Planning for an international conference should begin at least 18 months before the event. The first critical step is to make some key decisions. If this is not the first event, previous years’ attendance figures can be used to estimate number of attendees, vendors, speakers, and size of venue. If it is the first event of its kind, use a similar event as a guide and adjust the estimate based on early responses.
Things to consider:
Venue – The venue selected must have adequate space to accommodate the number of guests, with rooms or sections for speakers, workshops, exhibitors, and/or vendors.
Many hotels cater to a convention atmosphere and can provide the common rooms as well as hotel accommodations for guests, often at a discount. If the event is too large for a hotel, consider a convention hall with several hotels nearby. Hotels will usually offer a discounted room rate for large groups. For more on hotels see our guide to negotiating with hotels.
Food – Setting up a hospitality room in a conference area or a suite of rooms is always a good idea. Offer finger foods and non-alcoholic drinks in a comfortable, informal setting where guests can mingle and network until late into the night.
Translators – For an international group, translators are a must. The venue may have their own multi-lingual staff to handle guest issues, but the event should have its own translators available in event rooms.
Agenda – Setting event timing and creating flow is crucial to a successful event. Concurrent events can be scheduled without regard to relative position, but events scheduled one after the other should be close together and have a short break between. A staggered, mixed schedule is best, so people can plan their day around the topics they are most interested in.
Day-long Events – If the schedule calls for a day-long event, break the agenda into a morning session with a mid-morning recess, followed by a lunch break, and the afternoon session with another break in mid-afternoon.
Equipment – Most conferences will require audio and visual equipment, lighting, computer stations, television screens, and many other types of electronics. Communications are crucial. Presentations must be as clear in the back row as they are in the front, and guests must have the ability to stay in contact throughout.
Transportation – Airlines will often offer deals for groups. An experienced travel agent may be able to not only broker a deal, but provide references and make suggestions for a more successful trip. Local travel should also be considered. Guests may be expected to arrange their own ground transportation, or limo service can be arranged, paid for by the guest at time of use or included in the reservation cost for all guests. Some hotels provide free shuttle service to nearby attractions.
Entertainment – If there will be a banquet, a little creativity can score a lot of points. If possible, arrange something memorable. For example, Sea World in Orlando has underground dining rooms where the walls are glass windows into gigantic aquariums. Some other good ideas include a dinner cruise or simply a restaurant offering a spectacular view.
Supplies – On any trip, people forget things. Offer a stock of pens, pencils, notepads, paperclips, and clipboards for notes.
Things will go wrong – they always do – so have a backup plan in place for last-minute disasters. Lining up a few local speakers willing to fill in for a speaker snowed in at the Buffalo airport can be a lifesaver. They may not be what the guests expected, but it’s better than an empty schedule and the right choice of substitute may even prove to be a hit. Other contingency substitutions might be additional workshops or discussion groups, or in a pinch, serve desserts and coffee. Appealing to a sweet tooth can often calm irritation and provide a welcome respite from an otherwise busy day.
People attend a conference because they want to participate, learn, network, and discuss. But they will never return to a poorly organized event. Hosting a successful event requires planning for every facet of comfort, function and purpose, and it’s the unique touches that make an event stand out from the rest.