Organizing a conference can be a logistical nightmare. Picking a site, finding hotels, managing payments, inviting speakers, scheduling sessions (including those all-important coffee breaks)….and speaking of coffee breaks, do I need to buy coffee? Oh, and food. What about a banquet? How are the rooms going to be set up? Should I publish proceedings from the conference?
Just typing that made me stressed out.
If the conference is still months away and you’re already considering therapy, don’t worry, AstroBetter has your back. Or rather, the fantastic Facebook Astronomers community does. Several months ago, someone asked for tips on planning a conference. And the group response was overwhelming. From registration fees to having spare projectors on hand, here’s a summary of some of the most important tips.
Before the meeting
- Delegate, delegate, delegate! This is easily the number one rule for all aspects of conference planning. Designate someone to answer emails and respond to problems with payments, roommates, etc. Assign someone else to help with the financial side. And don’t forget to reach out to students–it can be a great learning experience for them. Above all, if you try to do it all yourself, you will quickly become buried in logistics and minutiae rather than focusing your energy where it should: planning an amazing meeting for your participants.
- Check with your institution to see if they have an office that helps with conference organizing. They may already have a web-based system for collecting registration fees that you can link to your conference website. Double check on any fees you may have to pay to use this service.
- Make sure the information on your website database is easily accessible to you (e.g., how simple is it to retrieve a list of participants or abstracts?)
- During the planning process, start an expense/income spreadsheet to capture everything you’ll be responsbile for paying and every source of income. This can help prevent unpleasant surprises down the road.
- Be sure to select a city/conference center/hotel that not only satisfies the needs for your meeting but is also easily accessible.
- Be strict with your registration deadlines. This will save you many headaches later on.
- Clearly state your cancellation policy for the registration fee and hotel.
- Make sure that attendants are aware of whether or not they need a visa and how to obtain it if necessary.
- Stick to a flat registration fee (e.g., I will not attend the sessions on Tuesday, do I still have to pay the full fee?). Doing so can be a logistical nightmare and will screw up your budget.
- Aim for a good gender balance in the invited and contributed talks (and the SOC as well).
- Try targeting younger researchers for the invited talks to both promote newer voices and reduce the number of talks given by senior scientists who give similar talks at multiple conferences every year.
- Have a few backup speakers in case there is a cancellation a few days before the conference.
- Provide invited speakers with guidelines to any points you would like them to address in the context of the meeting.
- Avoid talk fatigue! Don’t pack the conference schedule with long days and short talks. Aim for fewer longer talks that present substantive material without speed-talking.
- Allow plenty of time for breaks. Interacting with fellow attendees is many times the most important element of a conference. Aim for a 30 minute morning break, 30 minute afternoon break, and 90 minutes for lunch (shorter if it’s provided on-site).
- Set up coffee breaks by the posters.
- Remind your session chairs–and then remind them again–to keep speakers on time. If you think this will be an issue, pick senior researchers who don’t mind stepping on a toe or two to keep things humming along.
- Have a late start the morning after the conference dinner.
- Be sure to schedule talks and sessions so presentations are grouped in a natural way while avoiding too many similar talks in a row.
At the conference site
- Have backups for pretty much everything: projectors, microphones, laser pointers, batteries, etc.
- Print tickets for any special events and distribute them at registration to make logistics at said events a little easier.
- When printing nametags, don’t bother with the conference name and date (we all know what conference you’re at!) and use large font for the particpant’s surname. If you can, print on both sides since they almost always flip around.
- Check the location in advance to make sure you have enough room for your registration desk, general session, poster room, etc. Make sure the layout works, e.g., do you need chairs and tables, can everybody see the screen, do you need two screens. Check that there is reasonable access to electrical outlets.
- Don’t provide conference-themed coffee mugs / tote bags / backpacks. Most of them will be left in the trash can in the hotel room.
- Ensure your wireless setup has enough bandwidth–this can be the Number One Complaint.
- Have signs that show the locations of each room, including restrooms, registration booth, etc. Provide maps of the building and surrounding area.
- Every morning, before sessions start, have a few slides rolling automatically on the screen with useful information and program updates.
- Set up a cork bulletin board so participants can post messages to each other.
- Have assistants available to help speakers get setup.
After the meeting
- Don’t bother with conference proceedings–they’re a waste of time.
- Thank your LOC members at the end of the conference. This goes a long way.
What have we missed? What lessons have you learned from conferences you’ve planned? If you’ve got an upcoming conference, what haven’t we answered? Let’s hear it in the comments!