How to run a great conference

About a month ago, someone I know who is organizing a conference, and knows how many conferences that I attend, asked me for my list of top components that make a killer conference. My reply to him follows.

First of all, about the content:

  • It’s all about the content. You need to have good content, and that means both engaging and relevant. I’m not a big fan of "celebrity" speakers who know nothing about the conference subject; I’d rather see experts from the industry, customers, and the vendor than listen to a generic speech that I could have found on YouTube. At this year’s FASTforward conference, there were very few keynotes by FAST executives or employees; they put their own product information in breakout sessions so that I had a choice of whether to hear about the product or hear from customers.
  • Keep the speakers to 45 minutes, tops. 30 minutes works well for keynote addresses, and 45 minutes for the breakouts.
  • Schedule frequent breaks and have them in an area that encourages conversation. The contrast between the atmosphere at conferences with fewer, shorter breaks — making it seem rushed between sessions — and ones where there are more breaks and much more networking between participants, was marked.
  • Publish your agenda online as soon as you possibly can. If possible, provide some sort of customized portal so that people can select the sessions that they want and see a personalized schedule (both Gartner and FAST did this recently), but that’s not completely necessary; however, an online schedule is critical. First of all, you’ll attract more people because they’ll be able to see the value of what you’re offering, and secondly, you’ll have more people stay right to the end of the conference if they see that there are valuable sessions on the last afternoon.
  • Publish slides from the sessions on a USB drive, not a CD, and distribute them at the beginning of the conference. Many people (including myself) have a smaller laptop that doesn’t include an onboard CD/DVD, and I never carry the external one on trips, so I can’t load a CD to look at the presentation materials. Sometimes, looking at the slides ahead of time helps me to select which session that I want to attend. An alternative, if you have a personalized portal for attendees, is to post the presentation materials online so that it’s available before people even get to the conference.

Secondly, on logistics:

  • Wifi is a key component for any technology-related conference. Selecting a hotel that offers free wifi throughout the building, as opposed to just putting your own wifi in the conference area, is an important factor. If more conference organizers demand free wifi throughout the hotel — which you know costs the hotel nearly nothing — then more hotels will start to offer it. I realize that only 1 in 5 people will use their laptop in the conference, but those people will find it critical.
  • Along with wifi, provide power at the tables in the conference rooms. Wifi is no good when your battery runs out after a couple of hours, and I hate having to search around for an electrical outlet to get 15 minutes of charge instead of taking a break and networking with people. Again, only 1 in 5 will use it, but they’ll find it incredibly useful.
  • Offer a free luggage storage area in the conference center on the last day. I’ve seen this at several conferences, and all it really takes is one or two people to watch over what’s happening, you don’t need a formal bag check process. It saves a ton of time for people when it’s time to go if they can just pick up their bag from there rather than have to wait in line to get it from the bell desk at the hotel, which usually isn’t set up to handle that volume all at once.
  • Something that I saw at the FASTforward conference were free buses to the airport provided for conference attendees at the end of the last day — the conference chartered a couple of full-size coaches and shuttled us to the airport. Nice touch.
  • Another nice thing from the FASTforward organizers was a single sheet of paper in each conference package — printed on the conference letterhead but likely done at the last minute — that summarized all departure information. They listed the luggage storage service, the hotel checkout time and the airport bus transfers plus had some reminders for people who drove their own car to the event. A nice summary page.

2 thoughts on “How to run a great conference”

  1. I like using Twitter as a back-channel during a conference, although you need a critical mass of people to have it work effectively, and the right group of people to have it not be a distraction. I tend not to do mini-posts on Twitter if I’m already writing a blog post; I’ll tweet the URL but not every thought that goes into it.

    What other social media suggestions do you have?

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