Helpful tips for wannabe conference managers

Yet again, I’ve had a ridiculously hectic couple of weeks at work- I’ve worked late at the office, I’ve come home and done conference calls at evenings and weekends, all in the name of getting an event up and running. It’s not usually this busy, because I am super-organised, but the fates have conspired against me recently and consequently, I’ve not been up to much except for work.

In case you’re wondering what it is I do, well, its a bit of a jack of all trades kind of job- I work for a surgical membership organisation, and as well as running the website, twitter feed, and acting as an office-based point of contact for about 900 people, my main job is to organise events.

When I was at school, I used to help out with school productions, rising to the lofty heights of stage manager in VI form, and then went on to take the next obvious step, and did a degree in event management. My working life has pretty much ended up with conference and meeting management, but I do dip into other things too (formal dinners, drinks receptions, social activities, that sort of thing!) and ten-odd years down the line, I think I’m rather good at it!

What with spending so much time at work recently, it got me to thinking about the things I’d like to have known at the start of my career, and with that in mind, I present the Gem Guide to Conference Management- Ten Top Tips

1-Have a plan
You will be the person who is expected to be organised, unflappable, know everything, and have an answer to every problem that arrises. And you’ll only be able to do that with a plan. It might sound obvious, but you can’t just get to the day of your conference and say, oh bugger, I’ve forgotten to order the catering- never mind, I’ll just tell everyone to come back tomorrow- So planning for everything and having times to complete key things is always a good idea- And while we’re at it, make sure you write down the plan and keep it up to date!- If you get hit by a bus, it means someone will be able to pick up on what you’ve done

2- Know your budget
It’s a rare event that you’re given completely free rein to spend whatever you want- And even if you don’t have responsibility for budgetting right now, it’s unlikely you’ll get through a whole career being able to spend willy nilly, so get in good habits- Know the aspiration for the event (should it break even, make a profit, make a loss (sounds strange, but it does happen!)) and the aspirations for the various lines of the budget- For example, with lots of the events I organise, we aim to break even, while getting as many people through the doors as possible- We have a trade exhibition that makes a profit, but keep our delegate fees low. Oh, and get multiple quotes for everything.

3-Know when (and how) to say no
There will always be someone, be they a delegate, a speaker, or someone with a higher authority than you who has a ‘good idea’. Even if you think their idea is rubbish, the best thing is to go away, have a think and come back to them- occasionally, a ‘good idea’ will turn out to be brilliant when you’ve given it a bit of time to sink on, or  if it turns out that your hunch is right and the ‘good idea’ actually is a load of poo, you’ll need to come back with a concrete reason not for doing it- Make sure there’s absolutely no reason that this ‘helpful person’ can ever bring this idea up ever again, or it’s highly likely they’ll pull rank and try and spring it on you the week before the event and you’ll end up doing it anyway even though you know it’ll fail, which is highly frustrating

4- Learn to travel light
You will be the one carrying the laptop/ stuff you don’t want to courier through various airports and train stations, so think carefully when your packing that extra pair of shoes in your suitcase- after several miles of dragging everything through tube stations, you’ll be grateful that you’re a couple of pounds lighter

5- Get to the event early
At least half an hour before you think you need to. If you’re in charge, and you turn up on time a million people will descend on your registration desk early, asking you asking questions while you’re trying to put your badges out. And if you’re helping out, there will always be things to do in the last hour before registration opens- Help set those badges out and unpack boxes, ask for a quick tour of the venue and find out the FAQ’s so you can answer any early arrivals’ questions- The event manager will love you for it

If you get everything done early, you get time for a cup of tea!

6- Make sure you get fed before the lunch break starts
A golden rule for me- Get yourself off to the lunch room at least 15 minutes before your conference delegates break for lunch and ask the catering staff to serve you early. Eat lunch in peace, before the delegates descend on you with a million more questions.

7- Assume nobody will be able to find the toilet
I organise conferences for surgeons, arguably highly intelligent people. I have however realised over time, that the IQ of a delegate is inversely proportional to their ability to find a toilet/conference room/cup of tea on their own. You will have to smile a lot, answer the same question thousands of times, and be unfailingly polite about this throughout- Sorry!

8- Make a conference bible
Nothing glam, but I make before every event, no matter how small, a stack of printed papers with the programme, useful phone numbers, delegate lists, contracts, menus and anything else I think I might need and stick it in a folder. You will be asked questions about the event and you can’t expect to remember everything in your head, so carry the information with you. AT ALL TIMES! If I go to conference dinners, I usually take a big handbag just to carry the event bible with me! And someone will always ask me a question when I’m trying to go to the loo, so really, just don’t let it off of your person

9- Always carry a pen
As an event manager, you will be given the title of ‘chief organised person’ (see above for that bit about project plans and event bibles)- and as such, will likely be asked to do things that are variously nothing to do with the conference or can only be completed when you get back to the office. Put blank paper in your event bible, carry a pen and make notes- However much you think you’ll remember to do ‘that very important thing’ that the president asked you to do, you won’t. There’s too much going on and your brain will likely explode if you try to remember everything.

10- Smile, and be polite!
Remember, the people that you are polite, helpful and nice to will be the ones buying you drinks in the bar at the end of the day, so try not to pee anyone off, always try to go the extra mile for anyone involved at any level with your event

And one for luck…
Try to project a calm, in control kind of aura, even if your paddling like the clappers below the surface- Nobody cares about what’s gone/is going wrong, and indeed, the majority of people won’t even notice, so if you find yourself having a mare, don’t flap, don’t raise your voice, and don’t run. Nothing worse than an event manager on the run- it makes people think the building’s on fire!

Happy conferencing!

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