Whether you’re an experienced conference producer or a bit of a novice, it’s a good idea to start with our planning checklist to make sure you’ve got the foundations of your event in place before the invitations get sent out.
Step 1: Set a purpose
So why are you planning a conference? Maybe it’s an established annual event, or it’s filling a new niche in the calendar. Either way, it’s good to have an overarching purpose for your conference that you can remind yourself of when decision making gets tough. It could be to present exciting scientific findings, or create a space whether vendors and suppliers can network. It’s especially useful to have this purpose in mind when choosing a keynote speaker, which is often the highlight of the conference for delegates. Is there another conference that fulfils a similar purpose to yours, and how can you make your conference unique, memorable and useful?
Step 2: Plan a budget
Planning a budget can seem daunting but it’s vital to know what spending money you’ll have available to you before you start making big decisions. It’s generally possible (and virtually unavoidable) to change the budget once you’ve started, but it’s important to know a ballpark figure. This will help you make decisions from the get go and keep delegate expectations in the right place. Nobody wants to recreate the Fyre Festival..!
Step 3: Pick an estimate date and location
Peak time for conferences tends to be between the end of August and mid-November. It avoids the summer – when everyone is on holiday – and the festive period – when everyone is drunk/hungover. You could consider planning your conference between January and May though, and making the most of quieter calendars and potentially off-peak venue prices. Conference planning often starts about 10-12 months before the event, so bear in mind how much lead time you’ll need.
Step 4: Choose a venue
So you’ve decided on the purpose, budget and location of your conference – now you need to pick a venue. When you were settling the financial plans you should have outlined an estimate cost for your venue hire, as well as the number of delegates you’d be expecting to come. Once you’ve started looking for your conference space you’ll need all of this information to hand to make sure the venues will be suitable for your needs. It’s also a good idea to have a think of any technical requirements you might need, and whether you’d rather the venue provided them or if you’re happy to bring them in yourself.
Elaborate bells and whistles are all well and good, but unless you cover the basics your conference is likely to go down like a lead balloon.
Check out our tried and tested conference essentials that are guaranteed to leave your delegates happy.
High speed wi-fi
This is especially important if your conference is in the tech industry; expectations will be high! Unless you’ve got firm assurances from your venue that their wi-fi can handle a lot of intense traffic, it might be worth bringing in extra resources to make sure all your delegates can access and use the wi-fi reliably. This can be an unexpected expense, but it’s well worth it. Having access to wi-fi should also encourage your delegates to be active on their social media accounts while at the conference without having to rely on their own data.
Free hot drinks
It’s not always feasible to make the budget stretch to feeding all your delegates for free – unless you’re organising a smaller event, or your ticket prices will incorporate the cost of the meals – but it always goes down well if you can provide free hot drinks. Depending on your event this could be as simple as hiring a number of large urns, or it could mean bringing in baristas. Why not use the opportunity for a marketing boost by adding your hashtag or social accounts to the coffee cups for additional exposure. Don’t forget to provide free water, too.
Even if you’re not providing food for free, it’s a good idea for your delegates to at least be able to access it within the venue. If your guests have to leave for their lunch, it’s much more likely that they won’t bother coming back. Consider inviting local food vendors to set up inside, and as they’ve got a “captive market” they may be able to cut you a good deal for a reduced menu. Whatever you do regarding food, remember to include options for vegans and vegetarians as well as those with gluten or dairy intolerances.
It’s good practice to try and make your event as sustainable as possible. Have a think about your disposable cups and plates; bamboo cutlery makes a great alternative to plastic and is generally considered to be a good biodegradable option. Just remember that even if you have recyclable materials, your delegates will still need somewhere to recycle them. Why not provide facilities for your guests to separate their food and recycling waste to maximise the benefit.
Find an unusual conference venue:
If you’re looking to stand out from the crowd, it’s not always enough to throw a couple of trendy pot plants around and hope for the best. Your venue can often do the talking for you; the space your conference is in tells your delegates what to expect from the day and can set the tone of the event.
When people think of conferences they tend to jump to needing a big empty space – like the ExCel London – and while they’re great venues for large scale corporate conferences, they’re not necessarily right for everyone.
Take a look at our checklist for finding an unusual conference venue:
Large or small?
You should have a good idea of the number of delegates, speakers and trade stands you’re hoping will be attending. For standing receptions, it’s easy to remember – you need 1 square metre of space per attendee. But don’t forget that on top of that, you’ll need to factor in the stage and seating, break out areas, food and drink stalls, storage space and bathrooms. It’s always better to have a little too much space than not quite enough.
Maximising your accessibility is vital. Lots of venues in London are sadly limited, especially when it comes to wheelchair access, because of their age or location. You should be looking to attract a diverse crowd and make your event as accessible as possible, so bear this in mind when you’re looking for a space. Venues that cater to conferences tend to be on the larger side and are more likely to provide access, so they’re a great place to start. But also have a think about adding hearing loops, large-print schedules and maps, and facilities for guide and assistance dogs to make sure you’re doing your bit too.
The location of your conference will depend on the industry you’re targeting. Theatre, fashion and photography tends to be based around W1 – so think Soho, Mayfair, Fitzrovia and Marylebone. The City of London is historically the hub of the financial district, but lots of businesses operate out of Canary Wharf so they’re both good locations to consider with different attributes to recommend them. When it comes to conference venues within a particular district, try and find somewhere close to transport links to make the journey for your delegates as easy as possible. Bonus points if your closest station has disability access.