Conferences are an important part of professional development and business networking for all industries. Bringing people together from all around the world in the same industry to learn and share is essential for innovation. A successful conference can come in all shapes and sizes, from 200 people over a weekend to 15,000 for a week.
InitLive has had the privilege of working with many conferences, some of which are the largest in their industry. Through this, InitLive understands the complex logistical challenges and planning that go into setting up a conference for success. Planning a conference can be a large undertaking, but this step-by-step checklist will help ensure whatever you plan will be a success.
Table of Contents
Getting Started: 8-12 Months Out
There is a lot of planning that goes into an in-person conference event. That's why it is so important to start your conference planning process well in advance. It is helpful to review your successes and shortcomings from your last conference and use that information to help inform your planning this time around.
Task #1 - Establish your goals and objectives.
To plan and execute an amazing conference or corporate event, you need to first decide specifically what you are trying to accomplish. Ask yourself what type of conference attendee you want to attract, as well as how you can make sure the conference relates to your brand. What kind of value do you want to provide, and which organizations and speakers would make ideal partners for your event?
In order to do this, you need to answer some basic questions:
- What do you want the takeaway to be?
- What will people learn from your conference?
- Who is your target audience?
- Does your event need to turn a profit? If so, what is that profit target?
- How much will tickets cost?
- What charitable work will your conference do?
- Where will your event take place?
- How many people will attend your event?
By answering these questions, you will begin to see a clear picture of your conference objectives and the foundational elements needed to make it a success.
Task #2 - Choose a format and theme.
Your conference’s format and theme will form the basis of your attendees’ and sponsors’ experiences at your conference. As such, you should choose a theme that will attract your target audience and shine the spotlight on your brand. Your theme should be apparent to attendees and coherent throughout the event.
Here are a few conference themes to spark some ideas:
Journey To The Top
Partners In Progress
Back To The Future
Once you have a theme to act as your guide, the next step in the conference planning process is to decide your conference format. There are so many event formats to choose from, and you can also combine formats to deliver a unique experience for your attendees.
Here are a few formats that you can incorporate in your conference:
Industry Panel Discussion
Speed Networking ( Like Speed dating)
Whatever format(s) you select for your conference, it is important to consider what will make your event stand out from your competitors. The more memorable and impactful your conference is, the greater success it will have for years to come.
Task #3 - Set your budget.
Now that you have a clear idea of what kind of conference you will be planning, the next step is to establish a budget to make it all happen. There are so many line items that make up a conference budget so it is important to account for all of them and then some for incidentals along the way.
Establishing Your Fixed Costs
There are many fixed costs in conference planning that will inevitably make up the most considerable portion of your event budget. These costs are not typically affected by the number of attendees at your event — they are what they are.
Examples of fixed costs are:
Equipment (AV tech)
- Licenses and Permits
Establishing Your Variable Costs
There are a lot more variable costs than fixed ones when it comes to conference planning. Variable expenses are all the extra things that depend on your number of attendees, marketing costs, and all the extra touches that make your event unique.
Examples of variable costs include:
Meals per attendee
Marketing and advertising
Social event cost
Shuttle or transportation service
Giveaways and speaker gifts
Once you have a clear understanding of all the line items required to make your conference a success, you can begin to establish your conference budget. Don’t forget to allot some extra money for any last-minute expenses that come up along the way.
Ramping Up: 4-8 Months Out
Now that you have a clear idea of what your conference is and all the activities you will have for your attendees, it's time to start planning how you are going to deliver those incredible experiences.
Task #4 - Choose a location and set a date
There is no conference without a venue and date. So now it's time to get that all sorted out so you can begin planning your logistics. A great conference needs a great venue. If you are new to organizing conferences, ask other organizers what venues have worked for them for past events.
When you have found a potential venue, ask yourself:
Is this venue accessible?
Is it close to suitable accommodations?
Will attendees find parking easily?
Is the size suitable for the audience size you imagine?
Does the venue have availability for the preferred event date?
Most of the time, an event date is determined by a venue’s availability. However, if the date is more important than the venue, you will need to prioritize finding a venue that accommodates that date. Once you have your venue/location and date set, it’s time to rally the troops to make this event happen.
Task #5 - Recruit a team of volunteers
Every good conference needs a team of dedicated individuals to keep things running. Rather than hire an entire crew to do this for your conference, why not use volunteers? Many attendees would love to volunteer some of their time for a reduced conference ticket, or students would love to participate if they’re looking at getting involved in the industry post-graduation.
Volunteers are an essential part of most of the largest conferences in the world. So why not try to recruit some help from motivated individuals. InitLive’s event staff and volunteer management software have helped conferences recruit, schedule, manage, and communicate with volunteers.
Getting started is simple; you just have to create a custom branded volunteer sign-up form and post it to your conference website. From there, interested volunteers can sign up directly for shifts they are qualified to work.
Here is an example of how volunteer management software can make an impact.
Social Media Marketing World went from an event with only 50 staff to more than 200 staff. There were 4,500 attendees, more than 600 shifts worked, and over 4,000 hours worked. Event manager Jaci Feinstein summarized the experience by saying, "InitLive is worth every dollar to be able to streamline and better manage, communicate, organize your volunteers. It allows you and your volunteers to focus on what is really important."
Task #6 - Book speakers and vendors.
Now it's time to book all those people and organizations that will make your conference a memorable experience. You have likely created a list of desired speakers and vendors for your event. Now it's time to secure those people for your event.
Booking Your Speakers
You will want to secure a few keynote speakers that are well known, as well as other speakers who can offer their expertise to your attendees. Securing your main speakers is incredibly important because you can’t effectively build your event schedule and marketing plans without them.
Booking Your Vendors
Your vendors are the people who will ensure that attendees are comfortable, fed, and entertained, so you must select the best vendors possible. There are many vendors to secure for your event, from Wifi providers and caterers to equipment rentals and attendee software. It is important to keep track of each vendor’s contract and deliverables to ensure there are no surprises when they start work.
Task #7 - Search for sponsors.
Sponsors are a huge source of revenue to help offset initial event costs. Corporate sponsorship is a common practice for industry conferences; often, industry vendors will be looking to sponsor events. To attract sponsors, it is important to establish all the various events and material available for sponsorship and then create sponsorship packages for your team to send to your list of ideal sponsors.
Remember that sponsors should be getting measurable value out of their money, so make sure to include numbers in your packages. The more successful the event is for your sponsors, the more likely they will be eager to contribute more next year.
Building Excitement: 1-4 Months Out
Now it’s time to get everyone excited about your event. This is when to start sharing all the amazing things you have planned for your event to attract attendees and more volunteers to your conference.
Task #8 - Build your website.
Many event producers will choose to build an event-specific website for marketing and attendee registration. Other companies will simply add event specifics pages to their existing corporate website. Whichever way you choose, all the information an attendee, vendor, or volunteer needs must be available and easy to find online.
Here are some core pieces of information you need on your website.
- Event date and location
- Key speakers and activities
- Ticket and registration portal with payment gate
- A volunteer page with online registration
- Vendor and sponsorship information
Task #9 - Promote your event.
Now it’s time to start promoting your event to your network and to your target audience. What makes your event stand out from the crowd? Take that unique sales proposition and use it as a core pillar in all your marketing efforts.
When creating your marketing materials, it is important to use your theme and brand to stand out and create material in any medium. For example, a video on social media and YouTube can go a long way but so can a great graphic in an email. The more you have to work with, the more channels you can market in.
In today’s market, it is very important to use multiple channels to market your event. Here are marketing channels to promote your event:
Email marketing to your network
Paid social ads
Be consistent with posting and make sure to drive people to your registration and volunteer signup forms. By spreading the word as widely as possible, you’ll get your conference in front of more people, directly impacting event attendance.
Task #10 - Draft a schedule.
As you fill speakers slots and seminar hosts, keep a draft version of your schedule. Your event schedule is a key tool for you and all your stakeholders, like vendors and volunteers. Your schedule will change, but as your conference approaches, it is important to make your conference schedule available so everyone else has to make plans around it.
The Week Before Your Conference
As your event approaches, it’s time to make sure everything is all in place, and everyone knows what they need to do to set up your conference and ensure its success. This phase of conference planning is critical and will require a lot of last-minute adjustments and patience. Everyone on your team as well as all your speakers, vendors, and volunteers must have all the information they need to their best work.
Task #11 - Send Final Reminders.
As the conference approaches, it is vital to ensure everyone is meeting important deadlines and milestones. This is when reminders communications come in handy for everyone. Make sure to keep people updated on your event’s progress and any changes that need to be made to the schedule.
As for your vendors, sponsors, and volunteers, you will need to be in contact with a lot during the last few weeks leading up to the event. Consider assigning a staff member for each group, and ask them to keep their group updated on all the information and changes that can affect their job. Good communications will ensure the event setup goes smoothly.
Task #12 - Give your volunteers the final rundown.
Now that you have assembled an amazing team of volunteers, it's important to equip them with all the training and tools they need to thrive. Volunteers should be trained on general safety regulations and receive specific training concerning the roles and responsibilities they will be tasked with during the event.
This is the time to ask your volunteers to download the volunteer app from your volunteer management software to access their personal volunteer schedule and event documents. This app should also allow them to check-in to shifts and communicate directly with their supervisor. Your volunteers are the people that will be the face of your event, so the better equipped they are, the better they can ensure your attendees have a great experience.
After the Conference
Once your conference is over, there are still some things to accomplish to ensure you set up next year for success. It is so important to document and track all the successes you had and any shortcomings that arose during your event. The more you learn, the more you can improve.
Task #13 - Survey your audience.
There is no way to tell if your attendees had a good time without asking them. This is when an online survey can help you learn how your event did. Create an online survey that asks questions about specific topics like location, food, session and speakers, and general feelings about your conference. All the problems in your survey should help you better understand how you can improve your event.
The survey should be distributed no more than a day or two after your conference. You want to ensure that your event is still fresh in everyone's mind to collect the most accurate information possible.
Task #14 - Share any follow-up resources.
There was a lot of information and resources made available to your attendees throughout your conference, but some of those resources may inevitably be lost or forgotten. Make sure to share any event-specific resources and videos with your attendees through email and social channels shortly after your conference. You naturally want everyone to receive the maximum value from your event, so this extra effort can go a long way.
Now it's time for you to start planning a fantastic event. This article should simply act as a jumping-off point for your conference planning. InitLive can help you deliver a specular conference by helping you build an outstanding team of skilled, loyal & committed staff and volunteers. To learn more, click here to watch a demo or explore the list of resources below.
Resource to Explore
The Smart Nonprofit's Guide to Volunteer Management. Your volunteers play a key role in your conference’s success. Explore strategies that will set them up for success.
Virtual Conferences for Nonprofits: What to Expect. Are you planning on going remote with your conference? Learn everything about remote conferences with this complete guide.
The Complete Step-by-Step Festival Planning Guide for 2021. Festivals are another great engagement opportunity for your audience. Learn how to plan a successful festival with this step-by-step guide.