Conferences can take a lot of work. Read Lessons on Organising a Conference.

After I wrote about my first blogging conference, I knew there was something else I wanted to add to the conversation. A topic that warranted a post all of its own.

I wanted to talk about how much work goes into organising a conference of that magnitude.

Organising the speakers and sessions times alone would have been a big undertaking.

To be honest, I haven’t organized anything on the scale of my blogging conference but as a Personal Assistant for most of my career, I have organized a lot of corporate offsite conferences and functions by myself and been on committees with co-workers organizing corporate balls and Christmas parties for hundreds of people.

Believe me, when I tell you – they are a LOT of work.

Let’s have a look at some of the components of organizing a great function and how you can apply them in everyday life.

The devil is in the details

Anyone who has organized a large function knows that the details count. If you have ever organized a wedding, yours or someone else’s you know what I am talking about.

One of the bosses at my last company was a very detailed person. Let me clarify further – he was extremely detailed.

Consequently, his level of detail was passed down to his assistant.

I know for a fact I must have driven a few restaurant owners and venue staff a little crazy with questions and emails clarifying the small details.

It’s also important to trust your gut on certain things.

I remember one venue was quite new. So new in fact, that one of the main restaurants was still being built. After talking to the owner, he swore the restaurant would be open in time for my conference. My gut told me otherwise, so I booked another restaurant. I couldn’t help but notice the restaurant was still being worked on when we arrived. Apparently, there was a problem with the contractors.

You have to be particular about the details. Sometimes you have to go with what feels right. You might not hit the mark every time, but most of the time you will.  From the times you don’t get it right – you learn.

Try to think of every scenario

For one employer, I organized a corporate box function at the cricket.

I tried to cater to the worst possible scenario – what if someone lost or forget their ticket?  Sure enough, someone did but because I had already done the groundwork for this exact scenario, it wasn’t a problem.

This isn’t about driving yourself crazy with what if’s, we tend to do that enough in life anyway. It’s more a case of try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. See things from someone else’s point of view.

What are they looking to achieve? What do they need to make this event or situation memorable? What sort of things might go wrong and how can you avert trouble?

Have a budget and stick to it

I worked for a group of accountants whose job was to keep other divisions of our company on track with their budgets.  Naturally, we had to stick to ours.

Be precise about pricing. No ballpark figures allowed. You need to know exactly what things will cost.

This will probably mean a bit of negotiating to get what you want or finding another supplier if people can’t provide want you need.

Don’t cheap out on people either. They will notice particularly if you have held a lot of functions in the past and suddenly the quality plummets.

If you are going to host a big event, make sure you have the funds available.

This doesn’t mean everything has to be flashy and expensive. The truth is sometimes the items you spend the most money on can be the least impressive and the smaller, more intimate and well thought out things that didn’t cost a lot of money can be the most appreciated and remembered.

It’s not just about money, it’s about people feeling valued.

Know what people need the most

You need to know what the most important thing is for the majority of the people.

I’ll use an example. If you are running a conference for bloggers, for instance, you need to have free and fast access to the Internet available, because being online is kinda their thing.

Work out what the number one priority is for the majority of the people attending and make sure it is top-notch.

Understand some things are out of your control

This one is by far the most frustrating when you are organizing a function. Again, I am sure anyone who has ever planned a wedding is furiously shaking their head right about now!

Things will go wrong despite your planning, hard work or cash outlay.

Quite frankly, the technology can be the biggest headache of all. You can do a trial run 5 times and it will work perfectly and then you get into the actual function and the equipment doesn’t work.

Time is usually another factor that can cause problems. People going overtime, not turning up on time, wasting time – you get the picture.

Having a facilitator to keep things on track can definitely help.

I used to really struggle when things went pear-shaped. I would often take it personally.  Now I try to take it in my stride, learn a lesson from whatever went wrong and move on.

Sometimes that is all we can do, fix things to the best of our ability and move on.

Accept that people remember the bad stuff

I wish this wasn’t true but unfortunately, it can be.

The same applies for complaining. Some people will always find something to complain about.

Again there is not much you can do about it. Do your best and let the rest go.

Don’t try to force team bonding

Team bonding doesn’t always work at a conference.

Most of the time it does and people have a wonderful experience.

This particular advice applies to corporate companies. I have seen corporate groups that are so fractured from the strains of overwork and one company restructure too many, thrown together forcing people to play nice and spend time together.

The company tries to force people to bond while jamming their take on the company culture down employee’s throats at the same time.

On top of that, they throw in alcohol. This doesn’t help, in fact, it can make a tense situation worse.

A perfect example of this outside of corporate life – Christmas and weddings (since they already have an earlier mention). Sometimes throwing people together can be a recipe for disaster.

Don’t try to force people to bond.

Try to enjoy the moment

When did I enjoy a conference I organized the most? To be honest, usually when it was over.

I did try to have as much fun as possible but the truth was I was working. During the conference, I was on the clock.

If anything went wrong, I needed to fix it. If someone had the slightest problem, they came to me and it was my job to sort it out.

Thankfully my boss helped out as well, but the conferences themselves weren’t exactly relaxing.

As the Personal Assistant, I often didn’t get to attend the function. That might sound easier but it’s usually more a case of being back in the office holding down the fort, working like a crazy person to clear the backlog on my desk, hoping everything is going to plan at the venue.

I remember a resort gave me an upgraded suite as a thank you for organizing a conference. I was thrilled to find a huge bath tub when I walked into the bathroom. After dinner and drinks, I excused myself early (which sometimes isn’t always possible) and went to have a long, hot soak in the tub. That soak helped with my stress levels and recharged me for the next day.

I haven’t traveled for work nearly as much as a lot of other people but I am starting to get my head around it. I understand that you need to take whatever pockets of time you can to relax and take some time out for yourself.

When you do take vacation time, I implore you to enjoy it. Don’t take work on holidays with you. If you must work, because I know people who work online need to be online, try to block out chunks of time and only work within those hours.

Be diligent about taking time off from work.

I’ve seen executives on holiday working just as much as they would while in the office. This is the time they should be spending with their families. Believe me, their kids will remember this when they grow up. I don’t think working through your holiday helps many marriages out much either.

If you are organizing a big conference I wish you well and if you are attending a conference I hope it’s everything that you hoped it would be.

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