For many, organizing a conference is an exciting experience that can bring a world of opportunities. Conferences are held for a variety of reasons, from trying to encourage values in a youth group to selling a product to industry elites. Whatever the reason you’re organizing your conference is, there are essential steps you must take to plan an excellent conference. Without this organization, your conference may feel thrown together and unpolished.


What Makes a Good Conference?

A good conference is one that is well planned and focused on a single goal. The goal behind your conference can be anything from sharing academic discoveries to exchanging cutting-edge ideas between industry leaders. Whatever your conference’s goal, it’s essential that you take the time to properly plan your conference and view everything through the eyes of an attendee.

Learning how to host a conference that’s both worthwhile and memorable involves keeping track of many moving parts. Many top-notch conferences use planning apps and registration websites such as EventBrite or Conference Manager. When searching for a venue, many professionals in conference planning turn to event planners to help them locate the best home for their conference. However, if you plan to organize your conference, it’s essential that you do plan and organize.


7 Steps to Planning A Conference

When organizing a conference, it’s important to think out and plan each step of the way. As an attendee, it’s extremely easy to spot a conference that was thrown together last minute. It’s essential to properly plan your conference by studying your industry, organizing your resources, and bringing in outside help if you want your conference to be successful.


Step One: Start “Big Picture” Planning

You should start planning at least six months out, if not an entire year before for larger conferences with more than 300 attendees. This is plenty of time to take your planning from “big picture” down to the research details that go into organizing a conference.

To organize a successful conference, above all else, you should tailor your plan to your attendees. Questions to ask and answer about your attendees during your initial brainstorming include:

  1. Why am I planning this conference?
  2. Ideally, who is attending my conference?
  3. What are they looking to get out of my conference?
  4. How can I maximize my conference’s time to meet that goal?
  5. What extra perks will make this conference memorable for them?
  6. How will I reach these people and convince them to register for my conference?

During this initial brainstorming phase, don’t worry about the details such as venue, guest speakers, or registration just yet. Focus on defining your conference’s overall goal before moving onto the next step, where you’ll bring in help to figure out the details.


Step Two: Get Organized

Most successful conferences are organized by a conference committee, a team dedicated to the conference’s goals that work together to make big decisions. One member of this committee should be designated as the lead member who makes the major decisions and oversees much of the planning process. This committee coordinator should be well-versed in the conference’s ambitions and the resources available to meet them.

Once you’ve gathered your conference committee, the next steps in your conference planning are to decide how you’ll keep conference materials and planning organized. Whether you choose Slack or regular email to keep everyone on the committee on the same page, make sure you establish clear lines of communication with your committee.

Now, it’s time for your committee to make its first decisions: the name of the conference, the overarching theme, the city where the conference will be held, and the dates when the conference will take place. Keep your conference’s name and theme simple while still conveying your conference’s goal.

For example, Writing Now: From Newspapers to Blogs with a theme of “Future Focused” conveys the goal of the conference clearly, which is to help writers familiar with traditional publishing adapt to new online writing platforms.

Step Three: Think Financially

Your committee’s next step is to develop a budget. Using an online application or spreadsheet, create a budget that includes:

  • Money available to spend on conference necessities (venue, advertising, speakers, etc.)
  • Money available for conference extras and perks (activities, swag, entertainment, etc.)
  • Optionally, a list of ideas for finding extra room in your budget (do-it-yourself decorations, calling in a favor for cheaper entertainment, bringing on a sponsor for additional funding, etc.)

Once you’ve established how much money you have to work with, now your committee can begin planning how to use it. How much money you’ll budget for each category, such as your venue or catering, will depend on your conference’s size and scope. During this phase, you need to research the prices of local venues and vendors to keep your budget realistic.

Additionally, tighter budgets may have to make sacrifices to focus on the conferences’ overall goal. (In our Writing Now: From Newspapers to Blogs example, a cheaper venue may be chosen to save enough funds for a New York Times bestselling author to deliver the keynote speech.)

Another consideration is that what is necessary for one conference may be optional for another. Therefore, while making your budget, it may help to think ahead to your conference’s agenda. Will you require multiple speakers to reach your conference’s goal, or could you accomplish it with a few speakers and several low-cost activities instead?

There’s no rush to make a solid budget at this stage, and your budget should be flexible enough to adjust as you work through the next steps in planning your conference.


Step Four: Book the Venue & Vendors

Using the research you did during the last step while planning your budget, it’s time to find a venue that fits your financial requirements as well as your conference’s goals. If you need to fit 200 people into a room to share cutting-edge research with them, a small auditorium with a giant projector screen is a better venue than a large hotel ballroom.

For smaller conferences where only a handful of attendees will be present, you can stretch your budget further by renting high-end meeting rooms for each session.

While some venues may come with catering and decorating included in their price, many do not. For those venues, you’ll need to bring in outside vendors for catering and decorating. Do your research into the different options while searching for a venue, but refrain from hiring outside vendors until you’ve booked your venue.

Take your time with this step! Visit several venues in person if you can before making your decision. Your venue will often be one of your biggest budgetary expenses, so it’s important you make the right choice for your conference’s needs. Become familiar with the venue’s staff, especially if they’re experienced at running conferences, and lean on their expertise to make your conference run more smoothly.

Step Five: Plan Your Agenda

When organizing a conference, your agenda is the most essential step. By now, your conference committee may already have a good general idea of what your agenda will include, as it’s often discussed during budgeting and picking out the venue. However, once you’ve gotten those details squared away, it’s time to finalize the agenda.

How you fill the time during your conference, as always, will depend on your overall goal. Your theme will also play a large part in how you reach your conference’s goal. For most informational conferences, speakers and training sessions make up the bulk of the agenda. Icebreaker activities are often planned for the first day of the conference and at the start of each day.

Once you’ve drafted your agenda, it’s time to reconcile your budget. Do you need more money dedicated to catering due to your venue choice? Can you spare some of your activity money to splurge for an impressive speaker? Once your agenda and budget match, you can move on to the final steps of your conference planning.


Step Six: Advertising Your Conference

How you’ll advertise your conference will depend on how you can best reach your ideal attendee. For this step, lean on the experience of committee members in your attendee’s industry and bring in outside marketing help if need be.

However, there are several marketing tactics that every conference should be taking advantage of. The first tactic is setting up a conference website, where interested people can find out more about the details. Secondly, make sure you have solid promotional ‘posters’ for social media that list the conference’s name, tagline (the theme), location and date. These graphics can be used across social media to build brand recognition for your conference.

Regardless of your industry, you’ll want to start advertising your conference several months beforehand, especially if it’s a multi-day event. Make sure all your advertisements include the main details and a link to your conference’s website (or registration page) where interested parties can learn more about the costs and logistics of attending.

Step Seven: Finishing Touches & Walk-Through

Once you’ve wrapped up booking vendors and have started to advertise your conference, it’s time to focus on smoothing out your conference. Keep in touch with venue staff, speakers, and vendors as your conference’s date approach. Finalize the agenda, menu, and conference swag no later than two weeks before the conference.

Make sure you insist on a final walk-through of the conference venue at least one day before the conference starts. This will give you time to make last-minute changes and fixes. Walk the venue in the persona of one of your attendees: what will you see, where will you be directed, and what catches your eye?


Conference Planning Checklist

  • Determine your conference’s goal
  • Find your ideal conference attendee
  • Bring together a conference committee
  • Brainstorm name and theme ideas
  • Settle on a city and date
  • Research local venue and catering prices
  • Develop a working budget
  • Book the venue
  • Book additional vendors (catering, sellers, services, etc.)
  • Reach out to guest speakers and entertainment
  • Plan your agenda
  • Create your advertising plan
  • Finalize your budget
  • Print promotional materials
  • Set up the conference website
  • Advertise on social media
  • Confirm with venue and vendors one month out
  • Do a walk-through of the venue the day or weekend before
  • Attend your conference and have fun!