Planning the key to success

TAKING on the conference management role for your association or company is often viewed as suitable only for extreme masochists – those who thrive on setting nail-biting budgets, taking responsibility for hordes of sub contractors with immovable deadlines and answering innumerable questions.

But is doesn’t have to be that way. By the use of good people-management skills and establishing effective business partnerships, staging a conference can be an extremely satisfying and rewarding experience for all involved – not to mention a valuable money spinner for non-profit organisations.

For associations, conferences provide an excellent vehicle to build profile in the community, to attract new members, set policy and direction, establish global alliances and showcase Western Australian excellence to the world.

So where do you start? Firstly, it is vital to have a clear understanding of the aims and objectives of your particular event. Is the primary purpose educational, team building, an exchange of ideas, launching a new product, or simply to have fun with a group of like-minded people?

If you are involved in a large conference with delegates numbering in the hundreds, the best advice is to review whether the budget can accommodate the services of a professional conference manager. If this is the case, at this point you can sit down, have a cuppa and let them do the hard miles. Your role will be focused on the program content and meeting outcomes.

For the rest, you will need to bring together the best conference management support team you can muster and enjoy the ride. Make sure you allocate roles and responsibilities covering site selection, developing and managing the budget, program development, speaker liaison, marketing the event, networking and social functions, sponsorship, publicity, and audio-visual and staging requirements.

Having set down the why and the who, you need to firm up the where and when. Remember, the more flexible your timing the better the deal you can negotiate with venues. If possible, avoid the high season. September and October are traditionally the busiest conference and tourism months in Perth.

Check what else is happening around your event both locally and elsewhere so you don’t conflict, or perhaps to enable your event to follow on from one attracting a similar audience. Make sure your chosen venue meets all your meeting requirements and has additional capacity if you should exceed anticipated numbers.

Be honest with all your suppliers, they are a critical part of your team in delivering a successful conference. Don’t be tempted to optimistically overstate your anticipated numbers to get a better deal at the time – it will come back to haunt you when you are releasing back rooms and re-negotiating food and beverage or venue hire prices after your registration fee has been set and published.

Next on the list is developing a conference planning calendar. This should establish deadlines for program development, locking in speakers and topics, securing sponsorship, marketing the event, both on and off line, and go right through to the review and wind up after the event itself. Document everything, including dates and times of committee meetings, and when reports are due on allocated tasks.

Designing your conference is the fun part. Make sure you allow time for networking – most of the best ideas seem to come from the informal chat during the coffee break after the formal sessions. Conferences are now moving away from the large plenary “sermon from the mount” style and becoming much more interactive. Facilitated discussions, roundtable forums, and break-out sessions on topics of special interest are increasingly popular.

Maximising sponsors’ interaction with delegates through trade exhibitions is an excellent way of generating funding. If you are including a trade exhibition, make sure that exhibitors have frequent access to delegates by scheduling cocktail functions, breaks and lunches in the exhibition area.

Get maximum value from your keynote speakers by using them for additional master classes or sponsors’ functions in addition to their presentation, and arrange local media interviews or appearances to generate profile and publicity.

Remember, the key to a successful conference is good and timely planning.

Have contingency and back up plans for everything. Budget to break even on your most pessimistic attendance figures.

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