20th January 2014

Organising a conference is a tough task, especially if it's your first time. But fear not, for we're here to help! Ralph Parham, Hire Space Venue Expert, has put together his 20 top tips for organising a conference - honed by his involvement in the booking of hundreds of events, this list is conference gold! So, take a deep breath, sit back and take notes! Over to Ralph.

1. Plan early

Our keenest conference bookers will be snapping up some of the best conference venues up to a year in advance, and the best way to avoid disappointment is to always be one step ahead, leave 14 months for a big conference (200 plus).

2. Stay in the zone

Don’t forget that the majority of people attending will be leaving home early and travelling further than their usual commute, so keep things easy for them. Keeping it in Zone 1 is a good place to start.

3. It’s a numbers game

You may have an idea of how many guests will turn up, but do you really know how big your venue needs to be? 50 people sitting theatre style needs a very different space to 50 people sitting cabaret style - you don’t want your 10th table out in the corridor!

4. Keep it on brand

In days gone by, a neutral & down-lit function room in the basement of a 3* hotel would have satisfied all our conferencing needs, but these days you’ve got to keep it on brand. Oak-panelled libraries, Victorian warehouse lofts or glass penthouses - make sure your venue is saying the right thing about your conference.

5. Before the day

Do your guests know how to get there? Do they know the dress code? Is there any prep they need to do beforehand? Last-minute arranging may be OK for some, but most people need to know these things weeks before an event.

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6. Get a room! Or rooms?

Sometimes a change of scenery can make all the difference, and lots of venues offer extra spaces for break-out sessions or for dining. Perhaps you’ll want to use one room during the day, but with a different set-up. Planning the agenda early on will help you decide.

7. Make an entrance

It may be low on your list, if at all, but first impressions can make or break the first few hours of the day. A slick registration process in an impressive entrance area really puts your best foot forwards. But why stop there? Stalls, promotions, info-stands, entertainment; any space is invaluable if you use it well.

8. Lights, camera, action

You don’t have to re-write the Olympic opening ceremony, but lighting and special effects can really engage your guests and keep people listening. Mood-lighting, videos, music, props, acrobats - providing the audience is right, this can be the most fun and creative part of planning a conference.

9. Technical glitch?

Easily overlooked by conference planners across the land, leaving the tech side of operations to the IT team can be a risky business. Always think about things from your guests perspective - do I need a wifi password, can I use the equipment provided without needing to be shown?

10. Grubs up!

Like it or not, one of the most talked about things on the agenda for a conference will be the food and refreshments, but you really can make a huge difference with catering. Formal meals can be good networking breaks, while a quick finger buffet can keep people going through a creative workshop session. Most importantly make sure it’s tasty (why not ask the venue to let you try some before booking?)
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11. Networking is key

Second only to the food, it’s likely your guests will hope to take away a few new contacts from the day, and this should always be on a conference planner’s to-do list. Table plans, name-badges, ice-breakers and good hosting skills will keep conversations and business cards flowing.

12. Material world

It seems obvious, but making sure you guests have the right worksheets, reading material & equipment can’t be overlooked. A good conference planner brings spare copies. A really good conference planner brings spare copies, a back-up USB version and knows whether the venue has a printer or not!

13. Be content

The actual content & structure of our conference will always be very specific to you and your guests, but make sure you’ve got a clear timetable and agenda for everyone, especially the staff working at the venue. They’ll need to know the break times as much as your guests do.

14. Speak-Easy

There’s nothing worse than a dreary over-travelled speaker yawning your guests to sleep with a lazy presentation before lunch, so why not book them a room the night before in a nearby hotel. A quick espresso at their bedside first thing, and they’ll have your guests awake too in no time.

15. Breaking bad

Not often forgotten, but easily overlooked as a key part of the overall conference experience. Do your smokers know where to smoke; do your guests have to spend their entire break queueing for coffee or the loo. Down-time should be there to refresh and recharge, so make it count.
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16. Times up!

The golden rule about having a tight agenda is to stick to it like glue. For every minute you run over, thats a minute more your guests’ minds have strayed out of the room and into the bar. If the closing speech is the most important one of the day, make sure people are still with you!

17. Après Conference

After all that hard work, your guests (and most importantly you) will no doubt be looking for somewhere to wind down and reflect on the big day. Having a good bar/pub nearby is essential, and booking and area/function rooms shows you’ve thought of everything.

18. Room Service?

Even if this is up to your guests to sort out, a good conference planner will have great recommendations up their sleeve for decently priced quality hotels. Group discounts are easy to negotiate, and show your guests that you’ve thought of everything they need.

19. Keeping it fresh

The day isn’t over when it ends, and the true results of a conference are in the follow up activities to see how engaged people really were. Always thank people for coming, review what happened, and share the progress that’s been made. Don’t forget to invite them to the next one too!

20. Use a good venue finding site

The service is free so put up your feet and let someone else do the leg work... I hear Hire Space is great!

I hope my list helps! I'm always keen to hear of new tips and tricks so give me a shout on Twitter at @RalphParham if you think I've missed something!