Creating a conference schedule can feel like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. By implementing some simple Project Management Processes you can set your conference and your attendees up for success. In most cases, you already have everything you need to get started, you just need to know where to look.
First things first – make sure that you have a firm grasp on the objectives of the conference and who is impacted by this event (In project management terms, we call this Initiating). What is the purpose of your conference? Is this an education forum? A networking opportunity? A membership meeting? Maybe it is all of the above. Defining the purpose of your event will assist you in creating the most appropriate schedule.
Once you have the why, you will need to define the who. Stakeholders are integral to your conference’s overall success, so identifying who needs to provide input is key. The Project Management Institute defines a stakeholder as “an individual, group, or organization, who may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity, or outcome of a project.” Now, this doesn’t mean that every stakeholder should give an opinion on the schedule. Be selective in who you ask for input. Maybe this is internal staff, a conference planning committee, a focus group of past attendees or a combination of all three.
Now that you have the road map it’s time to start planning the journey. The bulk of establishing a conference schedule occurs during this phase. Although there are several tools available to help you set a timetable for conference planning, there really is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to putting together a conference schedule. Confer with your stakeholders to establish a planning meeting. Review lessons learned from previous conferences, including evaluations and staff input.
If this is a first-time event, reach out to subject matter experts for guidance on what schedule would work best for your type of event and your participants – MPI, PCMA, and ASAE have comprehensive archives. Check your venue contract to see how much space you have at your disposal. Will some rooms need to be used for multiple purposes? Will venue staff have time to change room set-ups? What about AV requirements? Remember, you are planning experiences, not meetings – there is no room for doing things the way they have always been done before.
This is where the magic happens – executing the plan. After your research is complete, it is time to finalize the conference schedule. Whether you are planning a one-day event with three general sessions or a multi-day conference with simultaneous breakout sessions, there is no magic formula for setting the agenda. Remember, no one knows your participants better than you. Don’t overschedule if your participants like to have downtime. Conversely, schedule plenty of breaks and long lunches if your participants like to network. Be creative with early bird or late sessions if they have specific continuing education needs or requirements. Better yet – do a little of all of these options.
The current trend for meetings and events is to not overschedule your participants. Provide a la carte opportunities for that additional education pre and post-conference so that those that need/want the additional opportunities to engage have choices. Don’t be afraid to get creative when it comes to room set-ups if you are limited by space. Using bleachers in an opening keynote can create a pep rally feel or taking advantage of extra space in an exhibit hall can offer the opportunity for education on the show floor. Sometimes a constraint can actually lend itself to an exciting new solution.
4. Monitoring and Controlling
Course correct if necessary along the way. This phase is a short cycle that consists of ensuring the conference schedule is running smoothly and stakeholders’ expectations are being met. To accomplish this, implement a post-conference survey to capture additional attendee/stakeholder feedback. You don’t have to wait until next year to make changes – stay agile in your planning. If suddenly you find out that your participants have an additional education requirement for their professional certifications – by all means add that session. Until the program goes to print you have some leeway, and even then there is an option to make changes if it would benefit your participants.
That’s a wrap. Now is the time to solicit additional feedback from all your stakeholders – what can be done differently for the conference schedule moving forward? Evaluate any tools/techniques that you implemented throughout the process. Review any post-event lessons learned and make sure to document them. As the great Albert Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If you don’t take the time to debrief and regroup after this process, and then again once the conference is complete, you risk missing out on opportunities to create the best possible experience for your participants.
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