How to Organize a Conference: 18 Amazingly Useful Tips

I’m a very lucky guy. Two reasons:

  1. Last summer, colleagues at Rackspace asked my company, Rosenfeld Media, to co-produce a conference on enterprise user experience. It was a great idea — why hadn’t this been done before?—and Rackspace has been incredibly supportive, providing (among many other things) the event’s venue. So we’re doing it (in San Antonio, Texas; May 13–15, 2015); you really should join us if you have any interest whatsoever in delivering better experiences to people who interact with large enterprises.
  2. The other reason? People are really nice to me. I asked a bunch of them — all organizers of successful user experience-related conferences — to share their conference planning tips with me. Their response was overwhelming and overwhelmingly useful. The least I can do is assemble and share what they’ve taught me.

So below is the world’s most useful advice on organizing a conference — organized as best I could into 18 tips. If you’re an event organizer, I think you’ll find it valuable — even if your conference has nothing to do with user experience.

Oh, and first, huge thanks to Steve Baty, Andy Budd, Grant Carmichael, Jeff Cram, Bruno Figueiredo, Kristina Halvorson, Kevin Hoffman, Jonathan Kahn, Eva Kaniasty, Cameron Koczon, Christian Manzella, Cornelius Rachieru, Brenda Sanderson, Chris Schmitt, Brad Smith, Donna Spencer, Jared Spool, Ari Stiles, Brian Sullivan, Dan Szuc, Jo Wong, and Jeffrey Zeldman for sharing what they know.

Enjoy!


#1: Validate the Need

Experts project that, in 2015, approximately 6,000 user experience-related conferences will be held. And that’s on Planet Earth alone. Most will be at least really, really good; many will be great. That’s a lot of competition. Are you taking this on because you want to put on a conference, or because you know there’s an actual need to be met?

I wish I’d known that, however compelling my idea for a new conference is, I need to validate it with my customers — people who I’d like to buy tickets — before I spend time and energy organising it. I’ve got burned this way (lucky escape really) and in the end it comes down to messaging. Am I talking about a problem that people identify with? Does the event I’m selling sound like it would help, and be something customers would like to take part in?

— Jonathan Kahn (#dareconf)

Putting on a conference is far more expensive than you likely realize. You can avoid personal bankruptcy by dipping a toe into the river of demand. Start with low-risk efforts — like hosting discussions in social media or putting on topical happy hours — that will help you get a sense of demand, and will give you opportunities to discuss your concept with the people you hope will register. Or go bigger and build your audience before you create the conference, as Jeff Cram suggests:

The best conferences I’ve seen have focused on creating and cultivating a community first, and then throwing events to get them together in person. This creates higher energy events people want to be at, as opposed to ones they have to be at (or are just attending for their job or location).

— Jeff Cram (Delight Conference)

With Enterprise UX 2015, we’d already been working with our target audience for years in a variety of ways, including hosting monthly discussions and providing consulting for them. Once we had the idea of producing a conference, we discussed it with dozens of our target audience in a few different social media channels, and the reaction was almost unanimously one of “Finally, someone is doing this!”

Even then, we’re still sweating filling the seats. It’s a nerve-wracking, keep-you-awake-at-night undertaking.


#2: Know What Type of Event you‘re Creating

Jared Spool suggests that there are five types of events. The type you’re creating will play a huge role in determining the program, choosing the venue, and setting the ticket price, among other things:

Tribal community events: These are things like the IA Summit, UXPA, and Interactions. They primary purpose is to bring together people who share a common bond over the work they do. In many cases, the attendees don’t meet anyone else that does what they do except at a conference like this. The program is typically about sharing experiences and techniques.

Networking events: These are what the VC community does to get people in the same room. The program plays second fiddle to the social activities, where folks get together to meet and greet, see and be seen. Longer breaks and receptions are more important than a lot of informational sessions.

Trade show events: These are pop-up malls for selling and trading. The trade show floor is significantly more important than the sessions, which are usually sponsor-paid infomercials. Macworld and CES are examples of these.

Educational events: These are where the attendees come to learn new techniques and skills. They have a heavy emphasis on who the speakers are and the topics. The social elements for networking are played down, but still present. Most practitioner conferences are educational.

Academic events: These are conferences aimed at getting publishing credits. Examples are CHI, UIST, and SIGGRAPH. Submissions need to be peer reviewed and published in a volume for the authors to get the credit they need to complete their degrees.

This mistake I see a lot of first-time conference managers make is they don’t realize that each of these types demands a different type of format and structure. Hybrids don’t work well, as each type competes against each other. Everything from break timing to program curation is affected by the type of event.

— Jared Spool (35+ Conferences over the last 20+ years)

If your event isn’t community-driven, you may want to avoid the hassle of an open call for proposals:

We go with invite-only and no submissions (as we don’t want the overhead of a submission system, and know with the people we want to invite).

— Dan Szuc and Jo Wong (UX Hong Kong)

At our own conference, we’ve gone with the invite-only approach, but still managed to carve out time for a handful of people to tell short (5-minute) stories. Those are open for proposals; we hope this approach gives us a way to get acquainted with some promising speakers who we can invite for the next edition of our event.


#3: If You Don’t Sweat the Details, Attendees Will

Every single detail counts. As a design conference, make sure the obvious creative things are well done: branding, badges, schedules, posters, in-house projections, etc. UX professionals are overly critical of such things, they will talk about them during the event, and even if you have an amazingly curated lineup, failure to address those ‘little details’ will skew the people’s perception of the event.

— Cornelius Rachieru (UXcamp Ottawa)

The details are critical in the long-term as well. If attendees are talking about how well-produced your event was, that bodes well for their coming back for the next edition. It also means that you’ve done a good deal of your event design work up-front — and when it comes to the next edition, you’ll be tuning and tweaking, rather than redesigning.

A fantastic way to sweat the details it to walk-through all aspects of the event from the perspective of different stakeholders well in advance of your event (and during and after as well):

Wear the shoes of not only your attendees but also the speakers, sponsors, volunteers, hosts, media, security, the public and more. Do research and visualize how their needs play out before, during and after the event to help decision-making. It’s good to shoot for the aspirational, but don’t lose sight of the foundational needs; it’s easy to lose sight of the base of Maslow’s hierarchy.

— Grant Carmichael (Midwest UXTEDxGrandRapids)


#4: Seek Professional Help

For your first event or two, work with a third party who runs conferences as a service. The logistics of dealing with stuff like hotels, menus, AV, internet, room layout, flow, registrations (and refunds!) and so on can be a nightmare.

— Kristina Halvorson (Confab Events)

Given how much complexity is involved, you will need to lean on someone with experience. We’ve already found that investing in having UIE’s on-staff event planner, Lauren Cramer, has paid for itself and then some by getting us a much better deal with our hotel.


#5: Assign Teams from the Start

Be careful not to have the whole conference run on the shoulders of too few people. Structure a leadership team into subject groups where 1–2 people take responsibility and lead a team for each. Speaker curation, speaker hospitality, sponsorships, design, budget, volunteers, content, PR/social, production, ticketing, legal and more all need the full attention of someone. Subject teams meet as necessary and the entire group should share progress together regularly.

— — Grant Carmichael (Midwest UXTEDxGrandRapids)

Months in advance of our own event, we’re finding that managing the back office is one of those areas that needs to be owned right away, as Donna Spencer suggests:

Don’t underestimate the amount of time you’ll have to spend doing tedious stuff like changing registrations, amending invoices, answering emails about everything that you have already made completely clear on the website.

— Donna Spencer (UX Australia)

We’re also finding that planning to have a few experienced “old hand” volunteers on the floor is going a long way to helping us sleep at night:

Volunteers are awesome, but make sure you have trusted people working with you also. Three or four people who you can rely on to do anything you need and you can trust to execute without micro-managing is critical.

— Jared Spool (35+ Conferences over the last 20+ years)


#6: Be a Role Model

While your teams are critical, the importance of the tone you set with your people can’t be overstated:

The character of the organizers greatly impacts the conference experience. I have been lifted up by the unselfish sacrifices of some people, and greatly disappointed by self-centered demands of other people. Before organizing any conference, assemble a team of people who share your same values, beliefs, and goals.

— Brian Sullivan (Big Design)


#7: Treat it Like a Business

Like it or not, your conference is a business, and a risky one at that:

People think it’s entirely reasonable to book a ticket, not pay, ignore payment reminders, and cancel at the last minute. This is particularly problematic for limited-capacity conferences that sell out, as you’ve lost the seat and the money. My life would have been so much easier if I realised how crap people can be, and was tougher on chasing payment & cancelling people who haven’t paid.

— Donna Spencer (UX Australia)

Your creditors will most certainly make it quite clear what they expect of you. Similarly, you should be clear with attendees about what, how, and when they need to register (and cancel).

Speaking of selling tickets: Jared Spool firmly suggests that you avoid undervaluing your event:

Free events are perceived as being sales pitches. People expect to pay for value. If you pick a price that’s too low, you’ll scare away a lot of your audience because they’ll be afraid there’s not enough quality investment.

And of course, you have to know your bottom line to make sure you’re covering your costs in the first place. Jared wants you to know that “break even” isn’t just a goal; it’s actually a formula that you can and must calculate:

Break Even = Fixed Costs ÷ (Price — Variable Costs)

This is the most important formula for running a conference. The first thing every event producer should do is take a hard look at their variable costs and fixed costs. (Fixed costs are what it takes to host the first attendee. Variable costs are what each additional attendee costs.)

Once you’ve identified variable and fixed costs, you pick your price and look at the break even. Your direct marketing list should be at least 100 times your break even (and for first time events, probably closer to 1000x). You play with costs and price until you can get a break even that you can guarantee you’ll exceed.

For every event we do, this is the first thing we figure out. Then we use the fixed and variable cost numbers as a living document, constantly comparing actual to projected. It’s made us very good at nailing the costs and understanding how to make every conference profitable (even when the goal is to just break even, as to keep the price down).

— Jared Spool (35+ Conferences over the last 20+ years)


#8: Sell — but Don’t Sell Out — to Sponsors

If you’re sweating breaking even, you’ll definitely be talking with sponsors. But remember that your attendees’ experience ultimately trumps your sponsors’ goals:

Give sponsors space to showcase their products and services but don’t let them run the event. No one likes sponsored talks or workshops where they’re getting a pitch. I find this disrespectful for those that paid good money to attend the event.

— Bruno Figueiredo (UX Lisbon)


#9: Let People Breathe (and Pee)

I’m happy that we figured out that it’s much better to have lots of breaks for people to spend time with each other than it is to have lots of talks.

— Cameron Koczon (Brooklyn Beta)

As tempting as it can be to cram your program, pacing is critical. Attendees need to get up, grab a coffee, check their mail, and, yes, pee. They also need time to let all those new ideas sink in — by discussing what they just heard, or, if they’re a bit more introverted, by quietly ruminating.

The same is true for your social programming:

I’ve seen conferences trying to squeeze every little bit of value into every second of the event by doing themed lunches and dinners, debate bar outings… I think attendees need time to breathe and mingle together informally. Give them good food and drinks and the rest will fit in place.

— Bruno Figueiredo (UX Lisbon)


#10: Be Prepared to Pay — or Walk Away From — Speakers

Speaker compensation is tricky. Be fair, of course, and be consistent, as speakers can and will discuss what they’re receiving with each other.

It’s incredibly important to document your practices, stick to them unwaveringly and publish them (to your speakers) with as much transparency as you feel is relevant to your event.

Some speakers are not going to be willing to speak at your event based on the terms that you’ve structured. You have to be willing to walk away and be okay with finding a different speaker for a particular spot. It’s tough when you get your heart/mind set on a particular speaker and they opt out based on fees, but it’s going to happen.

— Christian Manzella (Giant)

Also consider looking for other ways to compensate speakers, like offering them professionally-produced videos of their presentations, or professional speaker coaching (we’re trying this). On a per-speaker basis, the costs may be far less than you think.

And basic guidelines that you might normally take for granted will help — especially for newbie presenters:

We started giving our presenters guidelines for basic stuff like font sizes last year, and are hoping to do some kind of coaching this year. A speaker ready-room is also nice to have.

— Eva Kaniasty (UXPA Boston)


#11: Herd Speakers Until They’re Up There on the Damned Stage

Speakers, like regular humans, don’t read emails, never know what you want them to do, don’t know how to put a deadline in their calendar, and ask questions that you’ve already told them more than once.

— Donna Spencer (UX Australia)

Chasing speakers is the single most time consuming aspect of the job.

— Andy Budd (UX London)

We’re already finding the need to nag, nag some more, and nag again, using as many channels as we can. We worry that we’re being terribly annoying; fortunately, speakers are good sports — and understand that the nagging is impossible to avoid.


#12: The Place is a Platform

Don’t blindly assume that a traditional hotel or conference center is your best bet. Think first about the event’s unique needs and constraints — then look for a venue that meets those needs, including the stuff that happens outside the presentations (i.e., conversations and other unplanned activity).

Secure a venue that offers as much freedom as possible and doesn’t cost a fortune. Most hotels and convention centers require that you use their food and beverage vendors, nickel and dime you on added costs (i.e., $90 per electric outlet) and don’t play well with outside A/V vendors.

— Brad Smith (WebVisions)

The venue has a huge effect on the psychology and feel of an event, so avoid chain hotels and large conference centres in favour or more interesting and characterful options. Cultural venues are often a good bet here.

— Andy Budd (UX London)

Of course, some would disagree about the influence a venue has on the participants:

If you have an amazing program, the attendees won’t care one wit about the venue. I’ve been to some awesome conferences in some of the dullest venues.

The number one job of the venue is to help the attendees focus on why they came. And unless you’re Disney or a conference on meditation, the reason they come to your event is to hear the program, not to experience their surroundings. Choose a venue that supports the program, instead of competing with it.

— Jared Spool (35+ Conferences over the last 20+ years)


#13: Programming is Curation and Design

A conference program isn’t just a bunch of talks. It must also connect them, and sequence them so they build upon each other and create the momentum that drives the event forward.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a well-curated and scheduled programme versus an ad hoc collection of talks. It takes just a few minutes to draw up a schedule, but can take a few days to get the flow, tempo, and structure right. The bigger the programme (days, tracks) the more time it can take. And the more worthwhile the investment.

— Steve Baty (UX Australia/Interaction)

Try to craft a narrative throughout the day. It’s amazing how many conferences feel like they’ve been thrown together in no discernible order.

— Andy Budd (UX London)

In effect, like any other content, conference programs have information architectures that you must design. Which leads to the next point from Jeffrey Zeldman

A good conference is a designed experience. I don’t mean a visually over-designed brandgasm. I mean an educational and emotionally considered narrative. The ideal conference for me offers a single track, so that all attendees (and all speakers) share the same intense experience over one or more days.

The content of each presentation should be discussed with the organizer far in advance of the show, just as the content of an issue of a magazine gets reviewed with editors long before the issue is published. Too many conferences focus on the mechanics and skimp on the up-front editorial strategizing, shaping, and planning. It is not enough to simply hire people because they are respected in the industry, or because they are in demand, or because their name sells tickets, or because they are available. The order in which sessions take place is critical; there should be music to the ebb and flow; related ideas should be presented in blocks that help attendees see connections across sessions and topics.

A great conference is like a great playlist or LP; every song should contribute, and the order in which they are heard should matter. Inviting well-known consultants to speak is child’s play. Conference planners should constantly seek new talent and new ideas. Even more, they should strive to create an environment in which speakers actually want to sit and listen to other speakers, thus further improving the editorial flow and the conscious interplay of related ideas. To put together great editorial content requires deep and broad knowledge of your discipline, and of the people who contribute to it.

— Jeffrey Zeldman (An Event Apart)

Kevin Hoffman suggests that good program design also supports easy transition from one mode or “layer” (i.e., attending a session) to other modes (say, partaking in a discussion):

The best conferences I’ve designed, spoken at, or attended have created multiple layers of experience, and make it easy to transition from a one layer to the next (lighter to deeper, or vice versa). For example, I might decide last minute to be social, so it should be easy for me to jump into something, but there shouldn’t be a lot of awkwardness in jumping out of something if I need to.

Multi-track conferences tend to assume people will jump from talk to talk, but they rarely accommodate what people what to do when they want to jump out of talks entirely — is there a place where they can go to process and discuss? To respond to e-mail? To NOT talk about their practice, but instead have fun?

— Kevin M. Hoffman (IA-Summit)


#14: Be Prepared to Fill Dead Space On-Stage

Another useful thing I learned from Cameron Koczon is the value of bad jokes.

Cameron had a slew of them ready to fill dead space while up on stage. So, when a speaker needed to futz with her slides, or there was a tech glitch, Cameron was able to wield his silly jokes to keep attendees’ attention for a few moments longer. If he hadn’t, it would have taken much more time for him to get our attention pointed back to the stage at Brooklyn Beta.

You may not be able to tell even a bad joke, but you’ll still need to be prepared with some way — maybe with a housekeeping note, or an extra detail about the next speaker — to keep attendees’ attention front and center.


#15: Design how you’ll Capture Feedback

Having a mechanism in place at your event for instant feedback from attendees is critical. One approach is having evaluation forms ready…

Paper feedback forms in the rooms are a must. People are way more likely to give useful input immediately after a talk. Finally, get ready for “this is the best conference I have ever attended in my LIFE” vs. “this was a complete waste of money and I hate everyone” feedback. It’s extraordinary how people’s experiences can vary so radically!

— Kristina Halvorson (Confab Events)

…while others strongly prefer the face-to-face approach:

Absolutely be on top of everything during the event. Address every little complaint. This should be your primary source of feedback, not paper based surveys. People go to conferences to learn and also have fun, and no one likes to have a paper survey between them and time off. Doing so you get extremely polarizing answers who are not that great feedback in the end. I much prefer to mingle and capture feedback by myself by doing mini contextual interviews.

— Bruno Figueiredo (UX Lisbon)

And don’t forget to ask your speakers what they thought of the event:

We always collect and talk about our attendee feedback, but creating a way for speakers to give anonymous feedback has been the most revelatory. Sometimes anonymous speaker feedback is the only way to know if we’re doing something wrong or out of the acceptable norm for our speakers, especially when it comes to private processes like speaker compensation, preparation, and so forth.

— Ari Stiles (Environments for Humans)


#16: There’s not always an Undo Button, so Decide with Care

Careful, careful. Today’s decisions may be tomorrow’s millstones — at a personal level as well as in terms of how your event is perceived:

We didn’t prioritize our own time off or our own health, for example, and now we are struggling to “fix” that. We have seen fellow conference organizers cut corners by keeping prices artificially low (to sell more tickets), or by not compensating speakers, or by not concerning themselves with diversity. Each of these compromises can create a pattern that is hard to break over time.

— Ari Stiles (Environments for Humans)


#17: Plan Time to Attend Your Own Damned Conference

Do yourself a solid and be an attendee once in a while. It’s a nice thing to do for yourself, and will give you added perspective on the attendee experience.

Every conference I put one or two sessions “aside” that I definitely will see as if I’m attending someone else’s conference. I.e., I can take out my iPad or laptop to take notes and absorb the information. So, I work to guard my time around that part of the schedule.

— Christopher Schmitt (Environments for Humans)


#18: And Don’t Forget to say Thank You

Never underestimate what a personal thank you means to anyone who contributes to the event.

— Brenda Sanderson (Interaction)


Taking Brenda’s advice, I’ll end with a hearty THANK YOU to the great people who shared their hard-won and, occasionally, painful conference-organizing experiences. Wow.

Hope to see you at one of their great events — or my own — or YOUR OWN — soon!