Just like every other business effort, conference planning should start with strategy. It's been done this way a long time, like 2,500 years. Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu is quoted: “Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” I believe he was talking about war strategy, not corporate conference strategy. But if conference planning is your business, and your business is what you love, well, another as another wise philosopher once said, "Love is a battlefield."
Conferences vary in scale, complexity
If you are planning a new conference, your business team will start by generating a feasibility study to explore things like cost-benefit analysis, competition research, etc.
Once it has been established that your conference is a “go,” you’ll want to define the goals for your event. Here are some of the things you’ll want to consider: What does the event owner want? Who is your audience? What topics do you want to cover? What is your budget? What are the key messages or themes for the coming year? Are there big new releases coming?
Once you have defined your goal (or goals—you may have primary and secondary goals), your strategy should become more clear. With that strategy, you will then establish tactics to achieve that goal, as well as KPIs that will help you measure success.
More on that later, but if you can’t wait, check out the Essential Conference Planning KPIs for Event Managers.
Your conference budget is one of the most important tools of any conference planner, as it provides an overview of revenue and expenditures. Your budget is not only a
Each event has fixed costs, like AV and your venue, and variable costs, like catering. If you’re just starting out, start with a budget template or the budget from your previous year’s conference.
Conferences are notorious for running over your budget. Here are 2 common problems and how to address them:
Perhaps you’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen, i.e. you’ve got multiple stakeholders telling you what to do, each with their own priorities. All of those requests add up. Counter this by revisiting the goals of your event, as a way to prioritize those requests. That means you’re going to be saying “no” to people. Be prepared for those conversations with a well-thought-out explanation of the event goals and priorities.
The cost of business varies by city, and you underestimated how much it would cost in a new location. To avoid this, be
Check out seven more reasons events go over budget, and what to do about it in our blog: 9 Reasons Why Conferences Go Over Budget (And What To Do About Them).
Conference planning timelines should be considered flexible depending on the scale of your event, but for a mid-sized or larger event (500+ attendees) you'll ideally start 12 months out. A large city-wide event would require a planning timeline that starts more like 18 months out. Adjust the timeline below as necessary to fit your event.
Review last year’s conference goals and objectives (12 months out)
If this is not a new event, spend some time reviewing what happened the previous year. Which goals did you meet and which did you miss? What from last year do you want to continue or to put a greater focus on this year? Unfortunately, if you’re planning an annual event, this will have to happen right after you’re wrapping up the previous year’s event.
Know your base info (10-12 months out)
With your goals and objectives in place, there are a few more basic high-level pieces of information you’ll need to establish before you can get into the details. You will need to establish many people you’re planning to attend, the number of days your event will be, and the format for the program. With that information, create a Request For Proposal (RFP). Here’s more information on how to create an effective RFP.
Source your venue & hotel (10-12 months out) The bigger your event the more challenging this will be, and the earlier you'll want to get started on this; large event spaces are in competitive supply and they often book up years in advance. To select your location, think about who your attendees are and where they are located. You want to balance ease of
Content/Logistics/Marketing and Registration (6-9 months out).
You've laid your foundation, now it's time to break out and focus on the main work streams of your conference, all of which should start 6-9 months out from your event.
Conference call for content
Did you know that 66% of conference attendees make their decision to attend a conference only after learning about the session content and speakers for the event? The call for content, also known as “call for speakers” or “call for submissions” is part of your very-important content workstream. Your event content is the stuff you gather while building your conference program, like session abstracts, speaker profiles
You’ll want to launch your call for content (or speakers) early—ideally 6 to 9 months before your event so you have ample time to market your event with your content.
Here are the steps for a successful call for
Choose your content team
Pick people who represent key products, topics
- Build your call-for-content form
This data helps you select your speakers, but it also helps attendees plot their journeys once they’re at your event. The fields you select on your form should also allow your content team to categorizer their sessions. Best practice for forms is to keep them as simple as possible, opting when you can for single-select or multiple-select drop-down menus. Here are a few of the content fields you might consider:
- Track category
- Presentation type (keynote, breakout, demonstration, panel, paper, poster, professional development, roundtable, etc.
- Audience (Again, this is where your attendee personas come in handy so you can create these drop-down selections)
In addition to your form, your call-for-content page should also include basic information for potential conference speakers, like:
- Conference goals and audiences
- Compensation for speakers
- Criteria for evaluating proposals
- Deadline for submissions
Datefor acceptance/rejection announcements
Here’s a good rule of thumb: Aim to have 75 to 80 percent of your content ready to go 3 to 4 months before your event.
Check out 8 smart strategies for perfecting your call-for-content process for a closer look at how to promote your call for content, manage your graders, and analyze your results from your call-for-submissions process.
You know what else can help you crush your content process? Hubb’s content management system.
The best way to manage your logistics and planning process is to create a high-level work-back schedule. Consider the REALLY BIG things that need to happen, and when, and then work backward from there to fill in the rest of your schedule. If you sign up to get Hubb’s Timeline for a Strategically Planned Conference, you’ll get a free example work-back schedule to model yours off of.
Identify your key vendor team
Use the same RFP (possibly with some additional information, where relevant) and go select your support experts. You may need quite a few vendors. Common ones include software, internet/Wi-Fi, audio-visual, transportation, decoration, catering, website, and so on. We like to select vendors early; they're experts in their field and the earlier you bring them in, the more you can leverage their expertise. You’ll also want to select and onboard vendors, such as an event content management platform like Hubb, early in the planning process. If you plan to release your call for content 6-9 months out, you’ll need to onboard an event content management platform 9 to 12 months out.
Determine how your team will collaborate.
Create your schedule of weekly and monthly meetings aligned with your important decision dates or collaboration points.
You'll also want each one of your vendors
Marketing a Conference
Marketing and registration are closely tied, and they provide the major time constraint on your event. The more attendees you expect, the more time you'll want to leave yourself to promote it.
You want to launch registration early enough so that you have a buzz around your event, but late enough that you have information that's compelling enough to make people want to register.
Content is the No. 1 driver of registrations, so you want to make sure that information is as visible as possible. If you don't, be sure to make your event's value proposition very clear; who are the keynote speakers, what are the tracks, and other things you should know from your goals and objectives document.
A “Save the Date” can be helpful here. You also want to have a strong website in place early in your efforts. If it's an existing event, this means updating last year's website with the relevant information. If it's a new event, you'll want that website live as early as possible (9-12 months out).
Well-executed event marketing will ensure a high turnout for your event. But event marketing is not just about registration results. Events are also a great way to connect with prospects. In fact, a typical event can provide from 10 to 15 opportunities to connect with your audience. If a prospect clicks on just two social media posts or emails in your event marketing campaign, that’s a lead you didn’t have before that’s now in your marketing funnelFor a more in-depth look
KPIs and reporting
Every conference planner reports to somebody—it could be a director of marketing, a CEO, or a board of directors. Set up a regular reporting and check-in schedule them with regular updates throughout the planning process is important for keeping your event on track and keeping your bosses happy.
Once you have your goals and objectives, identify clear key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics that will help you track and measure progress toward achieving each stated goal and objective. Metrics you could look at include registration numbers, mobile app usage, sponsorship revenue, percent of expo booth spaces filled and post-event survey scores.
To delve deeper into conference KPIs and reporting, check out Essential Conference Planning KPIs for Event Managers.
Your conference is finally done. You’ve been walking 20 miles per day, running on adrenaline, and you’re totally exhausted. First, take a bit of time to wind down in the way that best suits you, maybe that’s ordering a giant room service meal and then passing out, or maybe that’s partying with your team to celebrate! (Don’t forget to recognize your team for their outstanding work while you’re knocking back tequila shots).
Next, if you can swing it, turn off your phone and email, and take a few days to disconnect. This step is super important and can be built into your conference timeline from the start.
Finally, there is a bit more planning and work that needs to be done. Start by spending some time on your own to analyze what went well at your conference, what could be improved, what can be tweaked or changed next year and document these thoughts. It’s going to be a lot easier to remember now than a few months from now.
Next, plan an opportunity for your team to also feedback this information. Send each of your event teams a template that includes: noteworthy data, success metrics and KPIs, plus a section where they can answer the same questions you did: “What went well?” and “What did not go well?” Finally, give them space to give recommendations for future events. Once they have compiled the information, you can collect it or meet with each team to talk about it. In compiling these results, you’ll start to see patterns, which along with your audience surveys will begin to create a story about your event. This story will be the foundation of your event reporting.
Congrats, eventprofs! You made it through the finish line! What did we miss? Let us know and we’ll continue to build out this guide.