The Ins and Outs of Conference Planning

AUDIO | The Ins and Outs of Conference Planning
Planning an unforgettable conference requires, time, strategic thinking, restraint and a great deal of collaboration.

The following interview is with Katy Meyers, a research assistant and PhD student at Michigan State University (MSU). Meyers served as the chair of MSU’s Graduate Academic Conference Committee last year and organized its sixth annual conference, held in March. In this interview, Meyers reflects back on the process of planning and delivering a top-notch conference. She discusses some of the ins and outs of conference planning, and shares her thoughts on some of the lessons she learned through the experience.

1. What were the most challenging elements of planning a major conference?

Being a graduate student, the hardest part for me was delegating tasks. Graduate students are so used to being the lone scholar; you’re accomplishing everything on your own. But being faced with a large event like this, you really have no choice but to delegate and to have a large team. For me, that was one of the most challenging aspects: learning to put trust in others, learning to deal with all the different personalities and letting other people take the lead sometimes when I couldn’t.

2. What were some of the tasks you delegated?

What we ended up doing was having a different person for each topic or role in the conference. We had someone who was completely in charge of social media, we had an individual who was completely dealing with the program. … Everyone having their own specific role really made the delegation so much easier since they already had an idea of what tasks fell under their job title.

3. If you could start again from scratch, what would you do differently in terms of organizing and planning the conference?

I would start a lot earlier. It was my first time ever planning a major event, so I didn’t start gathering a team together or delegating major tasks until kind of late into the process. It would have been nice if, a year in advance when we had picked the conference date, if I had literally started planning from there, rather than starting to plan six months before the conference. It would have just been nice to have a really good team already set up so I didn’t have to keep re-teaching people to do different jobs and bringing people in and catching them up.

4. What advice do you have to share with other would-be conference planners?

The best advice I got was taking a presenter perspective. … I kept thinking about that: how are the presenters going to feel when they come through the building? Are they going to want to have some swag bags when they arrive or would they be happier if I spent some of the conference funds on having hot coffee in every room?

Taking that kind of perspective made the presenters really feel like the whole event was for them. It wasn’t for our organization, it wasn’t for the university, and it was really to support them.

5. What kinds of tools did you use to keep all your ducks in a row through the planning process?

We primarily used Google Drive. We had our own folder that everybody was accessing at the same time so we could all be working on the exact same planning documents and the exact same spreadsheets, keeping up to date with everyone without having to actually meet all the time. That was our primary way of keeping in touch with one another.

It made the planning process so much easier. We just had a running list of tasks going on one of the Google [documents] and people would just check things off as they finished them or they would add comments if they would have difficulty completing a task and other people would jump in to help. It made the process a lot more collaborative and it didn’t put the pressure on me to constantly be reminding people of what they had to be doing.

6. Was using Google Drive effective for this type of conference or were there other functionalities you would have liked to have?

Google Drive was the perfect level of tool for us. I’d used other organizational tools that were a little bit more technical and I think given the level of knowledge of different people’s tech tools, this was the easiest way to get people in. …

For a bigger project, I don’t know if people would want to do that same thing. We only had 150 attendees — which is a fairly large number but it’s not a huge event — so this kind of system worked really well for us.

7. Is there anything you’d like to add about the challenges of planning and organizing a conference and some of the advice you have to share?

One of the things I felt very strongly about at the beginning of conference planning and I completely changed by the end of conference planning was how innovative you should be. I really wanted to just switch things up and really shake up how our university does conferences and maybe do an un-conference style, discussion-type session. In the end, I really ended up backing off that and that’s something that was really difficult for me, to censor myself and to be a little bit innovative but not over the top. That was something that really surprised me, how much I had to stop my own impulses from doing something that was a little weird for a conference.

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Readers Comments

Alicia Ramos 2014/05/13 at 12:31 pm

This is an interesting look at what happens behind the scenes of conference planning. What might help to avoid the issue Meyers raises about delegating tasks is to have clear terms of reference and job specs on hand as you build your team. As you sign members on, they will be made aware of the expectations associated with their roles. That way, there will be no confusion or ‘passing the buck’ once planning is underway.

Vic Thomas 2014/05/14 at 9:37 am

Meyers hints at this, but never specifically addresses the challenge of staff turnover. When planning a symposium for about 200 participants, I ran into the issue of many volunteer organizers leaving the project before completion. Having to constantly recruit and train new volunteers took time away from other tasks and, quite frankly, left me feeling harried in some aspects of the planning process. If at all possible, keep the same staff throughout the project period.

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