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Conference Planning 101

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What better way to build your network and strut your stuff in front of potential employers than to pull off a winning conference? This Jungle primer gives you the information you need to plan and run a world-class event.

Biotechnology. Interactive marketing. Wireless commerce. What better way to put your business school on the map in a cutting-edge field than to hold a conference on the topic? Get a few top-flight panelists and some standing-room-only keynote speakers, and the press (not to mention students, business leaders, and alumni) will flock to the event, right?

Not so fast.

We all know what goes wrong at the Conference from Hell: Microphones are dead, panel discussions run into lunch/dinner/beyond, bathrooms have long lines, speakers are AWOL. So how do the best conference planners avoid these pitfalls and pull off a world-class event while showcasing their management and marketing skills to prospective employers?

It's all in the preparation.

Below is Jungle's compilation of insider tips and best practices from conference organizers at B-schools all over the country.

Plan Ahead
The No. 1 tip for conference planning is the most obvious: Start early. Initiate the process at least 12 to 18 months in advance. Second-years can help start the process before they take off, and first-years should be recruited in the spring. The sooner you begin planning, the better your shot at securing sponsorships and high-profile speakers.

Establish a core group of planners. If the conference is arranged by a club, hold an introductory meeting and form an executive committee of 5 to 15 students who divide up responsibilities. Veteran conference planner Kembrel Jones, Ph.D., assistant dean and director of the MBA program at Emory University's Goizueta School, says that for the 2002 Graduate Business Conference, "We actually had people who wanted to be in leadership roles turn in essays, and then we interviewed them. That way, we were able to get a feeling for their commitment and passion." Sign up volunteers for additional functions such as marketing/publicity, logistics, sponsor recruitment, finance, and programming.

Set firm deadlines. That makes it easier for the leadership to step in if someone is procrastinating or falling behind. Choose specific dates (e.g., "February 7," not "early February"); if the task isn't done on time, you can immediately take action to get back on track.

Tip: If possible, appoint two co-chairs for every committee so that core functions do not hinge on one person's reliability.

Establish a Budget
Everything-from the food to the nametags-costs money. Take all these expenses into account when determining the budget and setting the conference registration fee structure. Estimate the level of sponsorship you hope to receive, and then figure out how much other revenue (advertising, registration fees, and so on) is necessary to cover costs.

Keep fees in line with the times. For NYU Stern's Silicon Alley/e-commerce conference this past February, the admission fee for attendees not affiliated with the school was reduced to $20 from $50 in 2000 because of the slowing economy. Some conferences, like Duke University's Business Technology Forum, are even free. As a guideline, conference fees for students typically range from $10 to $40; for alumni and corporate attendees, fees run between $20 and $150 depending on the scope and duration of the event.

Pick a Date
If you have a shot at snagging a top-notch speaker, set your conference dates to accommodate his or her schedule. For the 2002 GBC, planners at Emory targeted former president-and university faculty member-Jimmy Carter. They chose five weekends that would work for the conference and sent the dates to Carter's staff, who picked one.

Of course, avoid days with previously scheduled major campus happenings. A conference scheduled for alumni weekend or a fall-football Saturday may present a logistical headache for you and your guests.

Tip: For the most accurate information, track down the university administrator who's in charge of the calendar; don't just rely on your school's Web site.

Book the Venue
Once the date's set, book your facilities immediately. Many organizations will be vying for space on a spring weekend; hotel and convention-center dockets fill up quickly, so think like a wedding planner and act fast.

If you are holding any part of the event off-campus, early booking gives you time to do the paperwork required to avoid taxes (ask your school's financial administrator for details) and, if the facility does not provide them, to hire audiovisual and support staff.

Reserve a block of hotel rooms for out-of-town guests so that they are assured of accommodation by registering before a certain date.

Tip: Clustering guests makes it easier to provide shuttle service to the conference venue, if necessary.

Plan the Program
If it's an annual event, survey attendees of the most recent conference by e-mail to find out what they liked and to gather suggestions for improvement. The survey can also gauge likely attendees' interest in topics under consideration.

Conference topics should be sufficiently narrow to be meaningful to a community of business experts. "You can't just do an e-commerce conference," says Jim Moore, director of alumni relations at the University of Rochester's Simon School. "E-learning might work, though. You've got to pick something narrow enough that it will fill up seats."

The event itself may include plenary sessions (such as keynote speeches and general-interest panels, where the entire conference attendance is present) and workshops or breakout sessions, involving smaller numbers of guests.

Tip: Mix up the session types throughout the day so audience members don't fall asleep.

Go for Marquee Names
Don't be afraid to aim high when it comes to keynote speakers. Dayna Greenberg, co-chair of the NYU conference, landed Michael Bloomberg by crafting a compelling letter explaining why the financial-information mogul would be perfect to address the forum and then contacting his assistant.

Susan Welgos, chair of the 2001 Graduate Business Conference at Cornell University's Johnson School, used a similar strategy. "The first thing we did was make up a wish list. Who would we want if we could get anyone?" The committee grouped prospects into categories-those who were a reach, those who were more attainable, and "safeties" (people with strong Cornell connections).

Luminaries on the program drive sponsorships. "There's a snowball effect," says Greenberg. "First, people want to know who's speaking; the sponsors don't really want to be a part of it until they know it's going to be a draw."

To fill out the roster, mine your own contact lists, plus those of faculty, administrators, and alumni. A combination of e-mail and phone calls is most expedient, though a formal letter on conference or school letterhead adds an elegant touch.

Tip: It's easy for a single letter or e-mail to be set aside in the bustle of the day, so always follow up with a phone call.

Spotlight Your Sponsors
With the economy braking, the days of two dozen sponsors ponying up thousands in exchange for a logo on the conference brochure are over. Companies are still willing to provide the bucks, but they want more bang. "It's better to get fewer [sponsors] that pay more," says second-year Shelly Magalen, chair of this spring's Duke Business Technology Forum.

Brainstorm to generate a list of potential sponsors, then share the list with your school's corporate relations or development office. They often have contact information and can warn you about companies already being tapped for other events.

"You have to be creative," notes Greenberg. "If people are going to give a lot of money, they want something real." For example, the lead benefactor for Stern's Silicon Alley conference was designated the luncheon sponsor, with an executive stationed at every table. "The company collected resumés, and it was a great networking tool," she says.

Tip: Including a career fair at the end of a conference can be a potential lure for sponsors.

Get the Word Out
Don't wait until the entire program is in place to launch marketing efforts. Once you have a date and a title, get the conference Web site up and running. Having online registration and payment processing capability is a must (VeriSign is one provider of such services).

"Our Web site was a major undertaking," says Lawrence Low, who co-chaired a conference on doing business in Asia at UC Berkeley's Haas School. "We had the basic design of the site and architecture done by one of our co-sponsors; I was able to secure that by interning there last summer."

Of course, your site is useless if people don't go there, so get your business school to promote it on its home page. Publicize the conference through the Internet, newspapers, campus calendars, local business periodicals, and publications of professional organizations.

Ask your school's PR office to help you draft and distribute a press release to local publications' business and calendar editors. It's a good idea to do more than one press release, perhaps one three months ahead of time and a second just a couple of weeks before the conference.

Brainstorm with fellow planners to identify the audience for the conference and then figure out what affiliations they are likely to have. Most organizations are happy to spread the word about events of interest, and some will let you send e-mail or direct mail pieces. Set up a table with posters on campus to facilitate student registration, and send e-mails to alumni groups.

Tip: See if you can get professors to provide class credit for attending all or part of an event.

Schedule with Care
If the conference is a one-day affair, resist the urge to pack the day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Consider wrapping up as early as 3, so that participants will stay and socialize for an hour. "Not ending early enough in the day is usually a mistake," says Moore. "There was one conference that ended at 5 p.m., and by the end people were just dying; that's a long time to sit and look at PowerPoint presentations."

If the conference is longer than one day, start at 9 a.m. or later on the second and subsequent days. Out-of-towners will go out at night and might want to sleep in. "People are in a new place and they want to explore," explains Courtney Naismith, a 1999 graduate of the University of Texas-Austin School of Business and chair of that year's Graduate Business Conference. "If you have an 8 a.m. keynote speaker, it's really embarrassing to have people coming in late."

Include 15-minute breaks between sessions, so that attendees don't feel rushed and panelists have time to greet each other. If speakers are using slides, build in extra time; presenters often underestimate the length of their talks when they use audiovisual aids.

Be careful when scheduling overlapping breakout sessions. If two sessions must be simultaneous, try to make sure that the same attendees aren't likely to be interested in both. Many conferences have guests select a particular "track" when they register to estimate attendance at each panel.

Tip: If morning sessions are running too long, use lunch as a buffer zone to get the schedule back on track.

Let 'Em Eat ... Hummus
A regional or conference-specific flair adds a nice touch to the menu. If the event is about doing business in India, have an Indian restaurant cater lunch; if the conference is at a school in Texas, include Tex-Mex offerings. (And, of course, no spaghetti, unless you're also providing club soda to get the stains out.)

Ask attendees on the registration form about any dietary preferences, religious restrictions, or food allergies. Designate someone to ensure that vegetarian and special meals are properly distributed.

Between sessions, provide finger-friendly snacks, plus bottled water and soda. You don't want conference attendees scattering in search of nibbles.

Tip: When planning the fare, look to your sponsors. A marketing conference at Northwestern University's Kellogg School attracted several food sponsors-and featured the companies' products on the menu.

Sweat the Details
Welgos' team at Cornell created a duty roster and did two walk-throughs before their conference-the first with just a few of the executive committee members, the second a week before the conference with all the volunteers-to work out the details. For example, who would give the gifts to the speakers? Should delegates be shown the way to breakout-session rooms immediately before or after a break? The walk-throughs helped keep the conference moving seamlessly.

Pay attention to the small things that will make a big difference to your guests:

  • Have volunteers meet speakers at the airport and escort them to the venue. Make sure the parking area, if any, is staffed with someone to point people in the right direction.
  • If you can, set up a business center at the event, accessible only to conference organizers, press, and distinguished guests, with a phone, printer/fax, computer, and Internet access. This is a boon for speakers who forget to bring their notes.
  • Keep a few extension cords handy for attendees or members of the press who bring laptops; hotel ballrooms are notorious for having outlets right where you don't need them.
  • Appoint a scribe to take notes at the panels. This frees delegates to listen and participate more fully. Send the notes out via e-mail after the conference so that everyone has a record of the proceedings. This is especially important at conferences where more than one panel occurs at the same time.
  • Provide nametags for all preregistered conference attendees-with the name in large, legible letters so no one has to squint. If you're springing for style, go for those that hang around the neck, or clear nametag holders with clips, not pins; you don't want people poking holes in Armani suits. If it's a multiple-day conference and your budget doesn't allow for fancy plastic, have plenty of self-adhesive nametags handy, since people won't be reusing them from day to day.

Tip: On the registration table, keep nametags and program packets for speakers, press, and conference registrants in separate areas. And always bring extras of everything.

Manage Uncertainty
"When you're planning an event," says Greenberg, "everything has to seem from the outside like it's pulled together, [even though] you're always fixing things internally." For those inevitable last-minute glitches on the day of the conference, make sure everyone involved knows how to reach executive committee members. The chair and key leaders should be equipped with cell phones, pagers, or Secret Service-style walkie-talkies with earpieces.

Predicting conference turnout is a fuzzy art, but you can get a pretty good idea by looking at attendee numbers from the prior year or turnout for similar campus events. Keep track of your registrations throughout the process. Are they running ahead or behind last year's registrations at the same point? Do you need to step up your marketing efforts?

Earlier this year, NYU Stern's Greenberg and co-chair Sarah Kroon were in a bind; their event was less than a week away and only 50 people had registered. "You want to wait until you get everything in place before you start marketing, but then if you wait until the [very end], it's a scramble," recalls Greenberg. "At the last minute, we pulled out all the stops to market the conference." The final push worked, and Bloomberg didn't end up speaking to a half-empty room.

What if a speaker cancels on the day of the event? "It's really tough to nail busy people down," says Moore. "I'll have somebody in the bag, and then suddenly, I'll get an e-mail that they can't make it." With an eye toward the inevitable cancellations, include at least two extra people on every conference panel. Some conferences even invite two or more keynote speakers.

Tip: In a pinch, faculty members make excellent backup speakers-they're used to lecturing extemporaneously and are usually willing to come to the rescue.

Provide Take-Aways
Many sponsors bring goodies for attendees-mugs, T-shirts, pens, and the like. But make sure the conference provides at least one item with its own logo, such as a hat, T-shirt, or tote bag. At Kellogg, they gave out umbrellas, "a great viral marketing tool," says conference co-chair Katie White, since they are very likely to be used.

Provide biographies of speakers, information on the organizers, and e-mail addresses for attendees in the packet with the conference program. It's also helpful to include copies of PowerPoint presentations, graphs, and other handouts to augment speakers' presentations. "It's essential to get advance materials from panelists," said Moore. "It ensures they've thought it out, and it gives you something to hand out." And don't forget to include a feedback form, to gather suggestions for next year's conference.

Tip: If it's an option at your school, consider Webcasting or video archiving the conference.

Leverage the Experience
A well-planned conference is like a well-planned party: After all the prep time, the host should get something out of it, too.

The experience Greenberg and Kroon gained from planning and executing a successful conference was worth the hassle, they say. "Not only is it a great thing to talk about at job interviews," says Kroon, "but it's a great way to build your personal network. Last year, we wanted [investment banking firm] Wit SoundView to participate, so I just called somebody cold-and that was the start of a relationship that got me a summer job."
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