Over the past 23 years, we have seen a whole host of truly exceptional conferences and events, all over the world. World-class speakers, venues, performers, A/V technology, interactivity, delegate participation and fun- we’ve seen it all, and enjoyed every minute of it.
But it’s fair to say that we’ve seen our fair share of mistakes too, and even the smallest of things can create the biggest amount of chaos.
Here’s a list of the most common watch-outs to consider when planning your next conference:
Planning “in reverse”
Quite often, you see events teams and conference organisers planning the venue, speakers, content etc. before they even know why the conference is taking place. Hence, “planning in reverse”.
You’d be surprised at the number of conferences organised just because it’s the “done thing” twice a year. Venues, hotels, food, flights, speakers, are all booked before anyone knows why they’re getting together. The purpose of the meeting then ends up being retrofitted after the dates have been set, leading to mixed messages and confusion over content. Instead, start with “why?”
Before you even begin planning a conference, set your super-objective and your purpose…and tell the people who’ll be attending! Once you know why you’re bringing people together- whether it’s for relationship building and relevant fun; to bring a new team together, or even setting out the future company direction- you can create a frame for the day(s), and fit key messages, content and activities around it.
Planning too late
Quite simply: don’t leave things too late. We’ve lost count of the number of times we have been approached by organisations who phone us up to say, “I have a conference in [insert very small number here] weeks and I need your help!”
Whilst we always appreciate a challenge, and on most occasions, things can be sorted in time, it places far more pressure on everyone involved in the conference’s planning; causing unpleasant atmospheres, extra challenges and even things being forgotten. Conference planning can be stressful as it is, so leave yourself plenty of time.
Rushed planning and execution of an event, especially a big one, can really detract from its effectiveness. Set a clear timeline well in advance, know what needs to be done and by when, and try your hardest to stick to it.
Too. Much. Content.
Without a doubt, this is the thing that provides the most angst in every event we’ve ever dealt with. Relentless, sometimes mind-blowing levels of content can totally control the atmosphere and outcomes of a conference, leaving both concentration and learning takeaways on the floor…along with people’s brains.
Of course, it’s right that you’ve got a set of things you have to cover, a series of topics you want to include, and a parade of speakers you want to hear from. Most organisations do content well, but almost too well…but don’t bombard people with information. Structure your sessions and content around your overall conference objectives, and only say what you need to say. Don’t cram content in for the sake of it.
Just as importantly, consider how your content is being delivered. NOBODY likes “Death by PowerPoint”, and it doesn’t make your speakers look good, either, so restrict its use as much as possible. Pitch sessions at the right level for your audience: stray away from high levels of detail; tell people what they need to know, and don’t kill with context. Ensure your speakers are experienced, rehearsed and knowledgeable in front of an audience (as the quality of delivery can make a real difference) and that, wherever possible, your sessions contain two-way interaction. Conferences are much more than just telling people things.
Quite often, especially in content-heavy conferences, the day’s schedule can look like a military exercise, planned in minute detail, starting early and finishing late. When planning what you need to include, be very aware of the bigger picture and consider the delegate experience throughout every day. How will this make them feel? Do they have enough time to rest? Do they really need to start that early? Even more so with international groups, ensure you’ve thought about jet lag and the tiredness of travelling, so you’re not flying teams across the world to make them endure 12-hour conference days. They won’t thank you for it.
Give people adequate time to reflect and digest everything they’ve heard. Often, deluges of content and sessions can just keep flowing, overloading delegates’ brains and giving them no sense of intellectual rest or relief. This reflection time is just, if not, more, important than the content being delivered, so make sure to give people time.
Make sure your agenda is set up to accommodate breaks at specific points throughout the day. Dedicate enough time to this, as people will need comfort breaks, a top up of tea, and a debrief of what they’ve heard with their colleagues. Try to make the day(s) as comfortable for people as possible, even if you’ve got a lot to cover.
Trust us, it’s true. It might sound obvious, it might sound trivial, but food and refreshments (or lack of them!) can absolutely make or break a conference. Every conference feedback survey will say so. All other elements of planning and execution might be perfectly in place, but bad food will be what people remember.
Keep your teas and coffees topped up, provide a mixture of snacks (including fruit, not just biscuits…), and don’t forget breakfast if you’re starting early. Nothing signals a dip in concentration and engagement more than rumbling stomachs half way through the day. Make your lunches varied and plentiful, and whatever you do, don’t forget dietary requirements. Evening meals, especially sit-down arrangements, need a bit more care and attention, so dedicate time to getting it right.
Our Memorable Meetings video on Refreshments takes a look at this in more detail.
Relentlessly trusting technology
Technology at a conference can be truly impressive. Flawless video streaming, impeccable sound, pixel-perfect screens, social media integration…it’s all possible. Technology can be your friend, but it can also be a deadly conference foe. Make sure the basics are in place before you get too far down the line with excellent creative ideas- it they aren’t executed well, it’s a waste of time and money.
Most conferences and events these days are almost, if not totally, reliant on Wi-Fi. It sounds like a patronising statement to make, especially as most conference venues now are on top of their technology, but make sure that internet coverage at your chosen venue is available- and that it’s a stable enough connection for all your delegates, organisers and A/V team to connect. If you’re looking at using social media feeds or an event app, this is vital.
Furthermore, always have backups plans. Even the most professional and experienced A/V companies, platforms, kit and software can have technical malfunctions. Work closely with your A/V team to make sure you’ve got plans in place just in case things go wrong.
One thing that crops up time and again is the lack of structured rehearsal time, which is, especially with large events and conferences, crucial. We’ve seen a lot of speakers- internal and external- who don’t believe they have to rehearse. Sure, confidence in your ability and material is great and much-needed, but what you’ve practised beforehand might not translate well in-situ- and you don’t want to find that out when you’re already on stage.
We will always push for rehearsal time- not because of lack of faith in the speakers, but because of the complexity that a large event or conference brings. The larger the conference, the larger the list of speakers, and the more complex the handovers from a presentation and technical point of view. Always practise speaker content for clarity, structure and impact, with a core team of people who can give good and honest feedback.
Then, practise the speakers, on stage, in situ, with the A/V company so they know what’s behind them and when, as well as how it works. Knowing how much space they have, when your slides change, and where the lighting and sound cues are will help alleviate nervousness and trouble that may arise if the first run-through is the actual day. As well as ensuring impactful sessions, dedicated rehearsals will help the conference run smoothly, and to time.
Doing it all yourself
In a world of strict budgetary requirements, it can sometimes be tempting to take on many of the event planning elements yourself or in-house. This can sometimes work out fine with the right people, but beware. Don’t try to take on any of the responsibilities for which you are not an expert unless you have overwhelming confidence that you can do it as well as them.
This may sound ridiculous to some, but we have seen in-house teams try to take on a variety of tasks which have ended in all outcomes ranging from widespread troubles to complete disasters: A/V (including all sound, screens and integrated technology platforms), high-quality print, venue branding and setup, event emceeing and overall event facilitation.
Leave it to the experts. They will take all of those worries off you, work closely with you in partnership, and use their experience and expertise to help you create the best, most professional, and most impactful outcome.
Slide decks as default
And finally, slide decks.
Now, we’ve already mentioned “Death by PowerPoint” earlier in this piece, but this watch-out is more around slide decks in general. Throughout the past few years, we have seen PowerPoint and other similar programmes become the “go-to” software for everything that conference planning involves. Slide decks are used for organisers to write down their briefs and aims; by agencies to propose themes and interventions; by those who need to gain sign-off and buy-in; for timelines, tables, charts and agendas, for mood boards and themes.
It’s almost inevitable that in each stage of planning, there will be a slide deck driving calls, content, and signposting what needs to happen.
Even at the event itself, the slide deck is usually the thing which dictates sessions, timings, breaks, with hours spent getting it right. We’re not saying this is a bad thing, just consider the bigger picture when it comes to the event. It is more than the slide deck. Look up from your PowerPoint every once in a while. You might have missed something.
We know from experience all of the time, money and effort that goes into making a conference or an event a success, so we hope this list has helped you consider some of the things you need to look out for.
For more information, our Memorable Meetings series, with our Purple Monster PIE Model (Physical, Intellectual, Emotional) explains all the various elements you need do design and deliver a memorable meeting, conference or event, whatever the size. For more information, browse our videos and e-book here.
And, if you’d like to speak to us about your next conference, get in touch!