Putting together a conference can be a harrowing ordeal, with enough moving pieces to make even the most astute event planner occasionally throw their hands up in the air and despair. So what do you do if you need to put together a conference yourself but don’t have years of trial and error and experience to draw upon? Take a look at our Conference Planning Checklist below and let us help you alleviate some of the stress of planning for this big event.
Now ideally you’d want to start planning your conference a year in advance, with a full team of experienced personnel and a budget to match. This, most likely, is not a reasonable expectation to have😉.
But don’t panic.
Luckily our team at Tagvenue have put together a few standard ground rules to follow (conferences, while complicated, have all been done before, so there is no real need to reinvent the wheel) before you really launch into putting your conference together.
If you’re going through all of the trouble of hosting a conference then it is probably safe to say that you’re not just doing it for the fun of it – you’ve got some sort of goal in mind. You’ll be surprised to hear, however, that very often people do not create a document stating the ultimate aim of the conference.
Are you using this as a chance to increase sales, train your team, and build your brand or are you doing something else entirely? Regardless of what your goal turns out to be, the very first thing you’ll want to do is set out on paper what you want to achieve so that all of the subsequent work you do goes into pursuing this goal and making your conference a success.
Feeling like your conference was a success is all well and good, but the second thing you should do after setting your goal is to design a measurable way to tell if your conference succeeded or not. A step frequently skipped, this is nonetheless extremely important when you’re talking about measuring the business impact of your conference.
That said, all conferences are different and you might not have a concrete goal in mind which is totally fine. You should still do a little bit of brainstorming around this topic, if for nothing else than for planning in advance what kinds of technologies or practices will need to be implemented to measure your results after the conference. You’ll want to do this because, in an ideal world, every step you take should move you towards the goal in Step 1.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that finding a good definition of your target audience before planning the conference is key to everything going smoothly down the road. After selecting your goal and figuring out how to tell if you succeeded, you need to ensure you start thinking from the perspective of your participants. Will your conference plan meet their needs and ensure they have an enjoyable and productive time?
Consideration of your attendees’ needs will have an impact on everything from the number of breaks to the quality and quantity of the catering (if any) to the entertainment, and even the choice of the venue. You’ll hardly want to cram your firm’s top managers into the same space as your young tech talent – the needs of both groups are usually very different!
Now that you’ve fixed your basics and are in the right frame of mind, it’s time to roll your sleeves up and get to the real work – actually assembling all of the separate parts you’ll need to make your conference a reality. Generally speaking, you don’t need to follow these steps in the order we suggest, but it can be a handy outline to adhere to. You might even want to go a few steps deeper, putting these ideas as headings in a larger document and adding sub-steps to make each segment of the planning process easier to manage. So, without further ado, let’s get to it.
This step should be a natural progression from selecting a goal as advised in the first part of this guide. Your theme should be the guiding star by which both your team and your participants order the event in their minds.
This usually means making your theme snappy, memorable and inspiring – stick to making it no more than one sentence.
If you want to add more information, add a tagline to the theme as a bit of subtext (these usually are a bit longer and help set the scene if the theme itself is a bit esoteric). An example of this would be “Innovation as a team” as the theme and “Working together to jump-start development” as the tagline.
As picking a theme can often mean the difference between success and failure, check out a few more sources that cover this topic in greater detail:
A natural next step after settling on your theme is to envision the journey your conference attendees will experience. Ensuring your attendees have a comfortable, efficient and memorable experience is a key part of the holistic event journey you want your attendees to undertake. So what does it mean to design the delegate journey?
While a long conference might not seem like it, it is really just a collection of a few different touchpoints – small moments of truth that can make or break the overall event experience of your attendees. Touchpoints encompass everything from the first point of contact, to food, accommodation, transport, technology, signage, and technology (to name just a few). Essentially, pretend you’re a complete layman and try to navigate the journey of the event. What will make the biggest impression on you?
Your touchpoints and every step along the journey should reinforce your theme and the overall goal of your event. This interaction doesn’t need to be overt but should at least be present in the background of each aspect of your event.
With this said, here is a quick and easy checklist of questions to ask yourself as you design the delegate journey:
As this is a key step, some further reading on this wouldn’t hurt:
No conference of any size and impact is planned in a vacuum or by one person – you’ll need to work with your organisation and put together a team of people that will be able to contribute towards making your event work. Usually, this means you need the following groups of people:
While you may be tempted to do these one at a time, generally speaking, it’s better to plan these concurrently or at least as close to each other as you can manage. In this way, you can avoid any last-second variables like securing the budget for date x and then finding out that date x is booked and date y is suddenly more expensive. Keep in mind the overall cost of hiring a conference venue in mind as you set your budget, this will be the largest line item, so plan accordingly.
A good pro tip would be to have a list of a few possible venues in mind when planning, to ensure that you’re covered even if there is a change of plans. When picking a date and venue, make sure you avoid holidays, local festivals and sporting events. Most popular days typically include Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, so you’ll want to follow suit unless you have something specific in mind.
Actually securing a budget can be either very easy (you have some dedicated from your organisation) or very difficult. If no budget exists for your conference, you’ll need to look into conference sponsorship to make it happen. This means you’ll want to be even more careful about defining the event’s purpose, the value it will bring, your attendees’ interests and how sponsors can benefit along with you. Essentially, you’re creating a pitch to win sponsors over to your side. Finding a sponsor to pitch to can also be tricky, as it is dependent on your industry, your geography, your goals, etc. so while we can’t cover it in detail here, you should check out this excellent piece on understanding conference sponsorships.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have your own space that can host everyone attending your conference, you’ll need to look for just the right venue for your needs. Generally speaking, this means having a look at local hotels, universities or other venues capable of hosting larger events or using an online venue finding platform. While you do that you need to keep the following in mind:
A 500+ attendee event should be booked a year in advance, a 200+ event 6 months in advance and 100 or less attendees can be booked 3 months in advance.
Words to live by when planning a conference.
For a deeper look into choosing a venue, take a look at our guide on How to Choose a Conference Venue, which offers some industry tips on how to select the right venue as well as advice about avoiding common pitfalls.
These days, you have a wealth of options when it comes to selecting your conference technology from the absolutely necessary (an event app, social media walls, and live streams) to the downright cool (facial recognition of guests and AI chatbots for answering customer queries). While not every conference needs a heavy tech focus, a slick and streamlined technological experience can often sway the overall experience of your attendees towards the positive. Here are some ways to make the most of technology when hosting a conference:
Have a read on some technology trends to explore and use them at your next conference.
Do you need speakers, caterers, builders, or specialists of any other sort? If so, try to book them as far in advance as possible and then keep them in the loop on your needs as they change (which they will, if you are doing the smart thing and booking at least a few months out). This is key to getting the most for your money and avoiding any last-minute surprises for anyone.
If you plan on a keynote speaker at your event, and odds are that you are, then you should be very careful in your selection. A good speaker can often be the highlight of the event while a bad speaker can be equally memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Choosing your event speaker should be done about six months out from the event to avoid issues with logistics and you’ll want to ask yourself the following questions before making your choice:
After you’ve got an idea for these points, you’ll want to start the process of actually finding a person to fill the role you’ve just created. This can be done through referrals from those in the same industry as your conference, checking out keynote speakers at similar conferences, looking on pages for organisations or clubs in your field, TED talks on related subjects or even going through an agency that handles it such as SpeakerHub.
For more information check out the following:
This can be an extremely simple or an extremely complicated part of the conference planning process, depending on how long the conference will last, how much content you’re packing into the time, and how many people are in attendance.
For more reading on planning a winning conference agenda, check out the following:
Now that you’ve got some of your plans in place, it’s time to look at another topic that can be extremely simple or the trickiest part of the conference planning process – promotion.
As this is often a key step in planning a successful conference, have a look through these articles for a few more ideas:
As you get nearer to the day, you’ll want to increase the amount of back and forth between you and your venue of choice. Often organisers will assume that because the necessary actions were discussed with the venue a month in advance, the venue will follow them to the letter. Often this is true, but you don’t want to be caught with your pants down on the rare occasion where this is not the case. You’ll risk being a bit annoying, but staying on top of the venue in the days leading up to your event is a good idea to ensure everything is in readiness.
Read some more:
You’ll want to take the time to make sure the plan for each day is well understood by your own team, so having a few last-minute planning meetings a few days in advance is a must. In fact, it is generally a good idea to plan a circle-up the morning before your event begins to handle any last-minute details.
Have a map, an agenda and a timekeeper who will keep everything moving according to schedule. Being a timekeeper can often turn out to be one of the trickier parts of the conference, as it can be quite difficult to cut people off if they’re running overtime. A few tips to make this part easier would include:
The steps you take after the successful close of your conference are often just as important, if not more so than the conference itself. You’ll want to plan all of this out well in advance and take at least some of the following steps:
Gathering feedback is an important part of deciding whether your conference can be considered a success or not. Generally speaking, you’ll want to wait until the conference is over but before your guests have left to gather feedback (though sometimes it might be worth it to gather some after particularly key sessions, while the information is still clear in the minds of your participants).
Feedback can be as in-depth as a full survey emailed to participants or as simple as pushing a smiley or frowny face on an iPad on their way out the door, so it will be up to you to plan how much detail you’re looking to get. A good place to start would be with at least the following:
It is also important to get feedback from your team, not just the participants. The opinion of the people that formed the backbone of your conference matters a great deal, especially since they often observe things you miss and will have good ideas for the future in case you work with them again.
Going back to the goal of your conference, to begin with, you’ll want to strike while the iron is hot to ensure the goals have been met. This means dissembling information to participants and other interested parties, following up on any newly created relationship/business, etc. depending on the nature of your event.
The key is to not wait for too long, as the effectiveness of follow-up communication drops off in usefulness very quickly. Generally speaking a day to a week after is about as long as you should wait before your participants will likely become less responsive.
It is worth it to dedicate another few people just for this step, having them organise large-scale communications, working further with the “champions” that we discussed earlier, and generally keep the discussion moving forward and not dying out.
Even without going full George Orwell, it is often a good idea to keep a list of your participants and mark the parts of the conference they found most interesting. These will usually be the first people you target with future events, so it pays to know who they are and what type of event they’d be interested in attending-
A good way to manage this part of the process is to have an opt-in option in the feedback survey that will allow people to register to hear news about future events in certain categories. If you are planning another event then starting to build your database early is often worth its weight in gold down the line.
Consider these extra tips to make sure that your event doesn’t skip any important elements such as inclusivity or accessibility. We’ve listed the top tips that are often neglected by event planners, particularly those planning their first conference.
This is particularly crucial for those dealing with international attendees or sponsors, helping them navigate the intricacies of legal obligations effectively.
Develop contingency plans to address unforeseen circumstances such as natural disasters, health crises, or technical failures. These plans ensure that you are well-prepared to handle emergencies and maintain the smooth operation of the conference.
Create an inclusive conference environment that accommodates all attendees, including those with disabilities. Ensure accessibility for a diverse and welcoming event.
Adopt an eco-friendly planning whenever possible. Focus on waste reduction, carbon footprint minimisation, and the utilisation of local products whenever possible.
Take into account the unique challenges and opportunities associated with the event’s specific region or industry niche. This tailored approach ensures that you can adapt your plans to suit the particular circumstances, increasing the chances of success.
If you’ve made it this far you should now have at least some basic ideas knocking around in your head for hosting a successful conference. Treat this as what it is – a checklist to get you started for some of the most necessary components to planning a conference that will go off without a hitch. Well, as close to without a hitch as a large conference is capable of going (after years of planning and hosting conferences from 40 to 500 people, it is a rare one indeed that goes exactly to plan – rolling with the punches is just another part of making a conference work).
Creating a conference checklist is one of the most important steps of planning this type of event. Take time to create a detailed checklist so you don’t miss anything important. When creating a conference checklist, make sure to include the areas of planning (date, time, speakers), promotion (ads, newsletters, social media campaigns), logistics (venue, accommodation, catering), and post-event follow-up. Write out tasks for each of the areas, timelines to keep, and people responsible for each of the elements.
To make a conference stand out, focus on delivering unique and memorable experiences. Plan innovative session formats, interactive elements, and engaging speakers. Pay attention to the event’s theme and branding, ensuring consistency and visual appeal. Offer networking opportunities and personalised experiences, and incorporate technology to enhance the overall attendee experience. Most importantly though, provide a seamless experience so the attendees know they’re in good hands and their time is well spent.
When organising a conference, pay attention to:
→ Choosing the right date and time and duration of the conference.
→ Selecting the right venue that will accommodate the expected number of attendees and will offer the necessary facilities.
→ Planning the budget well so you don’t overspend on unnecessary elements.
→ Considering logistics, such as transportation, accommodation, and catering.
→ Ensuring effective promotion and marketing strategies.
→ Providing a smooth registration process.