Conference Planning: A Director’s Responsibilities (Long-Term)
Conference management is more complex than simply setting a date; conference organizers need to keep numerous plates spinning in order to host a successful event.
As a former director of a large annual distance education conference, I’ve often been asked what happens during the year-long preparation for a conference that draws more than 900 participants annually from more than a dozen countries.

First, we believe it’s important to come together once a year to share experiences; to learn new tools, teaching strategies and problem-solving techniques; to compare strategies for assessment of learning; and to gain insights from experts in the field. Through past conference surveys, we know a major benefit of the conference, as listed by participants, is time to network face-to-face with others working in the field. So we continue to invite those interested to come to Madison for a frenzy of sharing and learning over a one-week period each year.

I recently retired and was asked to share my major roles with the new director, Les Howles. This has given me a chance to reflect on my major tasks to plan, implement and evaluate our conference, in addition to directing our certificate programs and performing divisional/campus roles. Below are the major responsibilities involved in hosting the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning.



Twelve Months to Conference

  • Debrief and decide on possible improvements to the schedule, presentation types and logistics for next year’s conference.

  • Ensure the resource library is updated with additional materials (videos, proceedings papers, handouts, slides) from all speakers.

  • Ask the advisory group members for suggestions for next year’s keynote speakers.

  • Investigate possible keynote speakers (watch videos of past presentations and/or transcripts, interviews, and other examples of these speaker’s topics and delivery style).

  • Email the top two keynote speaker candidates to invite them to speak, giving them the details of dates, place and compensation.

  • Send planning committee members data on registrations and the compiled results from the conference evaluation and virtual conference evaluation for their review prior to the planning meeting.

  • Hold a teleconference to discuss changes and solicit ideas for the next conference from the fall planning committee.

  • Continue negotiations to confirm keynote speakers and negotiate via email or phone to hone in on the exact titles, discussion descriptions and brief bios.

  • Scan other conferences’ websites for new presentation formats and event ideas.

  • Refine the conference schedule, presentation types, and assign tentative locations for events.

  • Work with the division’s graphic designers on a visual for the conference web banner that will carry through on all of the print pieces.

  • Develop content for the conference website to announce the next conference and call-for-proposals.

  • Develop content for the conference call-for-proposals and ensure it is printed and distributed prior to Thanksgiving.

  • Review and update/revise the online proposal submission form.



Nine Months to Conference

  • Confirm planning committee members’ participation in proposal reviews and have them hold dates for the reviews.

  • Update, test and refine the online proposal review and scoring form.

  • Encourage proposal submissions by taking one (or both) of the following actions:

  • Announce on LinkedIn Groups and other social media forums; and

  • Send requests to leaders and organizations in the field, etc.

  • Assign proposal reviews and send them to pre-determined reviewers.

  • Ensure the review process for the annual awards is underway and participate in the review of proposals.

  • Assign staff to participate in making final determinations of proposals accepted.

To read the second installment of Terpstra’s Conference Planning Checklist, please click here.

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Readers Comments

Charlene L 2014/04/22 at 10:52 am

It seems to me one of the most difficult tasks is determining one year in advance what the focus of next year’s conference should be. It requires knowing an industry well and being able to identify emerging trends/themes. I would have liked for this article to have had more advice on the process for choosing a conference theme.

    Jane Terpstra 2014/04/29 at 9:34 am

    For this conference, we have not selected annual themes. As you mentioned, the focus is on what is emerging. In most cases, the bubble hasn’t burst on the topics selected. If they do, I usually adjusted the forum discussions to change focus to what had happened to cause the dramatic change.

hb 2014/04/22 at 4:35 pm

This is a useful checklist of what needs to be done to plan a conference. I’m in the process of putting together a CE symposium, and although its size is much smaller than what Terpstra describes, I find this to be helpful advice.

I notice there are descriptions of different roles within the organizing committee and advisory group, and I wonder if anyone could share about their experience establishing the group(s) and determining responsibilities.

    Jane Terpstra 2014/04/29 at 9:51 am

    We started with a Conference Planning Committee that consisted of both local and distant professionals working in distance education. For the size of this conference, we usually ended up with 15-20 members. These members suggest emergent priorities in the field, issues with which professionals are dealing, changes in government regulations of the field, and the like. This group also reviews and scores the proposals submitted, 3 assessments per proposal. In this way, they shape the topics of most interest and/or concern. In our case, the committee members are also assigned as facilitators during the conference, providing expert guidance for sessions and ensuring that the members become familiar with the general level of acceptance (buzz) and the content covered. Their input is valuable to revise/refine the conference from year to year.

    While this group of professionals were generally ‘in the trenches’, I relied on another group of experts who had been in the field long enough to have a ‘bird’s eye view’. I consulted this group (about 10 members) for help identifying major changes, shifts, and issues faced by those working in distance education. I also asked them for their suggestions for keynote speakers and forum discussions.

Stay in Lisle 2015/06/05 at 10:17 am

Great checklist, a lot goes into planning an event that is going to run smoothly.

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