Business conferences bring a lot of excitement, with the opportunity to network with other entrepreneurs and learn new skills. However, hosting one brings a lot of challenges. All the work that goes on behind the scenes to pull together a memorable event takes months of planning and skills the average business owner might not naturally have.
Conventions run from small to large, with the top 30 percent in the United States having over 2,500 attendees and the lowest 6 percent having 200 participants or fewer. If this is your first business conference, your attendance likely falls in the lower percentages with a small number of participants. What you need to know before planning any meeting is similar, however. You’ll just complete tasks on a smaller scale.
Here are six steps you should take when hosting your first business conference to ensure the event is one people have a positive reaction to. READ: 8 Exciting Conferences for Photographers in 2019
1. Create a Theme
The pre-planning for a conference is just as important as the event itself. You must first decide on a purpose for your seminar. The word “business” covers a wide range of topics. What is the main idea you’d like to focus on? Perhaps you want to offer a conference on increasing sales or creating a company culture. Think about what would be most helpful to attendees.
Study other events and see what wasn’t yet covered before choosing a theme. You might also center it on a keynote speaker and what they want to cover. Once you have a theme, you’ll want to recruit a team to help you plan the conference. You’ll need people to do some of the smaller tasks, such as creating centerpieces for tables, but you’ll also need help with many other things, such as finding the perfect venue for your conference. The more help you can enlist, the better — as you’ll need to delegate more tasks as the date draws near.
2. Choose Speakers
Speaking of keynotes, you should choose your lineup of speakers carefully. As a new conference, you’re likely on a tight budget, so looking at budget planning allows you to see how much you can afford to spend on speakers. Don’t forget you’ll have to pay for their transportation and lodging if they’re not local.
You may only be able to afford one big keynote speaker and then gather others from local sources. Ask them about any special requirements they have. Some more sought-after professionals may need equipment your venue doesn’t have on hand. It’s better to know as early as possible what is expected so when the day of the speech arrives, things go smoothly.
3. Set up Lodging
If you plan a seminar for a few hours, you don’t have to worry about lodging, but if your conference lasts a full day or longer, out-of-town attendees will need somewhere to stay. Typically, you will book a block of rooms in the same hotel where your conference rooms are reserved. However, keep in mind that you are committing to pay for those rooms, so if attendees back out at the last minute, you may be on the hook.
Photo: Sweet Ice Cream Photography
Work closely with the hotel’s event planner to find out what happens if you don’t fill a certain number of rooms or if people back out at the last minute. Having to pay out thousands for unused rooms is a nightmare scenario for most small conference planners.
4. Plan Event Setup
Think about the different workshops and events occurring during your conference. You may need a stage and professional lighting for an awards ceremony but only a small projector and screen for seminars. If you don’t have any experience with setup, leave it to the professionals or you could create a dangerous situation where scaffolding falls and injures attendees.
Don’t forget to plan areas for people to congregate and socialize in between events, such as a break room or coffee spot. Think about traffic flow, especially if you plan an exhibition area. If you’re unsure about the best layout, consult with the venue. It hosts multiple events a year and can offer insight about the location no one else has.
5. Hire Caterers
Food is an important part of any conference. Even if you’re only serving dinner, make sure you hire a reliable caterer and that you test their food to make sure it’s up to your standards. You might be able to find an inexpensive option, but it also might not be the best choice. Go for a caterer experienced in handling events of your size. Some have a close working relationship with the venue because they follow through on their commitments and come prepared. Listen to the recommendations of the place where you’re hosting your conference.
Two weeks before your event, check back in with the caterer to make sure everything is in place. The day before, contact them again and confirm when they’ll arrive. Even then, have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Can you order a bunch of pizzas and desserts from a local chain if the caterer fails to show up? Anything can happen, so be prepared for the worst and make the best of it.
Photo: Tim Sullivan
6. Build a Timeline
As you’ve worked on all the moving parts of your conference, you’ve probably already started a loose timeline, such as having the first talk at noon and dinner at 6 p.m. each night. Sit down and write out a schedule for each day of the event. Don’t forget to extend it to the days leading up to and the day after the conference.
You’ll want to be on-site to ensure everything is set up the way you want and any early guests’ needs are met. The day after is a good time to get together with the hotel event planner and make sure everything is settled, as well as reserve space for the next year. For now, write a loose timeline, but allow room to add in things as they occur. You may also want to utilize conference checklists to ensure you don’t forget any important tasks.
Plan for the Unexpected
As Murphy’s Law states, no matter how much planning you do or how prepared you are, something can and will go wrong. Plan for different scenarios and have an idea of how you’ll handle catastrophes. What if the keynote speaker doesn’t show? Who fills that role? What if the caterer cancels an hour before dinner? What will you serve the guests? What if the hotel cancels reservations? Are there other options in the area, and how will you transport attendees to the venue? Even when things go wrong, you’ll be better able to handle them and put on a successful conference businesspeople will enjoy and return to again in the future.