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Hosting and organising a large annual conference can be a logistical nightmare requiring months of planning. According to Pam Henderson, who organises several conferences a year across the UK for the Arts Marketing Association, ?the delegates who describe staff as swans, moving serenely about the conference, do not see the feet paddling furiously below the water?s surface!? Here she outlines some guidelines for good practice.
When planning a conference it is useful to focus on the questions ?who is the conference for?? and "why are we doing it?" If you can answer these clearly and honestly, then the ?where? (location), ?when? (timing) and ?what? (programme) will be reasonably straightforward to resolve.This means that you can spend your time on the ?how? - making it happen.

You are not going to be able to make a conference happen on your own.You need a team of people who are skilled and committed.You may also want a wider pool of people who contribute to a particular element such as programming. The greater the breadth of perspective feeding into the conference, the more likely it is that it will be relevant to a wider range of people.

Developing content

It is possible to put together a good conference that is geared around particular speakers, but this approach tends to result in a lack of focus and progression in the programme, and the conference becomes little more than a talking shop - albeit an entertaining one. You will get a sharper conference if your starting point is to write a thesis to explain how you plan to explore the conference subject.Writing a thesis will take time, and will benefit from consultation, but it will clarify your thinking and form a useful tool for briefing speakers.

There are qualities common to good speakers.They are good raconteurs, avoid jargon, have an ability to express complex ideas in a straightforward manner, and are reasonably amusing. In a presentation of 30 minutes they will make half a dozen salient points and make delegates laugh a couple of times. Most importantly, they will have provided sufficient hooks for delegates to connect the content of the presentation with their own particular set of circumstances. As a result, delegates will leave with some sense of affirmation, a level of inspiration, and an idea of how they will apply what they have learnt to their own work.

There are positive steps that you can take to ensure high quality speakers. First, do your research: read around your subject, talk to people in the field and use the Internet. Find out who is on the ?circuit? and get feedback. Bear in mind that someone who writes brilliantly might be an appalling public speaker, and that someone who speaks powerfully in small groups or public debates is not necessarily a compelling speaker at a large conference.

Second, plan the schedule carefully. Start your conference with a speaker you know will make people feel at ease and will not make too many intellectual demands. Save your demanding heavyweight for somewhere in the middle, and finish with someone who you know will give those ?hooks? so that delegates leave knowing what they are going to put into practice when they get back to the office.

Third, and probably the most important point, put time, thought and effort into briefing speakers.The more time you spend with each speaker, the more time they will spend preparing and the better your event will be. It is not enough to give speakers a subject title and tell them that delegates will be ?a cross-section of the UK cultural community?. As well as telling speakers about the kinds of people who will be there (?25% of delegates will be chief executives?), you need to tell them why they are there (?chief executives are particularly interested in developing their ability to manage change internally?). Some conference organisers get speakers to meet before the event to discuss their presentations. Others ask speakers to submit preliminary notes six to eight weeks before the event.This encourages speakers to start planning, and gives you an opportunity to ensure that the content is relevant.

Practical issues

The practical considerations of managing a large number of delegates for a few days - feeding, entertaining, accommodating, transporting - are significant. Sponsors may want discrete receptions with prospective clients; exhibitors have technical and security requirements; first-time attenders need structured networking opportunities, and regular attenders are likely to have particularly high expectations of the programme. Some delegates are on a shoestring while others have money to burn.

To get it right, spend time getting to know the people who work at your host venue - you want them to regard your event as special and not just another opportunity for them to reach their target for external hires. It is not enough to work only with the general manager, because in practice you are going to be working with a range of departments including front of house, technical and catering. It is worth having a couple of face to face meetings to ensure that every minute of the event is planned and agreed, and that problems are resolved in advance. Use written communication to confirm what has been agreed on the phone or in person, and try to avoid giving new information by email or post. Before the conference, walk through the venue pretending that you are a delegate. Can you find the toilets/registration desk/exhibition area? How long is it going to take you to walk from session to session? Have you catered for people with particular access requirements?

Money matters

You need to protect your income so consider taking out insurance to protect you from losses should the event be cancelled, and have clear terms and conditions of booking. Exploit your sponsorship opportunities - companies often do not have a ready stream of cash, but they may be able to give you badges, delegate packs, lend you technical equipment, pay for printing or provide flights for speakers.

If expenditure spirals, it is usually either to do with hidden administration costs or additional technical requirements. Check what technical equipment is included in the host venue hire charge - most speakers now use PowerPoint and expect a data projector, but most arts venues have extremely limited capability in this area. You may want to include a 10% contingency if you have not done this type of event before to give you more flexibility.

Marketing the event

You are making a promise to your delegates, and you have to deliver on that promise, or they will not come back --and they will tell other people about your failure to deliver too.You need to understand who your delegates are (or might be) and why they want to attend, then communicate the benefits that you are offering to meet their needs, and follow it through.The more accurate and informative you are about the kind of experience the delegate is going to receive, the closer the actual reality will be to that delegate?s perception. As a result, the likelihood that the delegate will be satisfied and come back again is greater. And it is well worth evaluating the event afterwards, as the findings will allow you to plan future events that are even more likely to fulfil delegates? needs.

Pam Henderson is Director of the Arts Marketing Association
e: pam@a-m-a.co.uk
The 2001 AMA conference, ?Made in Heaven??, is to be held in Birmingham from July 26 to 28.The conference will explore how collaboration can be used to achieve marketing and audience development objectives.

To obtain a brochure t: 01223 578078