art projectsawardsconferences & symposiumsfestivalsfield tripsother toolsfor more informationRivers and Trails Home Page  
Organizing and running a conference takes work: a lot of time, money and resources. They can be extremely energizing events; they can also be deadly dull. What makes the difference is the planning. Having clear objectives, exciting speakers and topics, and plenty of opportunities for freely exchanging ideas are the keys. Conferences offer a tremendous opportunity to positively reach large numbers of people and generate publicity.
Conferences are planned, publicized gatherings that provide people the opportunity to share information and to network. The term is often used interchangeably with workshops, colloquiums, forums, symposiums, summits, conventions and many others. The events are usually large and on average last two or more days. Some organizations may require annual meetings as part of their bylaws or constitutions. A conference format typically includes one or more key speakers who address all attendees. There may also be smaller sessions or workshops, hands-on experiences or tours, voting or consideration of operational issues, special meals or receptions, or any number of options that relate to the purpose of the conference. Before embarking on planning activities, make sure a conference is the best medium by considering other alternatives: Is the message concise and clear enough to communicate in a brochure, a half-day meeting, or even a short video? Is the information so complex that it would be better presented as a course or class that runs over several weeks? Is the topic so popular that it would be possible to provide a reference list of books and audiotapes or organize a contingent to attend another organization’s conference?



1. Define it

The first step is the hardest: identify the purpose of the conference, the target audience (who will attend), and the outcomes (what attendees will gain). The more specific you can be, the more likely to meet everyone’s expectations and have a successful conference. Give the conference a title; determine its length and the anticipated number of attendees.

2. Name a chairperson and a committee

There needs to be one person in charge, someone who can devote large blocks of time to planning, communicating, and organizing. The overall conference design committee will ideally be comprised of content experts, people with excellent organizational and technical skills, and representatives of potential attendees.

3. Develop the program

Using the defined purpose as the basis, design the program. Consider if you want to include different specialty tracks, shared meals, field trips, break-out sessions, panel discussions, a wrap-up session, etc. When the conference is mapped out, take these ideas and get input from key individuals or stakeholders; ask their perspectives on the purpose and content then make revisions accordingly. Finalizing the program will enable you to tell speakers exactly what you want and tell the audience what they can expect. (Conferences may also be designed solely around a specific speaker and topic. That means the speaker is asked, a date is set that is convenient for him or her, and then the program is developed.)

4. Make a work plan and budget

Pick a date(s) for the conference and work backwards identifying key deadlines for tasks such as the ones outlined below. Assign people to be responsible for each task and determine budget allocations. Registration fees should offset the direct costs such as facility rental, meals, etc.

5. Select and book meeting facility

Consider cost, location/parking, room size, seating comfort, sound, lighting, audiovisual capabilities, food service, people-flow, potential exhibit display areas, facility staffing, etc.

6. Confirm speakers

Speakers can be the star attraction and make or break the conference, so handle and work with them as necessary. Determine if fee and/or per diem will be given. Invite via letter; follow up with phone call. Get final confirmation of availability, topic, audiovisual needs, and travel arrangements. Request bio information for brochure and for introduction. Send letter with title, assigned speaking time, support requirements, and any specific directions such as providing text copy in advance. If there are multiple speakers, provide a list of all speakers and their topics. Follow up just before conference with a meeting or telephone call to go over any questions.

7. Promote it

Generating good publicity begins with creating an exciting, professional conference brochure. It must have a lot of specific information but should also be visually appealing. Have a clear, catchy title. List dates of conference and exact name, address and location of the facility. Describe the conference’s purpose including appropriate background information. Include the order of events and times. Give speakers’ bios and topics. Provide lodging and transportation information if applicable. Include registration form and instructions including the registration deadline. List the name and telephone number of someone who will answer any questions. Once the text is written and graphically designed, give the brochure to a printer or produce and copy it in-house. Mail brochures to identified target audience. Also consider reaching the target audience in other ways such as a notice in members’ newsletters, email messages, or posters and flyers.

8. Open the gates

Have a clearly marked registration table, name tags, and prepared registration packets. The packet may include a copy of the conference brochure, an updated agenda, an acknowledgement of volunteers and/or corporate sponsors, a listing of nearby restaurants, list of attendees, a sample publication such as newsletter, a conference feedback form and tokens or memorabilia such as from the Chamber of Commerce Visitors Center. When it’s time to begin – and be sure to begin on time – the host should open the session. The host can be the conference organizer or someone else specially appointed. This person will set the tone welcoming participants and reviewing the purpose of the conference. Then go over logistics such as schedule, restroom locations, guidelines for beepers and cell phones, etc. The host should also publicly thank volunteers and recognize VIPs in attendance.

9. Follow up

More paperwork and logistics! Write thank you notes to all volunteers. Write thank you notes to speakers and send payments, if applicable. Settle accounts with facility, food services, equipment rentals, etc. If feedback forms were completed, review and summarize in a report. Send out proceedings to participants if provided by speakers. Update website with after-conference photos, text of keynote speeches, etc.

Wednesday 6/05/02 2:00.00
Single or multi-day sessions for information exchange, skills development, and/or the exploration of ideas or issues.
You have a specific purpose and target audience who share a common interest, and/or occupation. You want to reach a lot of people at one time to motivate and/or share new skills and ideas. You have the opportunity to book a well-known speaker whom people want to hear.


You lack the either financial or people resources or your planning group cannot decide upon a clear objective. You need an immediate gathering. Successful conferences require a long lead-time to plan, advertise and organize. The bigger the event, the more months of planning required. You are looking for a fundraiser. The objective is to get a message communicated, make contacts, or learn new skills, not make money from registration fees. If the fee is too high, you may exclude your own target audience. You have nothing new to offer. If you cannot get interesting, provoking speakers and an exciting program, you will also probably not get an audience.  
  Most likely a conference is going to occur only once during a project – though it may become an annual affair. As for when, that depends upon the purpose: In the beginning of a project, a conference could showcase alternatives, introduce the players who will be involved, or give case studies from other communities. At the end of a project, a conference may address future issues such as trends, landuse management, public relations, community building, or any number of topics.