighting over everyone? We chose the former because we didn’t want people to have any problem understanding the speakers. Do you mind whether people use their laptops? Lower lighting deters that. Do you want to provide an area for people to work if needed? So many decisions will affect the overall feel. Use your best judgement — you should know what attendees want more than anyone.

6. Think About Feeding Guests

We choose to cater. We provide lunches, snacks, tea and coffee and this year breakfast as well. It’s a personal choice and obviously it affects the cost, but we like to do it because we think it makes it easier to mingle, and it takes the stress out of having to find a restaurant and people to eat with. If you do want to provide food, just find a good caterer and let them do what they do best. Many venues have a dedicated caterer or a shortlist that they work with. Figure out in advance the cost per person, the type of food you want to provide (hot or cold, buffet or sit-down) and any special requests (last year we wanted to include some Welsh food). Then, just meet the caterer and they’ll try to meet your requirements.

7. Live In Your Spreadsheet

Our spreadsheet had at least 20 tabs. We had tabs for income, expenses, the schedule, accommodation, contact details, the speakers’ food preferences at the speakers’ dinner, and many more things. We had tables for best- and worst-case scenarios, and we updated them constantly. With a spreadsheet, all of the vital information was in one place, and we always knew how we were doing. You can never write down too much or be too organized. Combining the spreadsheet with a great ticketing solution helps, too. Our ticketing solution, Tito, breaks down sales and provides reports as much as we need — it was a godsend for us.

8. Nail Down A Cancellation Policy

When we got our first request for a refund, I must admit I was a bit taken aback. We’d tried to cover all of our bases and, naively, hadn’t considered that we might encounter this problem. I asked others what they do, and they all gave me the same answer: Allow guests to resell their tickets, but don’t offer refunds. The truth is that we spend the money from ticket sales quickly, and a ticket that someone wants refunded is often from an earlier batch, which means you’ve lost the chance to sell it again. We believe in fairness, so if you don’t refund one person, then refunding another person would not be right, even if you think the other person has a good reason. Splitting hairs about what counts as a good reason just leads to complication and misunderstanding. So, we keep a strict no-refund policy. You may choose to do things differently, and I commend you if you do — no way is easy.

9. Leverage Your Network

One of the biggest perks of being in this industry is that most of us have a lot of contacts. Use them. Ask them to promote you, whether on Twitter, on their blogs or at their own events. Ask whether they have contacts in the sponsorship department at their company. Ask them for an introduction to a speaker whom you would love to have. Ask them for advice if they’ve already run their own event. From our experience, most people are only too happy to help.

Attending a conference will help you meet folks in your industry. So, what are you waiting for? (Image credit: James Seymour-Lock)

10. Hire A Technical Team

Last year, we decided quite late to hire a company to handle all of the lighting, audio and visuals. The extra cost was high, but having professionals organize all of the equipment, set it up and be on hand to make sure it works all day was totally worth it. Some of the most common things that go wrong are minor technical issues — microphones not working, laptops not connected to the projector — so having a skilled person there to fix issues as soon as they arose was invaluable. The time saved and peace of mind was far more valuable than the cost.

Paul Campbell’s post on reducing conference awkwardness walks through a few potential audio-visual pitfalls, with some great tips on avoiding them.

11. Organize The Printing

Different items take different lengths of time to print. Badges might need only a week’s notice, while lanyards and banners might need a month’s. Start looking for printers, and talk to them well in advance. If your designs are done, let them know when the printing is needed, and give estimates on the quantities, following up closer to the conference with more accurate figures. Also, print a little more than you think you’ll need; ensuring that everyone has materials is worth overspending slightly.

Double-check everything. Murphy’s Law is in full effect when you’re running an event. Last year, knowing that our materials were a rush job, the printer took our address from our email footers. It was a billing address, and no one was at that address to pick up the printing packages. So, during the pre-conference drinks, we had to drive an hour away just before the sorting office closed to pick them up — or else no one would have gotten their name badges!

12. Appoint An Excellent Head Volunteer

Last year, our head volunteer was Andrew Nesbitt. He had experience with organizing meetups and is just generally awesome at sorting stuff out and getting stuff done (not to mention, giving excellent last-minute talks!). Having a great head volunteer means that you don’t have to worry about silly little things on the day of. You can concentrate on making sure everyone is having a good time. Hopefully, you’ll even have a chance to relax and enjoy yourself, which is important.

13. Expect To Lose Money

At least expect to lose money at first. Running a conference is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s a lot of work for a very small amount of money, if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky and you don’t get it right, the worst-case scenario will bankrupt you. There are ways to minimize risks, though. Setting up a corporation in certain countries, such as the UK and US, is a great way to protect yourself from personal risk. If you think you might have some money left over at the end, chances are you won’t. However, operating at a loss is still very rewarding as long as you are prepared for it; there are many more rewards than just the money to be made. If you do make money, that’s a great bonus, something to be proud of, and a perfect foundation on which to build a sustainable business and to put on an even better event next year.

14. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare, Then Pray

No matter how much you prepare, you can only hope that everything goes right in the end. Something will go wrong at some point — I guarantee it. Plenty of things went wrong for us, although, fortunately, all of the big problems happened during preparation, and only a couple of minor, easily fixable hiccups occurred on the day. Minimize risks by planning as much as possible as early as possible; in the end, you can’t do much more than hope for the best. Keep in mind, too, that almost nothing is unsolvable. Most things can be fixed with a lot less hassle than you might think, and often guests will not notice, care or remember that something hasn’t gone precisely according to plan.

15. Get Feedback

When the event is finished, send out a survey with a prize for a random entry. Give people an incentive to tell you what they think. Find out what you can do better with the next one.

Discover The Rewards Of Putting On Your Conference

After all of this talk of stress and hard work, I would be remiss to skip the rewards at the end for a job well done. The amount of effort you put in will make you feel incredibly accomplished when it all comes together. While HybridConf has caused me the most anguish in my life, it is also the thing I am most proud of in my life. Sometimes I think I’m mad for wanting to run a conference a second time, but when I think back to the event last year and the amazing feedback we got from our guests, I remember why it is all so worth it.

Nothing really compares to what we felt at the end of the conference last year. After two days of wonderful, insightful talks, Cameron Moll gave the closing keynote and brought the whole audience to tears with his inspiring examples of how technology can do real good in the world. At the end of his talk, he thanked us for putting on the event, and the applause that followed was overwhelming. The culmination of eight months of hard work in something that so many people enjoyed brought up every emotion at once: intense happiness, amazement that we had actually pulled it off, pride, relief, disbelief, exhaustion.

We had to pause for a moment just to stand and take it all in. It was a moment we would never get to experience again, and it demanded to be savored. It was just a minute, but I will remember that minute for the rest of my life. Whenever I get overwhelmed from organizing HybridConf this year, I will step back and remember that moment. With all of the stress involved, it’s very easy to forget that you are creating something awesome, memorable and life-changing — both for you and your guests. Taking time to enjoy it is imperative because you’ll sure as hell miss it when it’s gone.

That’s it! I hope this has given you some ideas and has excited you to put on an event, rather than make you want to run away! If you want advice on specific aspects of organizing a conference, Jesper Wøldiche’s handbook goes through plenty of topics.

We spent eleven months of the year for just two days, and it was one of the hardest things we’ve ever had to do. But seeing people smile and inspired by what we created was an amazing experience, one that will last with us for the rest of our days and that, in the end, was worth it.

Other Resources

Front page image credit: Chung Ho Leung.

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (al, ml, il, mrn)