How to Organise a Conference: A Beginner’s Guide

Conferences and study days are an important part of academic life: they provide forums for the exchange of ideas and for networking. Organising a conference can be a hugely rewarding experience, but doing it for the first time can also be daunting. So we’ve put together A Beginner’s Guide to Conference Organising that outlines the basics.

There are a lot of things to consider, so it’s best to start planning earlier rather than later: a year to eighteen months before the event should allow sufficient time. Working with one or two other people can help lighten the load. But remember: conference committees work best when every member is clear about what her/his responsibilities are.

Topic of study

The most important thing to decide is the focus of your conference. While a few established conferences, such as the RMA Annual Conference or AMS, cover a huge range of topics, most events have a more specific focus. Looking at up-coming conferences will give you a useful idea of what sort of themes might make for a successful event.

Keynote

Once you have decided on the conference’s focus, the next thing to do is to secure a keynote speaker. Keynotes are usually experts in the conference’s field of study. You might also want to think about potential candidates’ styles of delivery: dynamic speakers tend to be more engaging. Finally, before approaching anyone, you should consider what sort of financial reimbursement you might be able to offer. Some academics have the resources to fund their own travel, even internationally; but, you cannot take this for granted. At the very least, it is usual to wave any registration fees for the keynotes and to pay for their attendance at the conference dinner.

Date

The most important thing when choosing a date is to make sure your event doesn’t clash with any others. You might also consider what times of the academic year are busiest / quietest, as this might affect how many people are able to attend.

Venue

Choosing the right venue is important because it will impact on the atmosphere of the conference. For example, a huge room with hardly any people in it can seem empty; rooms without natural light can feel claustrophobic; an auditorium-style set-up might inspire a different type of exchange from a round-table set-up.

Booking an appropriate venue will be easier if you know: how many delegates you aim to have; what presenters’ audio-visual requirements might be; and what sort of sessions (papers, round-tables, reading groups, etc.) you want to include.

Catering

Refreshments are another thing that can make a big difference to the feel of a conference. Once you have identified a suitable venue, it is worth finding out its catering restrictions. Some venues will only allow you to use their caterers, which can be costly and of variable quality. It might be more financially viable to ask people to bring their own food than to provide it.

If you want to arrange a conference dinner, it is a good idea to choose a restaurant near to the conference venue. Conference dinners are usually optional: delegates who want to come pay extra for the privilege.

Budget

Writing a budget is one of the hardest aspects of conference planning, because there are numerous variables for which it can be difficult to account. A good starting point is to add up all the out-going costs you might have. Once you have done this, you can offset any grants that you have secured. The remaining balance will give you some idea of how much delegates might need to pay. If the delegate fees you end up with seems extortionate, you can go back to the out-goings to see what, if anything, can be cut.

Organisations like the RMA sometimes offer grants for conferences and study days. If you are affiliated to an institution, your institution or department may be able to offer some funding as well. It is always worth inquiring about the possibility of waiving room hire charges, as some institutions don’t charge for non-profit academic events.

Programming

There is plenty of room for creativity when it comes to programming. What you decide to include will depend on the conference’s focus, as well as the type of event. It is usual for most of the conference time to be allocated to paper presentations; but, you might also want to factor in a concert, a lecture-recital, reading groups, or a round-table discussion.

Call for Papers

Your Call for Papers should explain what the conference is about and what type of submissions you are looking for (individual papers, paper sessions etc.). You should also include a maximum word limit for abstracts. Remember: you will have to read every submission, so if you are expecting a lot of abstracts, you might regret a high word limit. Most Calls for Papers set a limit of 250 – 300 words.

When deciding when to put out your Call for Papers, you should consider: how long you want to allow for people to submit abstracts; how long you might need to read and select the submissions; how far in advance of the conference speakers might want to book travel. As a rough timeline, you could put out the Call 9 months before the conference; set the deadline for submission 7 months before; and announce the conference programme 6 months before.

Publicity

If you have the resources to do so, creating your own website or web page can help give the conference a professional feel. But there are also numerous other channels for publicising your conference. You can contact the organisations like the RMA, which has an events calendar on its website, or the IMR, which sends out e-bulletins of up-coming events. You can submit your own advertisement to the Golden Pages.

Publication of Proceedings

This is not to be considered by the faint-hearted: editing a multi-author volume or a special journal edition is a lot of work. If you think that the quality of papers will be high enough to merit a publication of proceedings, talk to your supervisor or an academic well-placed to advise you.

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