by Dr. Catherine Armstrong
There are several reasons why it is important to gain experience running your own conference: it raises your profile in your field and you get to meet and network with people from all sorts of other institutions. You might also get to learn something about your subject too! This article will outline the personal skills required to run a conference, so that you can use this information to ‘sell' yourself better when it comes to job applications.
Running a conference is one of the most stressful parts of an academic's career, but it can also be hugely rewarding. Senior colleagues find the task very difficult so if you are only just starting out on the career ladder, conference running can be a massive responsibility and you will need the help of others. Our resident PhD blogger Haris Aziz describes his experience of running a conference here: http://www.jobs.ac.uk/blogs/real-life/2008/07/18/conference-organization-part-i/
So, what are the most important skills you need?
You cannot organise a conference on your own, especially a large one with delegates coming from all over the world. It is vital that you enlist the help of colleagues. This help comes in two categories, academic help and administrative help.
Other academic colleagues will be able to contact speakers, help you choose the best papers, chair sessions on the day, lead networking sessions and so on. But perhaps even more importantly you will need the support of administrative staff: secretaries who will handle room bookings, marketing mail outs and so on. If your conference is hosted by a university then their departmental staff or research staff will be able to help you with this sort of support. Some universities now have in-house teams that handle all aspects of conference organisation, especially when it comes to bookings and accommodation, so make sure you avail yourself of those options.
All this amounts to the fact that you need to be a good team player. Resist the urge to try to do everything yourself! Build a team of people around you who will be as dedicated to the project as you are. Make sure you keep them engaged and reward those who have worked especially hard for you with honourable mentions and even gifts after the conference is over!
Even if this is handled by an administrative team, you will need to be in charge of budget arrangements because you will need to make decisions about what sort of food and drink you can afford, how much can be paid to visiting speakers and so on. Academic conferences don't tend to make a huge profit, but it's up to you to ensure that you don't end up in deficit either.
You will probably need to apply for external funding to support your activities, especially if you hope to invite several speakers who will be paid. Most people are not paid for their conference papers but if you have invited someone as a keynote speaker who is very well known then you will often have to pay costs and a small fee for them. If this involves international travel the fee suddenly doesn't seem so small any more. So, make sure you calculate your out goings in advance and, as Haris says in his blog, apply for external funding early. Funding bodies often take months to make a decision, so leave enough time to adjust your plans should you not get the funding you desire.
Being highly organised (or knowing someone who is)
It sounds obvious but as with any project management, being organised from the start is important. Keep a record of any discussions with your project team as to decisions you make and plans you want to implement, otherwise things will get forgotten. If you have a secretary or administrator who is helping you out chances are he or she will keep records for you, but you need to keep detailed accounts for finance purposes as well as records of speakers, the papers they propose and so on. This is an easy task if you are hosting a day-long workshop with maybe five to ten contributors. Quite a different matter however, is a mammoth three-day event with numerous parallel sessions and hundreds of delegates. So on a practical note, make sure that you have the stationery you need and the space in your office to keep all the records. You will probably be organising a conference while trying to continue with your other work, so it is easy to let things slide.
One of the most important parts of running a conference is making sure that speakers and delegates know it is taking place. Otherwise on the day you will be talking to an empty room! Marketing skills are not easy for academics to acquire but if you wish to run a successful conference then you need to develop them.
First start by writing a marketing plan: a step by step timetable of what you propose to do, the message you wish to convey to a particular audience and the materials you need to do this. Typical marketing activities will include posting a call for papers on electronic message boards, sending paper fliers to other universities, building up a database of contacts to email/write to personally.
Make sure you think about the message you will be giving them; in marketing, language and style are very important. What are you going to use to sell your conference? Does it have a ‘sexy' title? Is your keynote speaker very eminent? Is the venue attractive? Again, this is something you cannot do alone. A successful marketing enterprise requires a number of people on the project team to utilise their expertise and networks.
As with any project in the twenty-first century, you need to be IT literate. Not only should you be able to use technology efficiently, but you should also know the opportunities that could make your job easier. Haris discussed conference management software in his blog, such as packages that can handle the submission of a large number of papers and sorting people into panels, hiring chairs and so on.
While it may not be appropriate for all meetings, you will also certainly need to use some form of electronic record keeping, and electronic communication is vital for any marketing plan. Added to that, you need to make sure things run smoothly on the day. The host institution should be able to provide IT support so that if anything major goes wrong you have back up. But it will be up to you to ensure that those speakers who want to use powerpoint, slides or OHPs can do so.
If you feel particularly unqualified to handle the IT side of conference management then it is worth trying to get some training on this before you begin organising your event. Otherwise you will find yourself having to delegate that side of things to others, which is not a bad thing in itself!