As an occasional conference speaker, attendee, and conference organizer, I’ve had my fair chance to observe what makes a good conference. It’s not an easy task to arrange one, and it’s surprisingly easy to prevent a conference from being excellent.
Conference experience tends to be subjective, and each attendee sees a specific slice of it. There are shared experiences, but especially in a large event, people can see the conference in different ways.
Therefore there’s no clear answer to what’s an excellent conference, but it seems there are some “dos” and “don’ts” that make a difference. Getting a few small things wrong isn’t bad but getting one big aspect wrong can have a huge impact.
A conference organizer’s worries begin from the organization, timing, theme, venue, speakers, attendees, marketing, sales, sponsoring, and end with smaller details such as catering and afterparties.
Organization Dos and Dont’s🔗
The organization is the lifeblood of a conference. It’s the people that make the whole event possible and have taken the task of organizing it upon themselves. I’ve listed organization specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Assemble your organization early. Make sure you have most, if not all, expertise you require on board and be willing to invest into what you are missing.
- Have one clear voice that communicates with the external world.
- Set up an association early if you are running the conference as a non-profit as this can take longer than you can imagine.
- Don’t argue in public with anyone. Resolve issues discreetly and in a clear manner.
Timing Dos and Dont’s🔗
Conferences don’t exist in a vacuum. Often they compete with other ones especially if your topic is a popular one. I’ve listed timing specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Time the conference so that it doesn’t conflict with other major conferences. Ideally, you allow chaining of conferences so people that travel can participate into multiple. This also enables selling cheaper bundle tickets and encourages the behavior.
- Make sure there’s slack in the schedule. Having slack allows you to manage possible disruptions. Even with the best preparation technology can fail and unexpected things can happen.
- Don’t rush speakers or cut their presentations abruptly. Instead, do this in a more subtly through signaling and rules you communicate earlier. Show the remaining time to a speaker.
- Have enough breaks to avoid making people weary. Even if a session would be interesting, people might skip it because they are too tired to participate.
Theme Dos and Dont’s🔗
Each conference has a topic and may have more specifically a theme, a way it’s represented. I’ve listed theme specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Spend time thinking about conference theme. Sometimes boring is good. If you do something extraordinary, be careful.
- Make sure your speakers understand the theme and agree to it. If they don’t, you still have room to negotiate and adapt so that it works for everyone involved and feelings won’t get hurt.
Venue Dos and Dont’s🔗
A conference needs a place where people can come unless it’s a virtual one and exists only on the web. I’ve listed venue specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Have an amazing venue but don’t split it between multiple locations to avoid confusion if possible. A venue doesn’t have to be expensive to be amazing, and this is dictated by the theme of the conference. Think amazing regarding theme and people that are coming.
- Make sure video and audio work before getting presenters on stage to avoid wasting time. Make sure you provide high resolution (no VGA anymore please) and have common connectivity (HDMI and newer) available.
- Make sure the venue is easy to reach. If it’s not by default, make it clear to the people how to get there. This is a good idea anyway.
- Reserve specific space for speakers. One way to do this is to reserve a row in the front only for them. In the worst case, they won’t fit into the session if logistics fail. This is possible if you run a multi-track conference and your attendee estimates fail.
- Serve lunch and possible dinner at the venue itself. If this isn’t possible, communicate alternative solutions well.
- Record the sessions. Ideally, you would stream them to the public so more people can enjoy the content. After recording, make sure the videos are edited and published promptly. Especially in technological conferences, the content tends to get old fast, and if you delay too much, the value of the content will decrease.
- Provide a high quality internet connection. Ideally you would have a separate network for the speakers as that will help with the presentations.
Speaker Dos and Dont’s🔗
A conference is nothing without speakers. If it’s an unconference, then the attendees become speakers on demand! I’ve listed speaker specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Treat your speakers with respect. People have different levels of sensitivities. Something that might feel casual to you might feel extreme to someone else. Therefore it pays off to be mindful when communicating and take care with the way you communicate. This comes more naturally to some people than others.
- Help your speakers to deliver the best sessions they can. This can include support during the preparation phase and developing connections with relevant people.
- Compensate your speakers well. They will spend countless hours preparing and should be compensated accordingly.
- Connect your speakers with the local businesses. Perhaps you can generate new business for all making this a great win-win.
- Keep diversity in mind. This goes beyond gender, and you may consider aspects like ethnicity, age, background, nationality.
- Keep your promises to the speakers. If you promise something, keep the promise.
- Show your country to the speakers. Some of them made a long trip, and you should help them to make the most of their trip. A relaxed speaker is instantly a better one.
- Don’t make your speakers sleep in the same room or space with other speakers without telling them first.
Attendee Dos and Dont’s🔗
If you have only speakers and no attendees, it’s hard to call it a conference. I’ve listed attendee specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Remember that each attendee has their own goals for the conference. Some are there to learn, some to socialize, some might have other goals or they might have even been forced to attend.
- Keep attendee needs in mind. Provide enough toilets and space so that people feel comfortable.
- Communicate possible changes clearly. Nothing is more annoying than missing a session due to poor communication.
- Don’t publish embarrassing pictures of the attendees. Same goes for other people as well.
Marketing Dos and Dont’s🔗
To make the right people find your conference, you have to market it somehow. I’ve listed marketing specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Market but target well. As long as marketing is done respectfully, people will appreciate the message.
- Collaborate. Cross-marketing across related organizations can work for instance.
- Be creative. Find ways to reach your market in new ways like writing tangential blog posts to develop credibility.
- Don’t push the marketing angle too hard. If you try to get others involved without providing much in return, it won’t work. They might agree to it initially but turn sour later on.
Sales Dos and Dont’s🔗
Marketing isn’t enough as you still have to convince people to come. I’ve listed sales specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Make sure the pricing is fair and consider the audience. If you want a more diverse audience, see if there are ways to flex or attract the crowd in specific ways.
- Make sure people don’t feel cheated when the pricing changes somehow. Especially discounts can be problematic if people discover you have been giving a bigger discount to someone else at the same time.
- Consider different pricing schemes and their impact. Bundling multiple things (accommodation, workshop and conference ticket) so that it’s convenient for people is one way to achieve this.
Sponsoring Dos and Dont’s🔗
Sometimes additional resources may be needed. I’ve listed sponsoring specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Have sponsors if it makes sense and they can provide something you would otherwise miss.
- Make sure the sponsors feel valued and get value out of their investment.
- Don’t have sponsors just because everyone else has sponsors.
- Don’t let some sponsor or sponsors dominate the event.
- Don’t have too many sponsors as that dilutes the value sponsors get out of their support.
Catering Dos and Dont’s🔗
As people need to eat, catering may be required. I’ve listed catering specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Provide catering and don’t let attendees pay for themselves unless this fits the conference spirit.
- Provide quality food. Although nerds might be happy with pizza and chips, perhaps you can provide something more nourishing.
- Label your food so people with different tastes can find something suitable to eat.
- Figure out the limitations of people beforehand so you know to reserve the right amount of special food (vegan etc.).
Afterparty Dos and Dont’s🔗
Given people like to relax, an afterparty can be a good idea. I’ve listed afterparty specific “dos” and “don’ts” below:
- Share afterparties with speakers and attendees. A part of the reason why people go to conferences is to meet the speakers. Why deprive them of this possibility?
- Communicate how to get to the afterparties.
- Provide non-alcoholic options.
- Make sure the afterparty venue isn’t too noisy or that it at least has spaces with less noise for more sensitive people.
- Consider arranging an afterparty in the venue location. This way you avoid some of the logistical cost and don’t lose people.
Code of Conduct🔗
There’s one important thing left, code of conduct (CoC) and conferences have begun to adopt the idea. A CoC doesn’t have to be complex but it should be actionable enough, and people should be aware that you won’t tolerate harassment and want to provide a safe environment for everyone involved. There should be a feedback mechanism as well since if you cannot enforce a CoC, it’s close to worthless.
The question is, how to write a good CoC or where to find one. You could go with something simple people actually read or pick something more complex they might skim over. It might be more about having something to fall back on if something goes wrong.