Fellow academics often claim that organising a conference is fun, looks good on your CV, and offers an excellent networking opportunity. Well, it’s certainly all of those things – but it’s also jolly hard work. Of course, anything involving people and technology is bound to be tricky. I’ve helped out with the Victorian Popular Fiction Association’s annual conference since it first started back in 2009, and last year I was on the organising committee of Sights and Frights, a one-day interdisciplinary event at the University of Sussex. In this post I share with you some of the lessons learned and insights gained. I’m not going to cover how you choose a theme or draft a call for papers – I’m assuming you already have a good idea of what you want your conference to look like and now need to get started on the practicalities.
If you want to attract delegates, which I assume you do, make the registration process as simple as possible. A basic online form is ideal, and you can set one up for free with a WordPress site or Google Forms. Don’t expect people to send paperwork through the post to you. None of us is that patient these days, and it’s a real pain for overseas delegates. Your university probably has a PayPal account you can use, and this is the most convenient method for everyone. If your budget is tight, then receiving payment upfront gives you a much better idea of the finances and you don’t have to menace people for money on the day. Make it clear on the registration form that delegates who cancel at the last minute won’t receive a refund.
On the registration form, be sure to ask delegates to specify whether they have any specific dietary or access requirements.
Most academics won’t have high expectations of university catering, but they’ll be grumpy if there’s not enough food. You might need to advise the caterers of numbers a few weeks in advance of the event, so keep a careful eye on late registrations and advise them accordingly. Also remember that some people will just turn up on the day, but still expect to be catered for. There is likely to be a least a handful of delegates with allergies, so make sure their needs are noted. If a special meal is prepared for them, mark it with their name – sometimes unthinking souls will wolf down someone else’s vegan lunch just to see what it’s like. You might have to pay a premium for additional dietary requirements, so ask for a clear breakdown of what everything costs. It could be cheaper to pop to the local supermarket and buy some soya milk and gluten-free biscuits for the coffee break.
Oh, and keep an eye on your catering once it’s arrived. I once attended a conference where the host institution’s staff sneaked in and cleared all the platters while we were patiently waiting for the last paper to finish.
Timekeeping & scheduling
Who’s ever attended a conference that didn’t overrun? Not me. To prevent it from getting out of hand, make sure the panel chairs enforce the time limits. The most effective method I’ve used is to provide them with a laminated card – on one side it reads “5 minutes” left, on the other “Stop talking now!” It’s not very subtle, admittedly, but a few academics will just ramble on incontinently until somebody wrestles them to the ground.
Starting on time is also key. Appoint a committee member or friendly faculty member as MC (preferably one with the lungs of Ethel Merman) to summon everyone together for the opening remarks and keynote address. If this starts late, you’ve got absolutely no chance of recovering the time. And squeezing the coffee breaks is always an unpopular move. If you are overrunning, keep closing remarks to an absolute minimum – the audience will be worrying about catching planes and trains, and won’t give a stuff about your thoughts on interdisciplinarity.
Computers are designed to confound and it’s important to assume they will go wrong. If your conference is taking place at the weekend, remember that your university’s IT helpdesk might not be available. Ensure you have a resident geek who can quickly resolve any minor issues. If possible, encourage speakers to send their slides in advance – that way they won’t be thwarted by failed wi-fi connections, temperamental laptops, or forgetful memory sticks. Also ask them to specify any non-standard equipment required, such as microphones or speakers.
Arrive at the venue early and give yourself time to switch on all the computers and screens that’ll be in use during the day.
Dealing with a large number of people in a confined space is challenging. It’s a good idea to recruit some volunteers to help you on the day, particularly with the registration desk. As a member of the organising committee, you’ll probably be busy dealing with speakers and possible emergencies (see below). Ensure that everyone knows their role and how to carry it out. Keep a list of useful contact numbers on the desk.
Delegates tend to arrive in one enormous clump around 15 minutes before the conference starts. Have a system in place to deal with them efficiently and also station some people there to deal with complicated enquiries. There’ll almost certainly be a few people who haven’t registered or did so just after midnight. Have blank name badges available, and make extra copies of the delegate packs.
Put signs around the building to guide delegates to the panel locations and toilets, and ensure room numbers are clearly marked on the conference programme.
It’s horrible when your carefully laid plans go awry. Unfortunately, speakers do pull out at the last moment – even keynotes – and there’s nothing that can be done. Sometimes they even have the temerity to explain they received a better offer. Anyway, don’t panic. If this happens, don’t be tempted to wheel in another speaker at the last minute. It’s much easier to simply extend the social breaks or finish earlier (remember that you’ll probably be overrunning, in any case). If a keynote is travelling a long distance, he or she could easily be delayed. In that case, do a quick rejig of the schedule – it’s not going to ruin anyone’s day if the conference doesn’t run in exactly the advertised order.
Hopefully I haven’t put you off. Organising a conference is an immensely rewarding experience and it helps develop many skills – not least of which is patience. Inevitably, things will go wrong, but it’s very unlikely that anything truly disastrous will happen. Let go of minor glitches and enjoy your day.
Catherine Pope gained her PhD from the University of Sussex last year. She is now a digital skills trainer and the author of books on Zotero, Evernote, and Scrivener. Find out more at The Digital Researcher (www.theDigitalResearcher.com).