I seem to be doing this a lot at the moment – thinking about organising conferences, that is. In the last 9 months I’ve worked on the organising committee for the GradNet 2018 conference, in Southampton, the ‘War and Peace in the Age of Napoleon’ Conference (scheduled for September 2019), the ‘Wellington Congress (April 2019), the ‘Southampton Centre for Nineteenth Century Research’ conference on regionalism (September 2018), and have been asked to lead the team organising the ‘New Research in Military History’ conference (November 2018).
As a result, I’m pretty ‘conferenced out’, but in the process I’ve picked up a few tricks of the trade. Here’s a crash course in conference construction:
1. What’s the point? – It sounds harsh, but seriously, why are you doing it? What are you hoping to achieve? Without a clear sense of your aims and objectives, you will find that your event has limited appeal, and will not be the success you are hoping for. So work out your target audience, and think carefully about how many people you want to attract.
2. Pick a theme – In truth, you don’t have to have a theme. Plenty of great conferences don’t have one, but it can help. Again, its all about what you want to achieve. If you are trying to appeal to a wide range of people and academic interests, a conference with a very broad theme or topic is the way to go. If, on the other hand, you want to shed light on a particular issue, then a narrow theme is the way to go, so that your speakers know what it is they are supposed to be talking about.
3. Who’s in the team? – Having a great support team is vital to making the preparation phase run smoothly. Although it is possible to do it all yourself, in practice its good to have a team to share the strain, but more importantly to discuss ideas with you.
4. When? – Allow plenty of time for planning. Often the rule is that you start planning 12-18 months before the date of your conference. Be careful to consider when university term time is, as your speakers may be limited by teaching commitments. Often choosing a weekend, or the middle of a holiday, is the best way to try and secure a good turnout
5. Where? – Location can be everything. Having a relevant link between your conference and the venue is a nice touch, but also think about accessibility – a country house 20 miles from the nearest train station and 3 miles from the nearest hotel isn’t ideal, even if it looks amazing!
6. Keynote – Every conference has a special (keynote) speaker, who will deliver a bespoke lecture for around 40 minutes. Often these are given by significant people in the field of study that your conference addresses. Bear in mind that you will have to pay their travel and accommodation expenses, but it is not generally the rule that you pay them a fee for speaking. Again, think carefully about who you want to deliver your keynote, as they can be a major draw for your conference.
7. How many people are going to speak? – This is really important in terms of arranging a 1 or 2 day conference (or even longer). One way to maximise capacity is to run parallel sessions in the conference programme (ie 2 sessions run at once in different rooms). This means that people can pick and choose which talks they want to hear, but be careful to make the papers in each session loosely related to each other, so that people aren’t just interested in one paper, and are bored by the rest.
8. Stick to some of the conventions – You will be expected to provide lunch, a mid-morning break, mid-afternoon break, and refreshments on arrival. Sessions usually consist of 3 speakers, each speaking for 20 minutes, followed by around 20 minutes of questions. Make sure that you schedule all of this into your programme for the day.
9. Money – Expect it to be expensive. Conferences never generate a profit. Venue hire and catering often lead to an average cost of £60 per person, per day, (not including accommodation), so you will have to pass most of the cost on to your guests. HOWEVER, if you can get sponsorship for the conference, you should be able to bring the cost down a little bit. Contact organisations related to your area about whether they are willing to put material into the pack that you give to delegates (usually a list of attendees, programme for the day and advertising material), for a small fee. Also see if you can make use of any of your own contacts to negotiate a lower rate for the venue – there are often ways around these things.
10. Allow plenty of time – as a rule, a Call for Papers (ie an advert saying what the conference is all about and asking people to submit an idea that they will talk about) should go out about 6 months before the deadline, and allow plenty of time for ticket sales too.
11. Advertise – Make sure you use social media wherever possible, and post ads in academic forums. Contact relevant research institutions and ask them if they can circulate your advert and/or Call for Papers on their mailing lists, and try contacting university post-graduate departments directly, and asking them to do the same.
If you’ve got any questions about this, or any other blog post, leave a thread in the forum, and I’ll get back to you.