The Conference Planning Committee
Planning, organizing and conducting a training conference can be rewarding and challenging. To develop a successful conference, you must employ the talents, cooperation, coordination, and participation of many individuals. For this reason, it is best to establish a Conference Planning Committee very early in the planning process, even before a decision is made to actually hold a training conference (see Appendix A for sample timelines/tasklines).
A Conference Planning Committee is a group of people that holds some responsibility for shaping the conference and planning the program. Committee members should broadly represent your conference target audience. If one organization is sponsoring the conference, members or employees of that agency are usually appointed to the committee. However, it is not unusual to ask representatives from outside agencies who would have an interest in the conference to serve on the committee as well. When more than one agency is sponsoring the conference, each sponsoring agency is usually represented on the committee. There is no one formula for success, so other arrangements are possible. A committee should be used to distribute the workload among many people, but the greatest benefit of using a committee is that it ensures that the conference represents the thinking and planning of more than one individual.
Small conferences have small planning committees; larger conferences may need larger committees because there are more decisions to be made and there is more work to be done. Be careful--forming large committees can lead to problems. Getting everyone together for meetings is the most obvious difficulty. Getting everyone to agree on issues can be more serious. Certainly, situations will occur where complete agreement cannot be attained. The point here is not to create problems by assembling a committee that is so large that reaching agreement is difficult.
Look for persons to serve on your committee who:
* Are qualified to serve due to their experience on substantive issues, respect given to them by professionals in the field, or their organizational, negotiation, or communication skills.
* Are dependable.
* Are able to accept responsibility.
* Work well with others.
* Can make decisions.
* Can abide by the decision of the majority.
Typically, the Conference Planning Committee shares responsibility with the Conference Coordinator and the Sponsor for the following three functions:
* Serve in an advisory capacity.
* Approve scheduling and logistical decisions.
* Respond to recommendations and suggestions on conference content.
Once you begin to deal with various issues, the committee's role will become more defined. The key to avoiding confusion or misunderstandings is to clearly explain to committee members the committee's purpose and function. On different issues the committee may be asked to advise or make recommendations, give its stamp of approval, or make a final decision. Additionally, there may be instances in which the coordinator or sponsor will use the committee as a sounding board; in these cases, the committee is asked to react without the responsibility to do anything more.
You will find that creating a written document that states the purpose and function of the committee minimizes conflicts and sets the standard for your conference organization. Before meeting with the committee, meet with the sponsor to prepare a written statement of the committee's purpose and function. Additionally, illustrate the relationship among the committee, coordinator, and sponsor by preparing a "block form" of conference issues to be addressed and the function of each of the "conference triumvirate." The following is an example of a block form you can use:
Committee Coordinator Sponsor
Site Selection React Advise Decide
Workshop Titles Decide Advise Approve
Continue to add issues as appropriate and necessary for your conference. Once the list is completed and the function of each person or group has been indicated, review the list with the conference sponsor before presenting it to the committee.
There are other committee issues that the sponsor and coordinator need to address, such as:
* Will committee members be compensated for their time or reimbursed for meeting expenses?
* How often will the committee meet?
* How long will the committee exist?
* Will the committee evaluate the conference?
* Will the work of the committee be recorded for future use?
* To whom is the committee responsible?
The answers to these questions are especially important when the committee consists of representatives from various organizations and agencies.
The Conference Coordinator
One of the first responsibilities of the Conference Planning Committee may be selecting one of its members to serve as the Conference Coordinator. Another common practice is for the sponsor to designate a coordinator who is not a member of the committee. The person appointed as coordinator may be an internal person or an external person.
An internal coordinator is a member or employee of the sponsoring agency or organization. It is by far the most common practice to appoint an internal coordinator.
An external coordinator is generally a person who is exceptionally skilled in conference planning and is "loaned" to the sponsor by an outside agency or contracted by the sponsor for conference services. Although there are more people today earning a living as conference coordinators than there have been in past years, conference planning is still a fairly new profession. There are few situations in which contracting with an external coordinator is necessary, but you should know that it is an alternative. One case in which you may want to use an external coordinator is a national conference with thousands of participants.
Having a competent person serve as coordinator is vital to the success of the conference because the coordinator is involved in every aspect of conference planning and execution. You need someone with all the qualities stated earlier for committee members plus a few more. Look for a person who:
* Possesses good organizational skills.
* Is a good communicator.
* Has an eye for details.
* Can function well even if things get a little stressful. A good sense of humor is a big plus.
Conference planning requires a great deal of time devoted to administrative and clerical work. Conference execution requires a lot of management, especially for larger conferences with 200 participants or more. This means the coordinator may need to employ an administrative staff or secretariat. The secretariat can be an individual or a group working under the direction of the coordinator. The responsibilities of the coordinator and secretariat together may include the following:
* Prepare a conference budget.
* Set the schedule for completing tasks leading to the conference.
* Conduct site visits.
* Negotiate contracts with hotels/meeting facilities.
* Recommend and correspond with speakers/entertainers/exhibitors.
* Prepare session descriptions.
* Set the flow of the conference and plan the program.
* Recruit and train conference staff/volunteers.
* Manage conference crises.
* Authorize onsite expenditures.
* Develop session and conference evaluations.
* Ensure bills are paid.
* Organize, schedule, and staff Conference Planning Committee meetings.
* Develop conference notices, brochures, and registration forms.
* Communicate with conference registrants.
* Order conference supplies, materials, and equipment; work with suppliers.
* Prepare name badges, signs, banners, and the program book.
* Order room setups for all workshops/sessions.
* Handle logistics for VIPs.
* Recruit and train conference staff/volunteers.
* Process conference registrations in the office and onsite.
The work of the Conference Planning Committee is a part-time responsibility; for the coordinator, the conference can become a sole assignment!
Why Hold a Conference?
There are many good reasons to hold a conference; the sponsoring agency's desire to hold a conference is not necessarily one of them. The purpose of the conference should be clearly established before the planning process begins. Generally, a conference is initiated through the following steps:
1) An agency, board, or coalition is called on to serve as a conference sponsor.
2) A conference planning committee is appointed.
3) A conference coordinator is selected or appointed.
Before proceeding any further, the need for and purpose of the conference must be determined. The Conference Planning Committee can be a valuable asset in guiding and advising the sponsor on establishing the purpose of the conference. Remember, your planning committee is a broad representation of your target audience; don't underestimate the committee's value.
Following are tips to guide you in developing a statement of the conference's purpose:
* Establish a clear and emphatic purpose. Some conferences fail simply because their purpose was not fully addressed.
* Know what others are doing. For example, if your conference will address a specific discipline such as domestic violence, find out what domestic violence coalitions are doing in terms of training and education.
* Learn the needs of your target audience. Don't tell your target audience what information and training they need--let them tell you. Surveys are helpful to determine need.
Surveys usually will reveal that training, education, and the exchange of information are high priorities with members of crime victim services associations. Your challenge is to research the matter a little deeper to identify what topics are in demand and what systems are already in place to provide training and education. Then do an honest assessment. Is there a need for additional training and educational programs? Can you identify gaps in the current system? If so, you have identified the need for and purpose of your program.
Who is the Target Audience?
You can see that this topic is closely linked to defining your purpose, but the question of audience composition merits a separate answer. In the conference planning process, the purpose is determined first, then the appropriate participants are identified.
However, for a membership association conference these two factors, purpose and participants, are sometimes reversed. If the participants who are expected to attend a conference are known, the goal should be to determine what conference purpose will encourage them to attend and to ensure that conference topics will address their needs. Whichever comes first, it is important that the conference's purpose and participants are well matched.
Members of different associations or people from different professions will have different training and educational needs. Know the audience you want to attract and understand their conference needs.
A popular trend in large, multidisciplinary conferences is the development of "tracks" that target the needs of different groups. Tracks permit individuals to stay with one course of training throughout the conference or "cross train" by jumping tracks.
For example, a regional conference was presented with one track of training specific to the needs of compensation investigators, a second track for staff and volunteers in domestic violence shelters, and a third track for people who work in rape crisis centers. A workshop was offered on "contributory conduct" to help investigators deal with this tough issue in determining compensation claims. The workshop was attended by 24 compensation investigators and nine shelter and crisis center workers. The nine "outsiders" knew the workshop was designed for compensation staff but felt they would benefit in their work by gaining some insight into the issues facing compensation workers.
Number of Participants
Some conference planners believe that a large number of participants ensures a better conference; this is not necessarily true. The number of conferees must relate to other factors. Consider the following:
* Target audience. Don't plan on a conference of 500 when your pool of expected attendees numbers only 200.
* Conference budget. The financial resources available to spend on the conference will directly affect your program and may also affect the number of invited participants.
* Number of meeting rooms and room capacities. The number of available meeting rooms can limit the number of concurrent workshops you can hold. Total seating capacity limits the number of participants you can invite.
* Hotel accommodations. The number of sleeping rooms and hotel capacity are extremely important when an overnight stay is required for conference participants.
* Number of conference staff and volunteers. Although staffing is usually determined by the number of participants, this may be a factor if you have a limited number of conference staff available.
* Size of ballroom or banquet facility. When plenary sessions, meals, or other general sessions are part of your program, the number of participants is again limited by room capacity.
* Conference dates. Select dates that do not conflict with other events, including holidays or religious observances.
One professional meeting planner related a story of being called in to act as a consultant because of conflicts between the planning committee and the coordinator. The sponsor had confirmed conference registrations for 1,600 participants, but the site could accommodate only 850 persons. Three options were presented. The sponsor chose a costly option of renting a banquet room miles away from the conference hotels and assuming an additional cost for buses to transport conferees.
Conference planners should consider a timetable of at least 12 months to organize a conference. This should provide all the time you will need to handle the planning and administrative tasks. Of course, these tasks can usually be accomplished in much less time, but the earlier you start, the easier your job will be.
When reviewing conference dates, consider that all hotels and meeting facilities have peak periods of high demand, "value" periods of low demand, and "shoulder" periods of variable demand. If you are considering dates during a peak period, you may need additional lead time to get the site you want, when you want it, at the price you want. These are three fundamental elements involved in site selection--location, dates, and price.
Some conference planners regard date and location as the most critical elements; others are most concerned with price. Realize that prioritizing any two of these scheduling elements strongly influences the third factor.
If you schedule the conference around a hotel's value or shoulder periods, you may be able to negotiate a lower cost for sleeping rooms. Meeting during or around holidays should allow you to obtain a lower rate as well. Also, many hotels like to split the week into three time slots: Sunday-Wednesday, Wednesday-Friday, and Friday-Sunday. Fitting nicely into one of the hotel's time slots may also enhance your ability to negotiate a greater value.
Before you contact convention bureaus or meeting facilities with your request for bids, establish first, second, and third date preferences. When you are identifying preferred dates, some thought should be given to:
* Dates of other conferences competing for your target audience.
* National and religious holidays and events.
* Expected weather conditions.
* Dates of school openings and closings.
* Peak convention seasons.
These factors have an impact on conference attendance by staff, speakers, and conferees. They also may affect the hotel rates you are quoted and your ability to negotiate certain items in your contract.
A conference budget should be prepared through a thoughtful process involving the sponsor, the planning committee, and always the coordinator. The sponsor should be included in the process because the sponsoring agency is usually responsible for paying all conference expenses. The planning committee should be included, even if only to make recommendations, so the committee will understand the budget implications of its actions. The coordinator should control the budget--that is, all budget items should be initiated by or developed in conjunction with the coordinator. The coordinator should be the person who approves payment of budget expenses. If payments are approved by someone other than the coordinator, it will be difficult to hold the coordinator accountable for conference expenditures.
Because budgets deal with numbers and dollars, they are thought to be financial documents. Actually, a budget is a planning document and a management control document. It is a listing of all anticipated conference expenses followed by a listing of all conference funding sources and projected conference revenue. Among the budget development considerations are the pros and cons of charging registration fees and your potential advantages for encouraging early registration, such as conference room discounts.
In preparing the budget, conference planners need to prepare an extensive budget checklist, then determine which costs will be paid by the conference master account and which will be paid by persons attending the conference. This division of expenses is sometimes referred to as a split folio. There are many ways a folio can be split between master account charges and individual guest charges. Be sure to clearly communicate your split folio plan to the hotel, in writing, when your letter of agreement is prepared. (The letter of agreement is a written confirmation of agreements between you and the hotel that is sent our prior to the contract.) A budget planning checklist is provided in Appendix B.
Back to Table of Contents