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VIII.3 May/June 2001
Page: 43
Digital Citation

Business: Learning the ropes of conference and meeting organization


Authors:
Donald Day, Susan Dray

Conference and meeting organization is somewhat like climbing a mountain: You must focus on a set goal, but the path up can take many twists and present as many unexpected challenges. Your crampons are your committee members, your rope your sponsors.

Organizational concerns are common to all meetings—say, hosting your clients in a two-day rollout of your new e-business appliction or prototyping tool. Knowledge of these tricks also can help put together a training event or an internal conference.

Planning the Assault

Like competition ice skating, the end result of months of conference or meeting planning— an apparently smooth running and interesting event—can look deceptively easy.

Your Committee

The essential resource is a dedicated, talented organizing committee. These are busy people with families, as well as jobs that require long hours. But, they also are people with valuable connections. If you are planning a business meeting, they are colleagues who must get approval from their managers before agreeing to support your activity. Recruiting these people is not easy. It will take all of your persuasive skills and contacts to assemble your team.

Your Portfolios

Well run committees have portfolios: groups of tasks to be performed, organized in some logical fashion that matches the skills and interests of committee volunteers. Portfolio tasks must be completed on time if you are to make it to the top, regardless of whether you’re organizing a conference or arranging an important business meeting. Some of the critical components in such portfolios (for a conference) include:

  • Audio-Visual – Speakers will want cross-platform presentation software, computers to run it (IBM and Mac), data projectors, videotape players, overhead projectors—and most important, a technical person to troubleshoot the inevitable snafus.
  • Finance – A bank account must be established, with dual signature authority. If your event is ad hoc, you will have problems in the United States ob-taining sponsorship from major firms. Their accountants will want proof of bona fide non-profit status before releasing their grip on the purse strings. For internal events, think about how the event will be funded. Is it coming out of a single budget, or must you arrange charge-backs to participants’ departments or business units?
  • Papers – Reviewers must be recruited, papers solicited and assigned to reviewers, reviews processed, and acceptance decisions made. Acceptance and rejection notices must be issued. If you are inviting a speaker instead of or in addition to having reviewed papers, identify whom you would like to invite, early. Secure their commitment (and determine their fees) well in advance. Closer to the event, confirm that your event still is on their calendar; have a contingency plan in case they cancel at the last minute.
  • Proceedings – A printer must be arranged. Accepted papers must be formatted camera-ready for publication, and the proceedings must get to the event in time for the final assault on the summit.
  • Program – Keynote and other guest speakers must be arranged and reconfirmed, tutorials and/or workshops solicited, advance and final programs produced, and signage for the event created.
  • Publicity – Don’t believe that popular slogan "If you build it, they will come." "They" have to know about it and be convinced that the certain benefits outweigh the equally certain costs. The publicity coordinator must be knowledgeable of e-mail distribution lists and other outlets, including print media— and be able to write press releases and deal with reporters and editors. This is perhaps even more true for an internal event—given internal politics; a knowledge of organizational publicity norms and practices can be critical.
  • Registration – If they do come, they need to pay their fees (hopefully in advance) and receive their proceedings, conference bags, and other memorabilia. This portfolio also arranges printing of sponsors’ logos on those oh-so-coveted conference bags. A special challenge for international conferences or meetings: currency conversion (suggestion: push charge card use for registration fees).
  • Social – People come to events to network. Without this, you may find it very lonely on the way to the summit. Social coordinators sometimes must arrange transportation to evening events (e.g., the conference dinner), which can be a logistics challenge par excellence.
  • Web Site Management – Don’t make the mistake of bundling this portfolio with publicity. Having a reasonably designed, effective and informative Web site in time for early calls for participation (and later for calls for papers and registration) is vital—and much work, requiring specialized skills.
  • Sponsorship – Running even small events requires more money than it is wise to charge delegates (if you want anyone to come). You must recruit everything from major sponsors (thousands of dollars) to minor but still important supporters (hundreds, or sponsorship in kind: registration desk help, audio-visual equipment, etc.). For internal events, don’t underestimate the importance of organizational buy-in and sponsorship. A well-placed word from a senior executive can make (or break) such an event.
  • Venue – Conference hotel managers are notoriously hard to reach, but are key to catering, meeting room, and delegate registration concerns. Your venue coordinator must be knowledgeable about meeting room arrangements, and be able to negotiate for good deals, even for small events (not easy).
    One of the key venue decisions actually rests with the chair or an executive committee, not with your venue coordinator: the city and country in which to hold the event. There is such a thing as too attractive a site. You want delegates in your sessions and social events, not lured elsewhere by the glitter of your locale.

Over the Top

When it’s over, it’s not over. Things remain to be done long after the last delegate has packed up and left town. These include finalizing accounts (possibly delayed by problems with credit card payment), and sending event reports and proceedings to sponsors, acknowledgements to your committee members’ managers, and even token gifts to committee members themselves.

And, to ensure that the event can be held again, your final act as chair may be to transfer seed money, to help ensure that organizers in another locale have the resources necessary to make early commitments—long before they see any sponsorship or registration money.

Epilogue

So you want to organize a conference for the your HCI specialty, a meeting for your organization or a training event? Something that will form a catalyst for exciting activity that will push the envelope? Go ahead. At least now you know a few tricks of the inner workings of the trade that may help you to ensure success.

Author

Donald L. Day
International Programme Chair, IWIPS2001
3d International Workshop on Internationalisation of Products and Systems
(brains.open.ac.uk/cfdocs/iwips/),
12-14 July 2001, Milton Keynes, UK
+1-978-534-1976
d.day@acm.org

Business Column Editor

Susan Dray
Dray & Associates, Inc.
2007 Kenwood Parkway
Minneapolis, MN 55405, USA
+1-612-377-1980
fax: +1-612-377-0363
dray@acm.org

©2001 ACM  1072-5220/01/0500  $5.00

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