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How to run a great conference


The question isn’t whether a theme is right for a potential attendee, but rather whether there is one at all. Having a theme helps to unify your ideas, to get appropriate speakers, and to sell and market to the right people. It will also help you to come up with a name. Pick something simple, punchy and on topic. A mission statement will also help you to stay on track and attract your target audience. Here was ours:


Running a conference is a lot of work and emotionally very tiring. Some days you wake up literally paralyzed by fear; other days, you feel invincible. You need to find someone who you can rely on to understand when you get stressed, who can pick up work when you are feeling overwhelmed, who gets excited by your great ideas and who curbs your enthusiasm a bit when you go overboard. Of course, you should provide the same values to your partners. Finding someone you trust to share this experience will be the biggest help you can get.


We chose to hand-pick our speakers. I already had in mind a lot of people who I thought were doing cool stuff and would have something interesting and original to say, so I approached them personally and asked. Speaking experience wasn’t a consideration; I didn’t care whether they were a seasoned pro or a first-timer — and people were incredibly shocked when we revealed who our first-timers were. An open call for proposals might make more sense for you and is a great option. Just make sure that whichever way you choose, you do it early. Good speakers get snapped up really far in advance, so if you want your top choices, secure them as soon as possible.

Try to see whether a desired speaker has any mutual friends. If so, ask the friend to introduce you. Explain your mission to the prospective speaker and see whether it’s a match for them. Our mission, to better the industry, was something many people could get behind. Be honest here. For the people with whom we didn’t have mutual connections, we asked them on Twitter whether emailing them was OK — being respectful goes a long way, and most people are OK with email. Try to capture everything in one email, so that they have enough information to make an informed decision. Make sure to explain the mission, the date, the theme, any compensation you can offer and anything else you feel relevant.


Although for most conferences it is good practice and a very worthy aim to pay the speakers for their time and efforts, we knew from the beginning that, for the first year at least, paying fees to the speakers would not be possible – we simply couldn’t afford to while keeping our ticket costs low enough to be accessible. However, we pledged to cover all of their expenses, including flight, hotel, other travel and a speakers’ dinner. While we couldn’t pay them for their time, we felt that they should not have to incur any costs for coming.

Figure out what you can afford from the beginning. If you can afford to pay the speakers (or if that is a higher priority for you than other costs), then great; if you can’t, then be honest and say so when you invite people to speak. Many people are still very happy to come without expecting a fee. The important thing is to be open from the beginning and not to promise to pay for something that you won’t be able to afford in the end.


Your guests are going to be sitting in one place for the better part of eight hours. Pick somewhere butt-friendly. The venue will also have a big effect on the overall feel. The theme you’ve chosen will inform a lot of your decisions. Do you want a spotlight on the speakers or warm lighting over everyone? We chose the former because we didn’t want people to have any problem understanding the speakers. Do you mind whether people use their laptops? Lower lighting deters that. Do you want to provide an area for people to work if needed? So many decisions will affect the overall feel. Use your best judgement — you should know what attendees want more than anyone.


We choose to cater. We provide lunches, snacks, tea and coffee and this year breakfast as well. It’s a personal choice and obviously it affects the cost, but we like to do it because we think it makes it easier to mingle, and it takes the stress out of having to find a restaurant and people to eat with. If you do want to provide food, just find a good caterer and let them do what they do best. Many venues have a dedicated caterer or a shortlist that they work with. Figure out in advance the cost per person, the type of food you want to provide (hot or cold, buffet or sit-down) and any special requests. Then, just meet the caterer and they’ll try to meet your requirements.


Our spreadsheet had at least 20 tabs. We had tabs for income, expenses, the schedule, accommodation, contact details, the speakers’ food preferences at the speakers’ dinner, and many more things. We had tables for best- and worst-case scenarios, and we updated them constantly. With a spreadsheet, all of the vital information was in one place, and we always knew how we were doing. You can never write down too much or be too organized. Combining the spreadsheet with a great ticketing solution helps, too. Our ticketing solution, Tito, breaks down sales and provides reports as much as we need — it was a godsend for us.


When we got our first request for a refund, I must admit I was a bit taken aback. We’d tried to cover all of our bases and, naively, hadn’t considered that we might encounter this problem. I asked others what they do, and they all gave me the same answer: Allow guests to resell their tickets, but don’t offer refunds. The truth is that we spend the money from ticket sales quickly, and a ticket that someone wants refunded is often from an earlier batch, which means you’ve lost the chance to sell it again. We believe in fairness, so if you don’t refund one person, then refunding another person would not be right, even if you think the other person has a good reason. Splitting hairs about what counts as a good reason just leads to complication and misunderstanding. So, we keep a strict no-refund policy. You may choose to do things differently, and I commend you if you do — no way is easy.


Hire a company to handle all of the lighting, audio and visuals. Having professionals organize all of the equipment, set it up and be on hand to make sure it works all day was totally worth it. 


Different items take different lengths of time to print. Badges might need only a week’s notice, while lanyards and banners might need a month’s. Start looking for printers, and talk to them well in advance. If your designs are done, let them know when the printing is needed, and give estimates on the quantities, following up closer to the conference with more accurate figures. Also, print a little more than you think you’ll need; ensuring that everyone has materials is worth overspending slightly.

Double-check everything. Murphy’s Law is in full effect when you’re running an event. Last year, knowing that our materials were a rush job, the printer took our address from our email footers. It was a billing address, and no one was at that address to pick up the printing packages. So, during the pre-conference drinks, we had to drive an hour away just before the sorting office closed to pick them up — or else no one would have gotten their name badges!


Having a great head volunteer means that you don’t have to worry about silly little things on the day of. You can concentrate on making sure everyone is having a good time. Hopefully, you’ll even have a chance to relax and enjoy yourself, which is important.


No matter how much you prepare, you can only hope that everything goes right in the end. Something will go wrong at some point — I guarantee it. Plenty of things went wrong for us, although, fortunately, all of the big problems happened during preparation, and only a couple of minor, easily fixable hiccups occurred on the day. Minimize risks by planning as much as possible as early as possible; in the end, you can’t do much more than hope for the best. Keep in mind, too, that almost nothing is unsolvable. Most things can be fixed with a lot less hassle than you might think, and often guests will not notice, care or remember that something hasn’t gone precisely according to plan.


When the event is finished, send out a survey with a prize for a random entry. Give people an incentive to tell you what they think. Find out what you can do better with the next one