At the beginning of this first series of The New Academic, I considered what it takes to deliver an effective conference presentation. Now that we have worked our way through presenting your research and knowledge in the classroom and in writing, I think it’s time we take the next step and think about how to organise and host a conference at which others can put into practice their presentation and networking skills. The prospect of planning an academic event often causes scholars’ faces to contort into shapes expressing mixtures of panic and dread, or – much less often – excitement and joy. Running a conference is largely an administrative and – quite obviously – organisational task rather than an intellectual exercise, and many of the processes involved in planning an academic event are based on a solid understanding of your field, of budgeting, and of your delegates’ needs, and its these processes that I want us to consider in this post one by one, including:
a) The Beginning: Planning & Preparation
b) Order in Chaos: Running the Event
c) Post-Conference: Making the Most of Your Event
A word of caution: I strongly suggest you do not organise a conference if you have no genuine interest in doing so and have no investment in how the event is planned and run. A conference is an event. Yes, it is an event for the exchange of academic research, but if you are the organiser then you are first and foremost an event manager and a host before you are a scholar, and even if you have administrative support from your department and other co-organisers, it is your responsibility to take responsibility for the event and for the welfare of your delegates. There is nothing more frustrating for collaborators, administrative staff, and indeed for delegates than to plan or attend an event in whose logistics its organiser is in no way interested or invested. It is not the support staff’s job to figure out every detail of your conference for you. It is your project, and you should be thinking carefully about what you want the event to be and how you are going to make it happen. If you don’t want to put in the work, then it’s best not to bother at all and leave it to people who are more motivated for this kind of activity.
As will quickly become clear, there’s a plethora of factors to consider when planning and running academic events, and while I hope I cover the most important ones here, please do feel free to add your thoughts on other essential organisational aspects in the comments section – as always, I love hearing from you.
THE BEGINNING: PLANNING & PREPARATION
It’s perhaps wisest to begin by stating that this is by far the most important stage in the whole process. The way in which you plan and prepare for your conference will inevitably be reflected in the manner in which it runs on the day as well as in your and your delegates’ stress levels. In your planning and preparation you should think of and accommodate for anything and everything to do with your conference that is possibly foreseeable; each event comes with unexpected issues and challenges on the day, and you want to avoid adding to these surprises with problems that you could have prepared for or solved in advance.
What shape your event will take depends almost entirely on your financial means. Once you have a vague idea of a topic and format for a conference (something to which we’ll come a little later), your first thoughts must inevitably be about how you will fund the event, and it is advisable you consider some of the following points along the way (though there are many, many more to take into account):
- Simple: what goes out must come back in, otherwise you make a financial loss.
- Calculate your expenditure and your income pessimistically and always assume the worst-case scenario.
- Check The New Academic’s Conference Costs List!
- Always calculate your expenditure with concrete, up-to-date quotes (i.e. do not guess!).
- Establish what will need paying upfront and for which costs you’ll be invoiced after the event.
- From what kind of account do you pay these costs (an association’s bank account; a departmental account; etc.)?
- Where do you want your profits to go (department, association for which you are organising the event, etc.)?
- This should determine from what account/s you pay your expenditure and into which you pay your income.
- If you require a departmental or institutional account (or “code”), establish how you can have this set up.
- Always aim to make a profit. This can often be used to fund further events or activities.
- Wanting to make a profit from an event is not an act of greed. It shows you can create sustainable projects.
- What you charge your delegates shouldn’t just be a random number you thought was reasonable.
- Instead, you should ensure registration fees (plus any funding) will recover your expenses.
- For multi-day events, ensure day registration rates reflect what is offered on the respective days.
- Ensure you offer postgraduate and unsalaried fee options (and consider what this costs you in income).
There are several sources from which you may obtain additional funds for your conference, and they may fund whole events, a wine reception, reduced postgraduate fees, or fee waivers. Here are some ideas for funding sources:
- Subject associations;
- Research council collaborative postgraduate skills development grants;
- Your department or university;
- Higher Education Academy (for events which focus on teaching elements);
- Businesses and organisations relevant to your field (trusts, book shops, etc.).
Call for Papers
- Your call for papers should address a specific enough field to make for a coherent conference.
- It should also be broad and inclusive enough to allow for a diverse range of papers.
- Ensure you check if there are similar conferences in your field in the same year and when. Avoid overlaps.
- Specify: type of presentation, word count for abstracts, email address for submission, deadline for abstracts.
- Specify whether or not you are seeking submissions from a specific discipline only.
- Set up a dedicated email account for the conference; otherwise your own inbox may become unmanageable.
Abstract Selection & Programme Draft
- Ensure you know how many slots you have available.
- For example: 5 panel sessions with 3 parallel panels of 3 papers each results in a total of 45 papers.
- Once you have selected abstracts, communicate your acceptances and rejections as soon as possible.
- Be prepared for requests for letters of invitation or confirmation, especially from international delegates.
- Don’t underestimate how long it can take to draft a panel programme – it’s a tricky task!
- Always be mindful of the fact that what you are creating is a draft.
- Don’t be frustrated if someone drops out or requests a change of day for their paper – it happens.
- Try to accommodate delegates’ needs as much as possible so long as it does not impact on other delegates.
- Ensure you have a deadline by which delegates can withdraw from the conference and receive a refund.
- Remind delegates of the time allotted to their paper before the conference.
- If you do not have enough co-organisers or colleagues to chair panels, ask delegates to volunteer.
- Clarify with panel chairs the format of the session and rules on timing.
- Consider the format you want your conference to have (e.g. parallel panels, plenary panels, etc.).
- Ensure there are enough refreshment breaks on each event day – presenting and listening can be taxing.
- Carefully consider start and end times and take into account people’s journey to and from the venue.
- When selecting your keynote speakers, ensure their work will appeal to the majority of the audience.
- When inviting more than one keynote, consider choosing one early-career researcher and one senior academic.
- Remember how expensive it can be to invite overseas keynotes!
- Consider carefully how you arrange accommodation for delegates.
- Making accommodation booking part of the registration process is a lot of work.
- Making delegates book their own accommodation can be expensive for them.
- Ensure you provide a list of suggested B&Bs and hotels in various price brackets.
- Request details of delegates’ dietary needs on the registration form.
- Cater adequately for those with special diets. They have paid for their lunch too!
- The same counts for conference dinners at restaurants.
- If a dinner is not included, choose somewhere all delegates can afford.
- Avoid choosing very unusual cuisines.
- Plan in advance how you will settle the dinner bill if delegates haven’t paid in advance for a set menu.
- Have enough helpers on the day for the registration desk and for help with unexpected tasks.
- Check whether IT support is included in your room hire.
- If not, check in advance who you should call if something goes wrong with any equipment.
- Make a note of anyone who has not paid their registration fee and ensure they pay it on the day.
- Make sure you know and familiarise delegates with the emergency exists (you are required to do this).
- Ensure your conference pack includes a feedback form.
ORDER IN CHAOS: RUNNING THE EVENT
Hopefully, if you have planned and prepared well, then there will actually be fairly little to do for you on the day of your event. However, there are always some unexpected requests and problems. Here are some thoughts on what to bear in mind on the day:
- Frankly, the conference is for your delegates to enjoy, not you, so this should be your focus: making others happy.
- Stay friendly throughout the day and help with a smile. Remember, people are stressed before they present.
- Occasionally, there is the odd rude delegate who will make ridiculous requests and comments. Be even friendlier!
- Keep an eye on the time throughout the day and ensure no sessions are running behind excessively.
- Look out for people awkwardly standing in corners on their own during breaks and lunch.
- Where appropriate, introduce people to each other, but don’t be annoyingly intrusive.
POST-CONFERENCE: MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR EVENT
- Keep your delegates’ email addresses and send a “thank you” email.
- Consider publishing conference proceedings in the form of an essay collection or a special journal issue.
- Approach delegates for related future events (though be sure to offer them to opt out of any further emails).
- Ensure you follow up conversations on social media (this is often easier and quicker than writing emails).
From personal experience, once you have hosted your first conference you will either want to do it again and again (as is the case with my fabulously efficient serial co-organiser Claire O’Callaghan and me) or you will feel so traumatised and stressed that you will vow never to turn your hand to event organisation again. That said, there are numerous benefits to organising conferences besides the obvious line on your CV, not least the fact that people will remember your name and you have a unique opportunity to make acquaintances that may lead to future collaborations. As with so many of the tasks we have discussed on The New Academic to date, the important thing is that you acknowledge and reward yourself for your efforts afterwards – organising a conference can be a big task, but it’s also very rewarding when things go well and delegates enjoy the event.
In our next and last post in this first season of The New Academic, we’ll consider what the benefits and challenges of being a member of steering groups and executive committees can be, and how to best go about choosing your committee activities. Until then, and as always, thank you for reading, and remember to comment and share generously!