How to Plan a Conference: A Step-by-Step Guide
Before you dive in, if you are interested in conference sponsorship, check out these titles in our “sponsorship for conferences” series:
2017 data from research resource Wonder found that annually, the United States hosts 1.8 million events, with 270,000 of them conferences or conventions. That data is a bit old, so surely there are even more conferences now. You too would like to host a conference, but what does the planning entail?
To plan a conference, you need to:
- Determine goals
- Choose a name
- Pick a date
- Find a venue
- Secure vendors, sponsors, and other partners
- Price and sell tickets
- Make a website
- Market the event
- Track metrics
When it’s boiled down into a handful of bullet points like that, it all seems fairly manageable, right? It can be when you follow this conference planning checklist. Ahead, I’ll go through each point above step-by-step and outline what you should do so your conference is a smash hit!
How to Plan a Conference – Everything You Need to Do
You dream of your conference being on par with Oracle OpenWorld, CES, or maybe SXSW. That requires forethought and lots of early planning.
At least 12 months before you want to host your event, you want to begin planning for everything that will comprise your conference. This way, you don’t find yourself fretting and stressing about last-minute things.
Per the intro, here is my guide on how to plan a conference.
Determine Your Goals
If your conference is merely a dream in your head right now and nothing tangible (or intangible in the case of a digital conference), you still have to answer an important question as you undergo the beginning planning stages.
Why are you hosting a conference?
You must have something in mind. Perhaps you want to bring people together and educate or inform them about the latest news and updates in your industry.
Maybe you want to showcase the latest innovative products and services before they’re available to the public.
You could simply want to entertain people, as is the case with a conference such as SXSW.
Having an impetus for your conference can serve as the springboard for the planning process.
You’ll also have an easier time determining what your goals are. For example, let’s say you do want your conference to be a showcase of the latest tech coming down the pike.
You know immediately what kind of target audience segments you’d want to pursue, which would be tech fans, those who work in tech, those who make tech, and decision-makers in the tech industry.
As I’ll show you in the subsequent sections, once you have your goals instated, planning your conference sort of becomes like a Slinky going down a staircase. The Slinky gains momentum and the next steps seem natural and easier.
You’ll see what I mean soon, I promise!
Creating a Conference – Planning the Concept, Name, and More
Next comes what is arguably one of the hardest parts of the conference planning process, at least if you ask some people.
You need to come up with a name for your conference.
By now, you should have at least a loose conference concept, as that would have aided you when creating your conference goals.
This is a great time to solidify your concept so you’re 100 percent clear on what it is and what you’re trying to achieve.
You can use your concept as the inspiration for your conference name or create something completely original.
Many of the biggest conferences in the world use a company name as part of the conference name. If your business name has the sort of recognition that a brand like Oracle does, then this might be something to consider as well.
Acronyms are also popular for conferences. For example, SXSW is short for South by Southwest. TNW is an abbreviation for the Next Web.
You’re also likely to see single words used for a conference name. Collision is a Toronto, Ontario, Canada technology conference. Rise is another tech conference, but this time one that’s based in Hong Kong.
These kinds of names are impactful because they’re dramatic words. They also roll off the tongue easily enough since they’re only a single word and not a mouthful of letters in an acronym.
Determine Ideal Attendance
If you have a conference or two in the books already, then it’s a lot easier to determine who may come to this year’s conference.
You can review historical attendance data for as long as you have it. Has your attendance increased year over year? By roughly how much?
Compare those numbers against your audience numbers at current to predict what kind of audience expansion you might see this year.
What if this is your first conference and you have no prior audience data to use? In that case, then I would recommend researching conferences with a similar crux to yours.
How much attendance do these conferences bring in on average? Look at three to five conferences and then create an average of the attendance.
Keep in mind that your attendance might be lower in the first year as people are only learning about your conference for the first time.
That said, it’s better to rent out a larger venue and have extra space because you over-projected on audience attendance than it is to have people turned away at the door because your venue is too small.
Pick a Date
Before you can determine where your event will happen, you need to choose when.
This can be overwhelming because it seems like for every potential date you can think of, there’s already an event happening, even a conference like yours.
That’s going to be the case. After all, as I mentioned in the intro, the US has about 270,000 conferences per year, and the last I checked, there are only about 364 days in a year.
The conferences in the US alone far outnumber the calendar days in a year. So you’re going to have to expect overlap.
Ideally, you want to schedule your conference on a date where other conferences or events in the same genre or industry aren’t happening. At the very least, those events shouldn’t be happening in your state, your city, or town.
There are advantages to hosting your conference depending on which time of the year you do it. Winter conferences in snowy destinations with skiing, snowboarding, and other outdoor activities will get people off the couch and out the door.
Spring conferences are great because the seasons are changing, and people generally feel reinvigorated and motivated after a long, dull winter. You can even possibly host an outdoor conference!
In the summer, it’s a little trickier to host conferences. People are a lot more willing to travel, but usually to beach destinations or other tropical locales for a family vacation. They’re thinking less of work.
If you want to host a summertime conference, make it fun and even family-friendly.
When summer ends and autumn begins, you enter yet another conference season. Fall conferences give your attendees food for thought as they enter the last quarter of the year and begin planning for what their next business year will look like.
Find and Book a Venue
You can’t plan a venue without having at least a rough estimate of how many people are going to show up to your conference. That’s putting the cart before the horse.
Now that you have that rough estimate, it’s time to begin searching for venues.
When people think of conference venues, hotel ballrooms tend to come to mind first, but that’s far from the only place you can host your venue. Here are some other ideas to consider:
- Field or park
- Arena or stadium
- Large home or mansion
- School or university
- Art gallery or museum
- Sports club
- Community center
- Business center
- Club or bar
When determining which venue to select, I recommend you focus on three criteria.
The first of these is projected attendance numbers. If you plan on having at least 1,000 people come to your conference, then a lot of the venues above are already eliminated. You can’t cram that many people into a bar or restaurant without breaking occupancy codes.
Next, you have to think about which venue gels most with your conference theme, plans, and goals.
For example, a small food conference at a restaurant would work well, but a business conference at a sports club seems a bit strange.
That’s why you see so many conferences hosted at hotels. These are neutral buildings that don’t throw a wrench in the theme.
Based on your conference plans, if you think you’ll need 10,000 square feet of space, then you should rent a building that offers at least that much space.
As I said before, it’s better to have more space and the building look a bit empty than it is to have everyone rubbing shoulders because they’re packed like sardines.
The third factor to consider when renting a venue for your conference is the cost.
Unless you host your conference in your home (or someone’s home you know who doesn’t mind), then there’s no way to secure a venue space for free.
According to Peerspace, a rental service, paying to rent space at a venue could cost you anywhere from $100 to $2,000 or more an hour. Yes, an hour!
If your conference is only eight hours, then your fees would be $800 to $16,000 just for the event space.
Once you find a venue that checks all your boxes, it’s time to cross your fingers and toes and hope they have availability during the date of your conference.
I recommend having a backup venue or two in mind in case the first one doesn’t pan out.
You could always move the date of your conference too, but this is the only chance you’ll have to do that. Once you start booking places and people, you can’t swap things around.
Secure Sponsors, Speakers, Entertainers, and Vendors
You’re the one hosting the event, but you can’t do everything. You can’t feed, entertain, inform, and educate your attendees.
For those purposes, you’ll need sponsors, speakers, entertainers, and vendors.
Let’s start by talking about sponsors. A sponsor usually provides funding but can also assist you with promotions.
If you’re struggling to put your conference on the map, working with several media sponsors might be in your best interest.
Even if all you want is funding from a sponsor to grow your conference, you still have to go about obtaining a sponsor the right way. This guide to event sponsorship will tell you everything you need to know.
Let me boil it down like this. Sponsorship is a two-way street. In exchange for funding or promotions, you offer the sponsor assets and activations that fulfill their needs and help them overcome their challenges.
That’s how you get repeat sponsors who are happy to work with you for next year’s conference!
As for speakers, they’re much less complicated to work with. You’d select speakers that appeal to your audience’s interests or pain points. Then you’d contact them and see if they’re free to speak at your conference.
Just as I recommended when selecting a venue for your conference, you want to have several backup speakers you can contact in case your top pick is unavailable.
Depending on the size and scope of your conference, you might decide that several speakers are necessary. If so, then you need an even bigger list of prospects to pull from so you can fill all the available speaking slots.
The same goes for securing entertainers. Not every conference needs entertainers, FYI. If yours is a more serious business event versus a tech conference, then a musical performance, comedy hour, or another form of entertainment might not mesh.
Finally, every conference needs vendors. Event vendors run the gamut from foodservice providers to beverage brands, lighting people, sound people, booth builders (unless the companies build their own booths), videographers and cinematographers, and photographers.
Here’s what I’ll advise about hiring these other parties. The earlier you can do it, the better. As soon as you recognize you need sponsors, your sponsorship program should soon be underway.
You do not want to cut it too close when it comes to partners and vendors. People get busy. They might not know what they’re doing on May 19th, 2023 when it’s May 10th, 2022.
However, if you ask them what they’re doing on May 19th, 2023 when it’s March 19th, you can expect they already know.
Determine Ticket Pricing
By this point, your conference is really starting to take shape. Since you’re surer than ever that you’ll have a conference to host, you must now determine what you’ll charge for entry into that conference.
I doubt you want to allow people in for free, so how much is the right amount to charge?
Well, that’s going to depend on several factors.
You see, I recommend doing the ticket pricing at this point, because by now, you’ve done a lot of your spending already. You rented the venue, hired vendors, and found sponsors and speakers.
You’re not done shelling out cash, of course, as your marketing efforts are still to come. Those will be quite expensive.
You can generalize how much you’ve spent and are going to spend and use that information to decide what you’d have to charge for tickets to at least break even.
From there, you can build on the price. After all, if you only break even at a conference, then you didn’t make any money. You didn’t lose money either, but you didn’t make it, and that’s a pretty big part of the whole point.
Remember also that there are service fees to factor in, and if you use a ticketing service, that service is going to take its cut as well.
You don’t want your tickets to be too expensive. If they are, then most people who are interested will just not go.
You’re the new fish in the pond, so you have to work harder to establish goodwill. The worst way to do that is to come roaring out of the gate with expensive tickets to a single-day event.
If you’re having a hard time determining how much is too much to charge for a conference ticket, I recommend going back to that list of other conferences and researching the ticket prices for those events.
Since their conferences are a lot like yours, you should use the prices you see as the litmus test for gauging if you’re undercharging your audience or even overcharging.
Build a Conference Website + App
You need to put together a website for your conference that can act as a central hub for leads and customers to find information, purchase tickets, review speakers, and plan their day.
Your conference website must be a separate site from your main company or organization’s website. People want to learn about the conference, not your company per se. You can link between the two sites, but you want them to be separate entities.
While you could slap together a website in 10 minutes using free templates and drag-and-drop features, I would recommend setting aside some of your conference budget for professional web design.
You should hire a web team who’s well-versed in SEO best practices as well. This way, your site has a better chance of ranking highly. This can help you bring in additional traffic that could result in extra ticket sales.
Does your conference need an app? That depends.
If it’s a small event where people can easily walk in a giant circle and see everything there is to see, then no. You can skip the app.
For large-scale conferences with a speaking and entertaining schedule, as well as 50 or so booths, you should have an app. The app should feature an event map, a schedule, and a list of all vendors, speakers, sponsors, and entertainers.
A bare-bones app suffices, but one that’s interactive will be a more valuable tool for your audience. Plus, you might be able to derive more metrics from the app later.
Put the Tickets on Sale
Your conference website has gone live, and you’ve gotten all the bugs worked out.
It’s time to start a drip email campaign first announcing your ticket on-sale date and then reminding people so they don’t miss the big day.
If you’re offering early bird packages, you need to announce those well before the general sale so people have time to take advantage of the deal.
You’d want to space out the early bird deal weeks if not months before the general on-sale.
Promote Your Conference
I said that the time would come for you to market your event, and now that tickets are officially on sale (and hopefully selling out fast), now is a good time.
You can use countless digital marketing strategies, but it’s up to you and your conference staff to determine which are the most cost-effective.
Here are some marketing methods you can select from.
- Email marketing: Email marketing is by far one of the most critical components of your conference marketing campaign. Your conference website should be designed to capture the contact information of leads. You need opt-in forms that appear strategically across the site. Offer lead magnets such as discount codes for tickets or early news offers for signing up. Use your email list as a means of informing people about the conference, building the excitement, and promoting next year’s conference as soon as this one ends.
- Content marketing: Content marketing includes blog posts, videos, whitepapers, checklists, eBooks, and infographics. Creating a content marketing plan and producing consistent content is very important in building brand awareness, strengthening customer relationships, and building your audience.
- Influencer marketing: Wouldn’t it be fabulous if you could get a big influencer to talk about your conference? It’s not outside of the realm of possibility with influencer marketing. You’d reach out to an influencer of your choice, they’d introduce your conference to their audience, and you’d enjoy an influx of web traffic and possibly ticket sales.
- Social media marketing: Social media is a great vehicle to promote your upcoming conference and stay connected with your audience in the 11 months until your next conference. By all means, post your own content on your social media channels, but share content that you think your audience will find valuable as well.
- Advertising: Online ads such as pay-per-click or PPC ads, display ads, and native ads are all great ways to get the word out about your event. You should also consider social media advertising and perhaps a local billboard or newspaper ad or two. Be sure to set an advertising budget!
Plan Merch and Swag
If you plan on selling merch for your event or giving out swag, you should have already chosen the vendors for this months ago.
That said, at this point into your conference planning, you may finalize the merch designs, determine where merch booths or stands will go, and choose the swag that you will give out as freebies or even as simple prizes for some contests and giveaways.
Provide Accommodations and Travel Options to Visitors
If there’s room in the budget, you might arrange a shuttle to and from the conference hall to the local hotel. You could even rent out a block of hotel rooms for visitors to stay in.
At the very least, you want to provide information on accommodations and travel options courtesy of your conference website and app.
You could even schedule a blog post around this time about things to do in the area!
Plan the Conference Schedule
All the pieces of your conference are there; you only have to put them into place. Think of this as completing a puzzle or playing a game of Tetris. Everything needs to fit.
If yours is only a single-day conference, then it’s easier to plan than a weekend conference. That said, take care not to jam so much into the schedule that you overwhelm and exhaust your audience.
If you have that big of a need for more booths and speakers, then make your conference a two-day event next year.
Even for longer events, the key is not planning speakers and seminars back to back to back. Give people a chance to breathe, get up, stretch their legs, charge their phones, go to the bathroom, maybe call a loved one.
You don’t want to make Day One so top-heavy that Day Two feels sparse by comparison!
Track Metrics and Plan for Next Year
The last and most important part is reviewing metrics.
This is something that you ideally should have been doing the entire time.
You want to track your website, including the traffic, where it’s coming from, which pages people spent the most time on, and what the bounce rate was.
You should monitor the number of email subscribers you have as well as the open rates and click-through rates for each message you send.
You must also be privy to how many tickets you sold and how much money you earned from ticket sales. Compare that to the actual attendance. You want just as many people who bought tickets to show up, or at least very close.
Other areas to check for metrics include your company website, your social media accounts, and your app activity.
I want to be clear that your conference might not knock it out of the park in its first year, and that’s okay.
Even if your event is successful, there’s always room to grow and improve more for next year.
There you have it, all the steps required to successfully start, execute, finish, and measure a conference. You will have your work cut out for you, but in the end, when you achieve attendance objectives and fulfill goals, all of it will have been worth it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chris Baylis is the President and CEO of The Sponsorship Collective and a self-confessed sponsorship geek.
After several years as a sponsor (that’s right, the one investing the money!) Chris decided to cross over to the sponsorship sales side where he has personally closed tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship deals. Chris has been on the front lines of multi-million dollar sponsorship agreements and has built and coached teams to do the same.
Chris now spends his time working with clients to value their assets and build strategies that drive sales. An accomplished speaker and international consultant, Chris has helped his clients raise millions in sponsorship dollars.