Running a conference? 3 things you MUST get right

Delegates at gala dinner, 2011 Queensland Landcare Conference, Ayr.

I first got into event management because I’m one of those people who doesn’t learn at conferences. I just can’t. Network, yes. But learn, no. Some people can. They come away with reams and reams of notes and lots of ideas and inspiration for the year ahead. Unfortunately I’m not one of those people. So, I figured I may as well make myself useful and lend a helping hand at those events where I’d usually be sitting in the back of a lecture theatre trying to stay awake. And that’s how I started running events.

Since then, I’ve been involved in the event management process for maybe 20 major conferences and scores of smaller forums and workshop type functions. Usually, when we’re engaged as an event management (the industry would call us a PCO – professional conference organiser, but I don’t like that term), we report to a steering committee of some kind. That’s often what people get wrong from the beginning. They have a committee of people with all sorts of ideas about how they’ll be involved and no clear terms of reference for what they actually need to be doing.

In my experience, there are three things you MUST get right to run a successful conference. I’ll say now, that most of the events I run are related to land management, agriculture and conservation and very rarely happen in a capital city.

Set a realistic price for your audience
Many of the events we run are targeted at either not for profit community groups or people living and working in farming communities. That means registration price is crucial to actually getting good attendance. We’ve managed to run three day, all inclusive (yes, with three evening functions and field trip) events with a registration fee of $300 AUD. But if you don’t know what your ideal registration price is, it’s hard to build a realistic budget. Knowing exactly how much people will pay to attend your conference is important. Past pricing (if your event is an annual one) will give you an indication. So too will talking to your audience – and this is where your committee comes in. Ideally, your committee will be well connected to the audience you want to attract to this event. Your committee should be able to offer guidance here.  Once you have a realistic price set, you know exactly how much you have to raise in sponsorship and exactly how much you have available to pay speakers and special guests.   

Develop a program that meets your audience needs
Having an attractive program does not mean you need celebrities or high profile speakers. Both of which often cost a pretty penny to get to your event. However, when you know your audience, you know what they want to hear about. And that’s where an attractive program comes from. This is another role for your committee. Over the past 10 years, every committee I have worked for has suggested Tim Flannery as a keynote speaker. Tim Flannery will not necessarily bring our target audience to an event. So firstly, you must know who your target audience is. Secondly, you need to think very smartly about what will bring them to an event. What are the topical, controversial, poignant issues getting coverage through that audience? Who is doing innovative work in that space?

When you ask people what they most enjoy about conferences, many of them talk about the networking opportunities. So if you know that this is what your audience are after, make sure you acknowledge that in your programming. Having 45 minute lunch breaks where 300 people need to eat, drink and pee is not conducive to strong networking opportunities.

With the agriculture-related events we run, we find that most people involved in farming really like to hear from others involved in farming. If you haven’t allocated plenty of time for these sorts of presentations, you’ll miss out on that audience. But you know your audience better than anyone else. And you need to plan ahead for how you’ll pull your program together.

Communicate effectively about your event
There is no point having a low registration fee and an excellent program if you haven’t put thought into how you’ll tell people about your event. Your committee might be able to help a little here, but chances are, you might need external help. Even a professional conference organiser won’t help you reach your target audience (unless, like us, they’re connected to a specific industry). So, build your mailing lists early, form partnerships with like-minded organisations early and have a documented plan of attack for how you are going to communicate.

Of course, there are many other steps to running a smooth, successful event. But these three are the most critical. We’ve worked with committees who want to discuss theming for the conference dinner before we’ve talked about a keynote speaker. If you get your priorities right, the rest tends to fall into place.

Wombat Creative can assist with event planning or by providing a full event management service. We can also facilitate your own staff so that they learn how to manage events themselves and document an event management plan for them to roll out. You can contact us at sam@wombatcreative.com.au for more information about our work.