Avoiding Chaos: Conference and Workshop Planning

Acting as the host institution for a conference or workshops can be both a blessing and a curse.  Host organizations often experience increased interaction with participants and gain publicity in their local community.  Hosting a conference or workshop takes considerable effort and planning and can place strain on regular staff and use up time and monetary resources.

Despite planning hurdles, many heritage organizations still see value in hosting workshops and have dedicated themselves to hosting annual events. Larger conferences often require substantially more planning and resources than a small workshop, but even a single day workshop can benefit from careful advance planning.

Things to consider when planning a workshop or conference:
1) Do not undervalue the importance of a conference coordinator.  If you do not hire or designate a specific person to act as a coordinator, event planning has the potential to disintegrate into something resembling chaos.  Without a coordinator there is no one in charge of overseeing the efforts of everyone.  This inevitably causes confusion as to who is doing what and what tasks need to be completed.

Additionally, not having a coordinator has the potential of adding strain to your core staff who will have to spend additional time working on the event  in addition to their regular duties.  For example, the education programmer at your museum might be a great event planner, but unless she is relieved of  other duties she cannot be expected to plan an entire conference and still run the education department.

2) Talk to others who have organized an event in your field.  If there is a great conference you’ve attended in the past year, try seeing if the organizers of that conference are willing to discuss their planning experience.

3) Set up an advance registration for the conference or workshop.  Early registration allows you to get a sense of the numbers for your event.  These numbers will be importance when booking space, ordering food, and planning workshop size.  Encourage registration through promotion of the event, early bird pricing, and by sending reminders out about registration closing dates.

4) Be realistic about your budget and the cost of things.  Space and food are typically the two largest expenses at a conference.  Organizations need to be realistic about how many meals they can include in the conference and how many attendees they can accommodate.   Creating a vendors list that can be used in the future will help alleviate future pricing frustrations. Setting a reasonable registration fee to off set your costs, while still allowing a range of participants to attend is an important budgetary consideration.

5) Volunteers are fantastic but require planning and dedicated resources.  Volunteers can assist in set up, take down, site tours, registration, information kiosks, etc.  However, volunteers are not merely free labour – they require training, instruction, and supervision.  A mandatory volunteer training session prior to the conference helps prepare volunteers and helps simplify training.

6) Agenda planning is time consuming but essential.  If you are using a call for papers this should be done months in advance.  If you are running workshops featuring community members, be sure to approach potential facilitators early.   Keynote speaker selections should take into consideration topic, availability, reputation of speaker, and cost.

You will also need to decide the format of sessions.  Plenary sessions and small working groups require different types of spaces.  Deciding on speakers, facilitators, and session types early will help you select appropriate space and time allocations.

7) Gathering feedback is important, particularly if you plan on holding another event in the future.  Preparing a follow up survey can help gain insight into how the conference went.  Gathering feedback from your staff is also important, as they may have insights into the organizing experience.

Starting by hosting a small day workshop is a great way to build planning capacity within your organization and can aid staff in developing skills which can be used to plan a larger workshop or conference.

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