Planning a company conference can boost your career and visibility. It can strengthen company sales and morale, depending on its purpose.
Conferences are complex, though, and can be tricky to plan. A compelling agenda and great speakers are a must. But so are food, comfortable seats and a myriad of elements behind the scenes. Think air conditioning. Heat. Morning coffee.
A conference that isn’t planned well can impact your career like a lead balloon. If the speakers don’t impress attendees, or you run out of food, it can be talked about for months afterward … And you might shoulder the blame, or at least share it.
So plan your company conference thoroughly. Don’t leave anything to chance. Here are 10 tips for planning successfully.
1. Decide on a clear purpose
Successful conferences have a clear purpose. Do you need to motivate the sales force? Introduce a new product? Engage in team-building activities? Bring separate geographical regions together? The purpose determines much of the rest of the conference: its size, its speakers and the agenda.
2. Brainstorm a wishlist
Once you have a defining purpose, begin to brainstorm. What would you — and the meeting committee, if there is one — most like to see? Do you want to engage dynamic and well-known speakers? Do you want plenary sessions, where the entire group of attendees gathers to hear speakers? Or do you need a series of break-out sessions on multiple topics? What about the conference venue? Should it be near the company? In an area convenient to attendees throughout the U.S. and overseas?
3. Create a budget
Once you have a purpose and wish list, set up your budget. Be sure to include all the categories you need. Set up a line item for each thing on your wish list.
Will you need paid speakers? Will meals be part of the meeting? How about the venue? What kind of conference rooms will you need? Plenary session rooms may have to accommodate several hundred people, while break-out session rooms may only need to accommodate 20 or so. Will you be hiring vendors to create printed or web-based material? For meeting-related information?
Create a list of everything you need and how much each item will cost, roughly. Then begin your search for a venue that can accommodate all of it. Look for meeting places that offer flexible meeting packages and are well equipped to handle your needs.
4. Narrow down the wish list and budget
Once you’ve paired your wish list and the budget, one of two things might happen. One: Your available budget and the wish list are a match! You can now start the planning stage in earnest.
If you have a shortfall in the budget for your wish list conference, revise the plan so it fits within your budget. If you planned eight breakout sessions over two days, for example, streamline it into four sessions over one day. If your desired speakers quote expensive fees, scout around for an equally good one who will speak to your business for less — or pro bono.
5. Research Available Dates
The planning period of a conference needs to be at least one year, and preferably more. Why? Because meetings have a multitude of logistics. You need a venue, vendors and speakers all available on a particular date. If your planning period is less than a year, availability of one or more of these elements may be limited.
You will need to place a tent pole in the form of a date before all the planning is complete. It’s a good idea, though, to research availability dates for 1) venues that can accommodate the number of people and type of meeting you want, 2) well-known speakers and 3) vendors. Once you have their dates of availability, decide on the meeting date(s).
The Rubber Hits the Road: Planning in Earnest
You’re now ready to begin planning the conference!
6. Book the venue
Set up commitments for the place where the conference will be held. If the venue will be responsible for preparing and serving meeting meals, set up commitments for those as well.
7. Hire the speakers and vendors
Make arrangements with any speakers. Send them the meeting date, time and any other material needed. Hire any vendors you will need.
8. Develop the agenda
You may have a good sense of what the agenda is from the initial brainstorming sessions. Or, you may at this point need to sit down and draw it up, point by point. Developing a firm agenda should begin immediately once the date for the conference is firm.
Be sure to circulate the agenda so that all relevant parties have seen and contributed to it before it is finalized.
9. Publicize the conference
All meetings, whether internal or external to the company, should be publicized. If attendance is mandatory — say it’s a motivational meeting for the sales force — publicity will excite the attendees and let them know what the meeting is all about. If it’s not mandatory — rolling out a new product, so employees can attend or not — publicity can provide reasons to attend.
Publicity should provide reasons that the meeting will be beneficial for attendees. Use it as an informational channel as well, to let people know the dates, the agenda, the venue and any surrounding attractions.
Decide what the publicity methods should be. Web site? E-mail blasts on a regular basis? Flyers and brochures? A story in the company newsletter? A mix of all these?
10. Evaluate the conference
This post-conference step is sometimes skipped. It shouldn’t be. You need concrete and measurable feedback on the conference for attendees. A short questionnaire asking what participants gleaned from the conference is a good idea. Go back to your purpose here. If the purpose was motivating the sales force, what was their take-away? If a new product launch, did attendees learn valuable information about the product? Were they comfortable during the meeting? Did they find it valuable to their careers?
Conference planning is a great way to build your visibility and profile within a company. Because conference planning is complex, it needs to be handled with an overall plan in place and specific steps to execution. These 10 tips will set you up for a memorable conference.