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6 December 2017
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How to run a successful conference

Running a conference is something you may need to do as part of a society or group or as part of your involvement in a particular interest group. Conferences can be fun and create a great opportunity to meet some interesting speakers. It is a good way of bringing people together be that within a speciality, society or just an interested group. Conferences are a fantastic way of sharing learning to a wide number of people and creating opportunities for trainees to showcase their work in oral and poster presentations.

From a personal perspective organising conferences:

  • Give an opportunity to meet and listen to speakers of particular interest
  • Demonstrate your leadership and organisational abilities
  • Meet like-minded people and share ideas
  • Extend your professional networks
  • Develop skills in reviewing abstracts and shortlisting 

A word of caution, despite being lots of fun, organising a conference is hard work and can leave you tearing your hair out at times. I have run a number conferences and have learnt a fair few lessons which I have incorporated into this ‘how to guide’. It will provide you with a structure (the steps) when you are starting out and hopefully also a few handy hints and tips.

Tip – Before you take on organising a conference – remember this will take time – this not something you can pull together in an afternoon.  It is difficult to say how much time this will take, but you need to be motivated and proactive. Get a good team around you - why do it alone?  

Step 1 - The proof is in the plan

Job number one is planning. You need a clear idea of what is it you want to achieve with a conference.

The following questions can be useful to start framing what you want to do. 

  1. Who is the conference for?
  2. How many people do you hope or need to attend?
  3. Do you have the funding or do you need to raise funds?
  4. Will there be a cost for attending the conference for delegates? 
  5. Are you planning to provide refreshments?
  6. What is the theme/ topic of the day?
  7. Do you want workshops/ keynote speakers or a mix?

Step 2 - Getting off the ground

Once you have laid your plans there will be a few things that need to be sorted as a priority:

  • Setting a date – depending on your target audience, remember to think about when school holidays, key exams and interview times are as this may detract from attendance. 
  • Finding a venue – There are often loads of great places around depending on your budget. You need to think about transport links – will people drive or come by public transport?
    • High budget – Hotels/ stadiums are usually a good start. They have events teams and will sort all of the catering, refreshments and stationery.
    • Low budget – Education centre’s at Trusts are usually good and usually free. You may have to sort your own catering.

Tip - If you don’t have a budget – consider getting drug reps/GMC/MDU/MPS to sponsor an event. Each area will have a local rep – look on the website for their email and contact them or approach a rep that you may have seen at your place of work. They may not be able to provide funding, but they may be able to provide lunch in return for delivering a short talk.

Tip – Think very far in advance (around 3-6 months) – people are busy, and time vanishes.

If you have your heart set on a particular keynote speaker, email them early with a range of dates, your venue may be more flexible than the speaker's diary!! Also, set a deadline for a response and, as painful as it might be, if you don’t hear back move on.  Don’t delay if they don’t respond. In my experience, most speakers are more than happy to come and speak when you explain you are a junior doctor organising a conference for other junior doctors. You could offer to pay for expenses but not offer a fee!

Step 3 -  Pulling together the agenda

OK, so you have your venue, the date and hopefully some speakers, now is the time to start thinking about the rest of the agenda.

  • Do you have workshops? 
  • Do you need additional rooms for breakout sessions?
  • Do you want trainee presentations/posters? (Remember this may be a pull for people to attend the event and an excellent opportunity for people to showcase their work)
  • What are the timings? Factoring in time for coffee and movement between sessions is important.

Tip - when asking for Trainee presentations - create a marking template beforehand and rope a few people into marking them, this can be more time consuming than you think. 

Tip - Give the speakers a clear brief or additionally a call before the event - There is nothing worse than a speaker that has got the brief wrong.

Ask speakers for slides in advance if possible so you can a) you can check the message is what you want and b) you can load it up on the IT system before their arrival.

Step 4. On the day

Before the day – allocate roles and responsibilities. Some suggestions of these could be:

  • Reception and sign in
  • Meeting the speakers
  • Introducing speakers and workshops
  • Liaising with the venue – find one person to talk to the events person (you can go to them with any queries or event type concerns)
  • Marking posters

Most of all – try to enjoy it yourself and make sure you get to attend sessions and participate too.

Step 5 – The final hurdle

Congratulations, the conference has been a success…however, before you sit back and chill there are a few things to do after:

  • Thank speakers
  • Certificates for delegates (one trick I’ve used is to send then and only release certificates of attendance on completion of feedback surveys)
  • Review feedback and share with appropriate parties.

Step 6 – Sit back, RELAX and pat yourself on the back for a job well done!

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