Event Managing Skills

by Daniel Breuer (SciSerTec) & Christina Sieber (FU Berlin) Labtimes 01/2016

Researchers usually love to attend meetings and conferences to share their results and hypotheses with other scientists. But they often get into big trouble and hit panic mode when they are in charge of organising a conference at their own institute.

When you set out to organise a conference, you need to consider a number of factors. The task may seem overwhelming. In the end, however, it comes down to determining what resources are available to you and defining the scope according to your goals and external limits. The information we have compiled in this guide is based on our experience with organising research conferences and workshops. We hope to inspire and aid colleagues who anticipate organising a scientific event.

Organising a small to medium-sized conference can take around 1,000 working hours. You will need a well-rehearsed team that knows the administrative tasks as a matter of routine. Depending on the complexity of the project, the core team should consist of two to five people. This team will take care of core organisational tasks, such as the venue/s, scientific and social programmes, inviting speakers and target audience, registration of participants, bookings and finances, hospitality, catering, event homepage, abstract book, raising third-party funds and donations, sponsoring, industry exhibition, and any additional core elements of the event. One team member should be in charge as the project leader and dedicated exclusively to managing the conference, at least for stretches of time. They will hold the overall vision for the conference, coordinate and inspire fellow team members, and ensure that the goals are met.

By nature, a conference isn’t isolated. During the course of organisation, many people are involved, including administrative staff, the team at the conference venue, companies, partner institutions and external service providers. To gather valuable information, prevent mistakes and obtain access to resources, it’s worth getting in touch with stakeholders as soon as possible and including them in the planning process.

The conference should take place during the week and last three to four days. Organise a “student training” during the first day and invite accomplished scientists and speakers to introduce the young academics to the conference topics. The schedule on the first and last day should be short, with enough time left for arrival and departure.

Choose a nice location

Pick a venue in a beautiful location that is easy to reach for external participants, e.g., a historic city centre. Ideally, conference rooms and accommodation should be in close proximity. This reduces the morning rush and promotes socialising in the hotel lobby or a close-by bar in the evening.

Depending on the size of the event, the venue needs to be booked a year or more in advance. Leverage your event’s business impact and negotiate a good price for your participants with local hotels; maybe they are willing to offer student deals. Provide participants with comprehensive information regarding transport and accommodation options well in advance; at least three months for international conferences. Highlight sustainable transport alternatives like trains and local public transport. Look for cheap alternatives for students, such as smaller hotels or hostels. Organise accommodation with local colleagues, if possible.

Offer reduced or subsidised registration fees for students. The best abstracts and posters should be honoured with an award. Travel grants are another way to attract young academics and fresh ideas to the conference. Advertise grants at least three months prior to the conference. If needed, you – the organiser – should raise supporting funds at least six to nine months prior to the event. Travel grants should be decided early, so they can be awarded shortly after the abstract deadline has passed.

World café attendees discuss an issue in small table groups. The discussions are usually held in multiple rounds for about half-an-hour.

Next to the scientific contributions, a vivid exchange between participants is the key to a successful conference. As an organiser, you provide the framework and determine everyone’s experience. Our brain works best when engaged on multiple levels. Thus, it is important to involve participants in the conference and encourage participation via interactive methods. Here are some ideas.

  • Social Programme: Whether a classic dinner party, city tours, or simply childcare, so everyone can participate, your imagination is the limit.
  • “Meet-the-Experts Lunch”: Turn lunch breaks into productive and inspiring mini-meetings by organising small lunch groups with a key player in the research field. This lowers the bar for participants to meet senior experts in the field and allows them to freely discuss their research interests.
  • Interactive Fishbowl Discussion: Stimulate discussion around hot topics with short input speeches from experts and invite your audience to join empty seats in the centre to contribute their thoughts.
  • Podium Discussion: Use this method to discuss high-level topics and view research in a broader context.
  • Open Space: A session with topics provided by participants, ideally around a pre-set topic.
  • World Café: Participants discuss a topic that concerns everyone in the room. Over the course of the conversation, they come up with solutions. Examples are research funding or long-term future planning on limited contracts.
  • Pro Action Café: Participants support preselected candidates with solving a current challenge, such as establishing an assay in their lab. Similar to the World Café, participants change tables several times; only the host stays on his table and communicates the gathered knowledge to the next group of table guests.

Fruitful poster discussions

During a conference, the scientific exchange is paramount. Every speaker should have the opportunity to present a poster, since discussions during poster sessions tend to be much more intense than the questions following a regular talk. In addition to a poster session, you could offer a poster tour or poster talks; authors present their posters in 60 seconds, followed by four minutes of discussion. Finally, you could select posters for a slightly longer ‘Pecha Kucha’ style presentation, meaning that the number of slides and viewing time per slide are pre-defined, strictly limited and automated to avoid time creep.

We highly recommend scheduling heaps of time for the poster session and discussions during regular sessions, as well as extra buffer time. Do not let sessions run too long, 90 minutes are ideal. The session chairs should receive written instructions on how to handle sessions, in advance. A short meeting prior to their session can help to remind them of their duties and provide them with tools (e.g., a timer, warning light, bell, table microphone) to “interrupt” the speaker, in case they go over time. It is paramount to schedule sufficient time for breaks and strictly observe them, so as to not wear out your participants. Rather than shortening breaks, add buffer time to each session. Finally, avoid parallel sessions, so your participants do not have to choose between talks and can enjoy the entire programme.

Don’t leave the participants hungry

Following Maslow’s pyramid of needs, your priority should be to meet your guests’ basic needs. Only then can your participants fully concentrate on other topics. We recommend offering good food and beverages, if possible regional, seasonal and organic. Vegetarians, vegans and people with food allergies (lactose, nuts, etc.) should not be neglected; it’s best to ask for special needs during registration. To simplify your catering order and save some money, you can opt for vegetarian catering only. Adding in some fun and humour is a must. You could, for example, report on the historical background of the city or venue, share about the history of the event, or organise a bar night. Your participants will remember this and form positive memories of the conference.

Towards the end of the event or halfway through you should prepare for a memorable group photo with all participants and speakers. It is a great souvenir that will make people remember the good time they have had. It can also be used on the website or in print-media to report on the conference and give a good impression of what it was like.

Everyone benefits from industry sponsorships. As the organiser, you can offer better catering, travel grants, or reduced admission. Your industry partners, in turn, can get in touch with their target audience. And researchers may discover alternative or better materials and methods. Important: companies generally plan budgets in the autumn. Thus, you should approach them about funding not later than late summer time of the year prior to your event.

Enlist professional help

We recommend using professional, IT-supported tools and services, instead of letting postdocs organise everything by themselves. It is better, if your team can focus on the scientific content, rather than getting involved in straining administrative tasks. In the long term, this will save your staff resources (and nerves), allowing them to concentrate on their core work – the scientific research. You could feed a mobile app with the conference programme and further event information, enabling participants to create favourites and access abstracts online.

Save money with online abstract book

Each scientific conference requires an abstract book. Prepare good indexes, speaker profiles, possibly a list of participants, and information about the conference and its location. Name tags that also contain details like institute, city and country ease initial contacts between colleagues. To save money and preserve the environment you should not print the abstract book but instead provide it online or on a USB flash drive.

Most events depend on countless hours worked on weekends or during night shifts and on the tireless support of your team. This effort must be honoured appropriately. Small gestures like a public acknowledgement or small gifts are the least you can do. Don’t forget to tip the service staff at the venue; ask your service contact whether tips can be billed as a “service lump sum”, which might ease bureaucracy at your end.

Give participants access to the presentations, collect feedback, update the homepage with photos and prize recipients. To improve the next conference, you can also prepare an evaluation.

New conference concepts

Have you ever wondered, what a conference would look like, if it was designed based on scientific insights, for example from psychology or medical research? Would we even use PowerPoint slides or make head-on presentations in dark rooms? How would participants strategically prepare for a conference to get the most out of their financial and time investment? Moreover, if you felt ethically bound to scientific facts, what could you do to make an international conference more environment-friendly and carbon-neutral?

Last Changed: 08.02.2016