More people are organizing conferences, workshops, and CMEs and creating memorable experiences. Nothing compares to a good conference and the lessons learnt while organizing, the experience and the joy and satisfaction at the end of the conference when everything goes as planned. Organizing is much more hard than we can possibly imagine, but hard work, meticulous planning, choosing the right vendors, a passionate team, and smart financial planning are some factors that are crucial to the success of the conference. To plan a national conference, we need to be prepared for prolonged periods of hard work, financial stress, and roller coaster of emotions. Your social life, free time, or family time takes a back seat for at least 6 months before the conference. There is no escaping that it is a huge responsibility and one that takes up a lot of time, both physically and mentally. For the success of any conference, most important is planning, and as practicing clinicians or academicians, we are faced with the dual role of organizing a conference and juggling with regular work. No matter how much we prepare, we can only hope that everything goes right. We need to minimize risks by planning as much as possible, as early as possible, and then hope for the best. Organizing requires a tremendous amount of forethought, planning, and working on logistics to achieve our vision and goal.
ROLE OF A CONFERENCE ORGANIZER
The conference organizer needs to develop a vision and set goals and objectives. They are not only responsible for conference logistics but also to ensure the success of the conference. Various responsibilities of an organizer include forming committees, developing timelines, selecting vendors, and developing conference programs, as well as ensuring that all deadlines are achieved. A conference is a place for people wanting to share and exchange ideas. Allow plenty of time for socializing and breaks, as these are ideal occasions to meet people and foster networking among peers.
Following are the tasks of the organizer once the conference has been allotted.
Select date and suitable venue
Select dates that do not overlap with religious functions. Book a suitable venue taking into account location, adequate space for scientific programs, exhibitions, food, and parking, and sign a contract after carefully reviewing the cancellation policies.
One of the most difficult part of organizing is blocking accommodation. Sufficient number of rooms need to be booked by the organizers before the date is announced to provide rooms to executive committee members, guest faculty, and delegates who book directly. Room rates are escalated by all hotels anticipating a demand making the task very difficult for organizers as all delegates compare the rates of hotels on nonconference dates with conference dates. Due to lack of funds at the beginning of the conference, an event manager needs to be appointed to block rooms and maintain an inventory, which otherwise is a huge task for the organizer in terms of funds and time. A proper contract with the event manager and maintaining a copy of the contracts signed by the hotels is important to monitor, but there are instances where the hotels have raised the rates a month before the conference causing inconvenience to organizers and delegates.
Creating a budget
The budget is based upon how much income is expected from all sources set against the expenses that are anticipated. We need to be realistic about what is affordable within the limits of the budget income. The price for services can almost always be negotiated and the budget must be continually reviewed.
Here are some steps to follow:
Calculate expenditure: Identify expense categories based on conference program (Venue, Website, Registration, Conference Proceeding, speakers, Secretariat, insurance, audiovisual, marketing, food/beverage, social events, etc.). Include government taxes which now contributes to a huge chunk of expenditure. Identify possible expenses within each category. Identify which expenses will be fixed and which will be variable (variable expenses tend to be based on the number of delegates, e.g., meals, as opposed to fixed costs such as venue). Calculate income based on all potential sources of revenue, e.g., sponsorship and registration.
Open a bank account
A group of 7 members can form an association, and it is important to register the association. It is important to obtain a PAN, TAN, and Service Tax number. A good auditor is important for guidance on financial handling. A bank account in a bank close to the secretariat is practical and useful.
Establish a committee
The major task of any conference is organizing and scientific planning and it is important that both Organizing Committee (OC) and Scientific Committee (SC) work in a parallel but coordinated manner.
One of first tasks for organizing committee is to divide the major task into smaller tasks by forming committees and then assign individuals to those categories. Most important is identifying individuals who are interested to contribute to the conference and identifying their areas of expertise. Each person unknowingly and knowingly reveals their areas of interest and find suitable slots.
If organizer is in a teaching institution, residents are an important work force and need to be included in the committees. Table 1 is a suggested list of areas of responsibility to assign to committee members. Abstracts and scientific programs are planned by the scientific committee.
Developing a timeline
A good timeline is essential to keep to complete work on time. Goal posts may have to be changed but if possible the need to change goal post should be anticipated. These are some important tasks that need to have a deadline [Tables 2 and 3].
It is very important to have additional manpower just to handle the registration.
- Determine registration rates and deadline dates (early-bird and final registration date)
- Decide on the registration procedure and design the form which should include rules, regulations, and cancellation policyWhen creating the registration form, additional items to be included are
Meals and dietary requirement
- Sessions and workshops
- The social program
- Spouse packages
- Any other specific requirement
- Publish registration form (Online and brochure)
- Both offline registration by demand draft or cheque and online registration should be available
- Important to close registration one month before the conference. This will help in planning the, logistics, e.g., kits, food, badges, etc
- A separate email id to answer queries on registration is important. The need for prompt and polite response cannot be overemphasized
- Immediate acknowledgement of registration should be done. Confirmation of registration should be done on receipt of payment
- Determine onsite registration procedure and hire additional staff if necessary
Conduct regular meetings
It is important to conduct regular meetings and record the minutes of meeting. This should be done at regular intervals and all major decisions should be taken with approval of the committee members. Initial meetings should be loosely structured and permit brain storming. No idea, however outlandish, should be rejected at this stage as this induces a sense of belonging.
At the meetings it is important to
- Communicate ideas and feelings and be willing to listen
- Encourage other members to actively participate and acknowledge others contributions
- Engage in constructive controversy by disagreeing and challenging ideas or proposals through discussion, thus promoting creative decision-making
- Act on the behalf of the team rather than on your own behalf. Adopt a “we instead of me” approach
- Most important is to establish and maintain harmonious interpersonal relations with all members.
Establish website and send mass mailers to all members of the association. Website should have information and images of venue, nearby places of tourist interest, and contact numbers of committee members. New information should be updated on a regular basis.
Success of conference depends on choosing the right vendors. Take quotation from three different vendors. Review the contracts and cancellation policy. Always take references and cross check to ensure reliability of their service. Vendors would be needed for catering, venue arrangements, entertainment programs, onsite registration, audiovisual, photography, mementos, and gifts. Set a time frame for choosing vendors, and in case of kits, ensure delivery at least one week before the conference.
On choosing caterers, care should be taken to choose those who can provide hygienic food suitable for all zones of India. Getting an estimate of costs will help with budgeting. We believe that good hospitality should not be overlooked. So, for example, if we can afford to provide a hot meal rather than a sandwich lunch, it is preferable to provide a simple hot meal, although this issue is open to debate. Arrangements need to be made for different dietary requirements (e.g., for people with food allergies, diabetics, Jain food etc.)
Sponsors and exhibitors
All sponsors are crucial for the success of the conference as the major source of income is from the sponsors.
- Create a list of potential sponsors
- Prepare a sponsor package outlining the benefits of sponsorship
- Create and send out an information package for exhibitors containing procedural instructions and floor space allocation
- Map out floor space for exhibitors depending on space available
- Dealing with sponsors is a different cup of tea. Organizations have their own rules and regulations to which they are bound. We are negotiating for the first time whereas organizers have seasoned negotiators who do not reveal all. Time should be spent with previous organizers to know what they have agreed to and the negotiators must be aware that we have relevant information
- Sign and collect contracts from exhibitors and sponsors
- Details of service tax and time frame for payment and rules and regulations should be included in the contract
- Maintain a record of all payments with a copy of payment details
- Ensure that payment is complete before the conference begins.
Maintain minutes of all meetings, copy of contracts from vendors, venue, and sponsors. Financial details needs to maintained and cash handling should be minimum with signed cash vouchers. Notes on details of transaction and purpose of transaction needs to be maintained so as to make audit easy. Minimal cash handling and review of accounts on a periodic basis by committee members helps to maintain transparency. Any transactions should be discussed with the committee, approval obtained and records to be maintained. This will help in maintaining transparency.
DEALING WITH CRITICISM
Criticism an inevitable part of any conference. To be able to respond to criticism with nobility and detachment is important as most criticism is probably based, at least in part, on some truths. Criticism may appear negative, but through criticism we have the opportunity to learn and improve. See if there is truth and make a game plan to address it. If we wish to improve, we should invite constructive criticism and appreciate suggestions It is also important to ignore false criticism, which has no justification. Smile can help to relax more. It creates a more positive vibration and will definitely help psychologically.
At the end of the conference, credit should be given to everyone who helped to make the event a success. Dedicate some time to thank speakers and sponsors, as well as everyone involved in the conference. Also collect feedback about the event from the delegates through questionnaires. This evaluation will help to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the conference and give the opportunity to improve possible future events.
Published proceedings are the best way to make the results of your conference last. Make those proceedings as widely accessible as possible. Upload photos and videos of the event to the conference on the website. It is also a good idea to link the results of your evaluation to the website. Send one last e-mail to all delegates including a summary of the activities since the conference and thanking them for their participation. Please ensure all government taxes are paid on time before final auditing.
The key to a successful conference is advanced planning, delegation, attention to details, follow through, and dedication of the organizers to the event. Systemic approach simplifies the process of planning and makes it possible to complete each stage on time and have a successful meeting.