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Beginner’s Guide to Flop-proofing this Year’s Conference Planning

You have busy jobs, loads of responsibilities, and already an over-crowded to-do list. What you do not have is spans of creative time to spend on planning your next conference in South Africa. However, with some careful planning, an ‘awake’ team and the right software, you can organise a great conference – without burning the midnight oil. Here is your guide to successfully planning your next conference in South Africa.

Your conference planning checklist will help you make sure you’re not overlooking anything, whether its building a budget, or assigning tasks to the right people.

Most conferences can take around 6 – 12 months to plan. But don’t panic, this conference planning checklist will help you delegate and check off your tasks to get the job done on time.

6 – 12 Months before: Timeline, Team and  Website

It can take around 6 – 12 months for organisers to plan a conference, so start now. 

  1. Create your timeline. A helpful tool to use is the conference timeline to help build yours. Calculate how much time each stage of conference planning will take, and then add some margin around deadlines, for unexpected delays. 
  2. Decide if you’re hiring a pro. If the conference is expected to have over 50 delegates, hire the services of a professional conference organiser (PCO). If you want to do it all yourself, then you need to include typical event-planning tasks, such as finding the best venue, sourcing gifts for plenary speakers, catering, and so on – to your conference checklist.
  3. Organise your team. Every successful conference has an active organising team or committee – you cannot do this all on your own.  So form your team now and decide on who’s responsible for the following conference planning tasks:
  1. Creating and promoting the conference’s new website 
  2. Venue hunting and other local arrangements
  3. Handling conference RSVPs
  4. Identifying, and meeting any legal obligations
  5. Inviting and liaising with keynote (aka plenary) speakers
  6. Collecting delegate payments
  7. Building the conference programme
  8. For inhouse conferences, who will source the presentation design company and event break away or team building activities to optimise delegate engagement
  9. Managing social media before, during, and after the event
  10. Accounting
  11. Build your website. Regardless of whether your conference needs a simple website or a custom design, you will need a landing page to send people to that includes the following:
  • Home page. This should include the logo, conference name, date and location. An opening summary, the sponsors, and important deadlines and social media links, as well as a contact form or a ‘book now’ call to action button, are essential on the home page.
  • Welcome. Include a short welcome from your chair inviting submissions.
  • Team. An introduction to the team, as applicable, including bios and photos.
  • Conference topics. List what themes, topics, special sessions, panel submissions, and so on are to be expected.
  • Keynote speakers. Include the keynote speaker’s bio, picture and links to their social profiles.
  • Presenter guidelines. This guideline will include oral presentation timings, AV equipment available, instructions, and specifications for posters.
  • Travel and accommodation. Specify public transport and accommodation options. 
  • Programme. Once your keynotes are confirmed, include a draft programme and flesh it out as you go.
  • Registration. Make fees, payment methods and Ts & Cs visible, plus a link to your registration system.
  • Sponsors. Showcase your sponsors and sponsorship packages. 
  • Accessibility info. Add info for delegates who have accessibility requirements, as well as contact information for other needs.
  • Contact. Where applicable, list different contact information for queries related to registration, sponsorship, accessibility, etc. And include a link to sign up to your conference mailing list.

5 – 6 Months before: Budget, Software, Registration

  1. Build your budget. Even though the goal of most corporate events is not to make a profit, another similarly-important goal is not to rob the bank with your conference spend. Managing your conference finances is vital. Create your draft budget now, and adapt it as you assess costs and gain sponsorship
  2. Source conference planning software. The right software can remove a lot of late nights, drudge work, and admin burden typical with event planning, freeing you up to focus on your main priority: planning a great conference. There are also great free software options, like Slack for project comms, Asana for project management, Trello for task management, and MailChimp for bulk emailing.
  3. Registration. If your event requires delegates to register, this part of planning a conference is often fraught with mishaps, so be prepared: test (and re-test) your registration software, and then open registration now already. Give delegates payment options and a few clever nudges so you’re not twiddling your thumbs, waiting for payments to start trickling in.
  • Use a limited-access pricing model. Offer delegates a basic admittance fee that gives them access to every session, and add optional charges for events like workshops, social outings and meals. This way, delegates can create their own conference journey and experience.
  • Give incentives to register early. Early-bird rates can encourage registrations within a certain time period.

2-8 Weeks before: Final tasks

  1. Build your final programme. Even though you may still make a few changes after this release, the final programme as at this time should be released.
  2. Put through your printing order. Print conference info packs / agenda. This is the official record of your conference. Also order any onsite signage and posters you may need.
  3. Update delegates. Send delegates the programme and any other important conference details they need to know.
  4. Confirm your keynote speaker. Send a confirmation email / reminder email to ensure your keynote speaker is ready and able to present at your event.
  5. Order goodie packs. These conference staples should include items like:
    • Pads and pens
    • Conference bags
    • Badges and lanyards
    • Certificates of attendance

One week to go

Organise registration desk.

  • Check the registration desk and information point setups.
  • If you are using an event planner, they typically provide staff to take care of your registration desk as well as event support staff. Ensure they are well acquainted with the registration software, and with the conference proceedings.
  • Organise payment facilities, as well as online payments, at the registration desk if needed. Ensure receipts can be printed.
  • Arrange for printers and laptops for printing attendee lanyards and name tags, if necessary.

Three days to go

  1. Deliver materials. Send any additional conference materials – like onsite signage, delegate packs, etc to the venue.
  2. Check equipment. Check conference computers, projectors, AV, and lighting. Check white boards have markers, if necessary.
  3. Check presentation material. Download presentation files and transfer to conference laptops, and check that all presentations and embedded videos are working (including sound).
  4. Check AV arrangements. Ensure the venue will have AV support / technicians available on the day of the event.
  5. Send welcome emails. Send parking info and permits, the venue WiFi code and welcome reception details to delegates.

One day to go

  1. Print the delegate list. Give the delegate list to registration staff.
  2. Put up posters and signs. If the venue allows, mount all the posters and signs inside and outside the venue, as required.
  3. Update the programme. Update the website’s programme with any last minute changes. 

The morning of the conference

  1. Arrive early. This goes without saying. If the venue is far from your home, or you are worried about traffic congestion, arrange to sleep over the night before at the hotel, or a nearby lodging, so that you are fresh and sparkly for the event on the day.
  2. Set up registration. Sort out the registration desk with name badges, delegate packs, cash box and card payment facility, delegate lists, etc. Make sure it’s visible and is connected to power.
  3. Hold a pre-conference meeting. Brief your volunteers on emergency protocols, and any on-day comms they might need.
  4. Hold AV rehearsal. Check that all AV equipment is working, and ensure presentations are ready to go.

During the conference

  1. Complete registration. Complete outstanding payments and close your registration system.
  2. Steward the venue. Ensure volunteers are assisting delegates. If you were wise enough to let an event organiser manage this process for you, make yourself available to them via your mobile so that, no matter where you are, they can reach you for emergencies, questions, or go-aheads.
  3. Breathe. If you’re stressed and you show it, everyone else will be too. Give yourself a few moments to take some deep, slow breaths, and no matter what happens: don’t run. Walk. Briskly, and with a purpose.. 

At the end of the conference

It doesn’t matter how smoothly your conference went (well done if it went smoothly!), there are always lessons to be learnt. 

  1. Assess. Give yourself a few days after the event for all aspects to distill in your mind, and then make notes of successes and learnings.
  2. Send thank yous. Send a thank you email to delegates, staff and volunteers, VIPs and keynote speakers.
  3. Collect and make payments. Collect any outstanding payments, and pay whoever still needs payment.
  4. Take a holiday. Budget some time and give yourself a much-needed break once all the madness is over.

Now go forth and excel at planning your next conference. Or, ask an experienced event planner to handle your next conference, so that you can relax and actually enjoy your conference this time around.

Need assistance to plan your stress-free and successful conference, Contact Us.