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How to organise a successful conference

Want to organise a professional meeting but not know where to start? Sejal Parekh and Giovanni Satta share tips gathered while organising a conference for their NHS trust

Organising training days or conferences can be a rewarding but stressful undertaking. This is the article we would like to have read before organising a one-day conference on anti-infectives for North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust.

Giovanni Satta (left) and Sejal Parekh: organising a conference is a way of influencing or bringing about change on a wide scale

The aim of our conference was to create a forum for healthcare professionals to make connections and build resources as well as to promote our NHS trust as a place that recognises antimicrobial stewardship and education. However, additional aims that make taking on the organisation of a conference worthwhile might include:

  • It is a great learning experience
  • It is an impressive achievement to put on your CV
  • It is a good opportunity to network and become better known in your chosen field
  • It could be a way of influencing or bringing about change on a wide scale

It is essential to be clear on what the aim of the conference is and what you are trying to achieve. So, for example, the timing of our conference was particularly pertinent in light of the chief medical officers’ report on antimicrobial resistance and the recent strategy published by the Department of Health to tackle this, which highlighted the need for education and training. Our day was designed to be relevant to NHS working practices as well as to educate on common topics in microbiology, infectious diseases and antimicrobial pharmacy.

Preparation

So where to start? Organising a conference requires at least six months’ notice. For example, you should have a draft of the conference agenda in place well in advance. Organising a conference by oneself can be a huge achievement but to reduce stress it is well worth considering collaborating with a colleague.

Choosing a date

When you choose a date, try to ensure that it does not clash with any other training days or conferences with the same theme because this could reduce attendance to your event. Major conferences in any particular field are usually held around the same time each year, but check websites of the main organisations and networks applicable to your subject area.

­Creating the agenda

Conference agendas should be attractive, with hot topics and renowned speakers, so knowledge of the field or access to experts or committees is an advantage. Start by making a list of potential topics. These should be new, original or, at least, different. It can help to check PubMed, go through publications in the field for recent interesting articles or papers, or simply to talk to colleagues to give you inspiration.

The agenda should be divided into thematic sessions and specify the time given to subjects. We recommend an hour including questions for major topics, otherwise 30 minutes. If you want your event to be multidisciplinary, you will need to find out about the continuing professional development requirements of different professions (see later). So, for example, for doctors to be credited for CPD, on average a one-day conference should contain around five hours worth of presentations.

Aiming to complete an agenda with confirmed speakers should be a priority so that potential speakers do not commit themselves to other activities.

Speakers need to be briefed fully on what they are required to speak about to avoid overlap.

Speakers

A line-up of renowned speakers can really drive interest in a conference. One tip is that if you secure one prominent speaker, the rest should follow. This is what we found when  the head of the Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infections Reference Unit at Public Health England, whom we contacted by email, agreed to speak.

You can ask colleagues or professional networks to recommend speakers and can also check the latest papers on a subject to find upcoming researchers.

Many speakers will be happy to participate without any payment or even reimbursement but incentives may need to be considered if you require a specific illustrious speaker. Bear in mind, also, that sponsors (see later) are more likely to support original training days with a good list of speakers. All our speakers were national experts on their topic, with a substantive record of international publications, and they all agreed to speak without any payment although they did ask for reimbursement of travel expenses.

It may be useful to make sure you have a back-up speaker willing to present if any of your billed speakers is unable to attend at the last minute. Alternatively be prepared to present some of your own work if you are unable to recruit such speakers.

Funding and sponsorship

Financial planning and budgeting is vital — you may need to account for venue hire and catering as well as printing and speakers’ expenses.

Having delegates pay a fee may help fund the event but may discourage some delegates from attending. In addition, you are likely to need access to funds far in advance. If you opt to have a registration fee, we believe this should be kept to a minimum. Some event organisers ask for a deposit to secure the place, which is returnable on attendance.

You might consider approaching your NHS trust but, realistically, funding is scarce. Securing external sponsorship for your event is probably more likely to be successful. You will need to calculate how much support you need from each sponsor and be able to justify this. Any potential sponsors should be contacted early because actually receiving the funds can be a long process and you will probably need to be able to pay deposits for venues, etc. We were able to attract nine sponsors.

You will also need to create an account to collect funds — we worked with our trust’s  finance department. You will need to create invoice templates and may need access to IBAN and SWIFT numbers because sponsor companies may be based outside the UK.

Finding a venue

It would be ideal to hold the event at your organisation’s premises (since they represent the organisation), but they have to be able to accommodate all your delegates and any sponsorship stands. Since not all organisations will have such facilities, an external venue may be needed. Factors to consider when looking at a venue should include location, size and cost. You will need the most accessible place that is able to accommodate the number you wish to attend but you will also need to keep overheads to a minimum. Always view potential venues personally to assess suitability — do not rely on website images.

Ideally the venue should have a space where food and refreshments and any promotional or sponsored stands can be set up alongside each other to encourage delegates to interact with any promotional activities during breaks.

Hiring a venue and separate caterers (who may be unfamiliar with the venue) doubles the effort, so ask whether the venue can cater for the day. If not, ask if the venue has a regular caterer it recommends.

Many venues also offer technical help with the IT and audio to assist with the presentations. Check, for example, whether  roaming microphones for questions at the end of each session will be provided.

Catering details

Catering requirements can be complicated. You need to decide what type of refreshments you wish to provide, how many breaks there will be and how long they will be. Usually 45 minutes to an hour is enough for lunch, with 15 to 20 minutes for breaks.

Getting an estimate of costs will help with budgeting. We believe that good hospitality should not be overlooked. So, for example, if you can afford to provide a hot meal rather than a sandwich lunch, go for that. You will need to make arrangements for different dietary requirements (eg, for people with food allergies). Check how far in advance the caterer needs to be told about special dietary requirements. (Our caterer said it needed two or three days’ notice.)

Recruiting delegates

Endorsement from bodies such as the United Kingdom Clinical Pharmacy Association, the Royal Pharmacy Society and royal colleges as well as more specialist groups, such as the British Infection Association, can help promote the event. However, many of these organisations require membership and some may not wish to be associated with a conference unless the agenda aligns with their priorities. You may request your event to be flagged in The Journal’s Notice-board pages.

Being able to use an event for CPD is a significant factor. Note, however, from a CPD perspective, the importance of endorsement depends on the profession. For example, pharmacists do not need accredited CPD points but doctors do. Accreditation by a royal college will, therefore, help to recruit doctors, but this means making sure your event meets specific requirements. For instance, our conference was accredited by the Royal College of Pathologists and received the maximum five CPD credits but we had to provide feedback forms, a register for delegates and certificates for attendance.

An event can be successfully promoted by word of mouth and email and, in our experience, it is not dependent on endorsement from professional groups. Department heads may be able to promote your event via their distribution lists. But we believe that, essentially, good conferences promote themselves and all that is really needed is an eye-catching poster with an agenda packed with renowned speakers and original topics.

Nevertheless, when circulating promotional information, be sure to attach all relevant forms and documents, including the conference agenda (a draft version can be used if not finalised), registration form, and any contact details for queries. Registration forms should include the delegate’s name, position, email and any dietary requirements. An Excel spreadsheet will help you to keep all information up to date. On receipt of completed registration forms confirm the delegate place via email and send a reminder email a few days before the event.

Delegate packs

Delegate packs will need to be prepared and should include the following:

  • A final conference agenda
  • A list of attendees with organisation and position
  • Speaker biographies with contact details
  • Presentations in slide format if available
  • Blank notepaper or note pad
  • A feedback form
  • Sponsorship material

Depending on the number of delegates and the information you wish to include, delegate packs can take up to a week to prepare. Sponsors may be willing to produce them for you and some trusts may be willing to produce them in house. Biographies and presentation slides need to be obtained within strict deadlines because they will usually need formatting before going to print. If you need to go externally for printing, obtain a few quotes and negotiate prices well in advance — department secretaries or personal assistants may be able to help you with this.

Feedback forms can include ratings for each speaker, as well as for the organisation of the event itself. Our tip is that keeping them simple will help ensure that they are completed.

Ask for help

Much of the conference organisation can be done by one lead person — in fact this is often easier — but you will always need extra pairs of hands on the day, be it to register the delegates, co-ordinate with venue staff, usher delegates into the correct rooms or hand out certificates at the end. We asked our head of department to see if it was possible to release some junior members of the team for the day. (A successful conference is always good publicity for the department and trust.)

Press

You should consider what publicity you can achieve for your event and your organisation and you could, for example, invite editors from selected journals.

On the day

Arrive early and be prepared for any unexpected problems. For example, speakers may cancel due to sickness or they may experience transport problems and be running late. Have a back-up plan. Find out if any speakers can be flexible in case of such unforeseen circumstances and be prepared to amend the agenda. All speakers should have clear instructions on how long the presentation should last, taking into account any time for questions. It is important to keep the presentations on schedule. The chairman can indicate to speakers five minutes before they should finish and limit the questions if they have run over time.

At the start of the event it is also worth checking that the caterer is aware of any special dietary requirements and to make sure that food will be clearly labelled.

Despite having to make sure everything is running smoothly, do not forget that  the breaks and lunch period are great opportunities for you to network and introduce yourself to new colleagues as well as for eliciting feedback.

Post conference activities

Post conference activities are generally few but will involve thanking the speakers and giving them feedback from the event.

You may also need to collect remaining sponsorship money because some companies will only pay after the event — make sure you have a contract in place.

Organising a conference requires a lot of commitment but we both found it really worthwhile and would encourage our colleagues to give it a go.

Reminder/checklist

Dates

  • Do not clash with other events.

Agenda and speakers

  • Hot topics on the agenda.
  • Prominent speakers confirmed.
  • Back up speaker in place.

Funding and sponsorship

  • Account ready to receive funding.
  • Budgeting done.
  • All potential sponsors contacted.
  • Sponsor contracts in place.

Venue and catering

  • Suitable location, size and cost.
  • IT and audio equipment and support.
  • Catering — in house or external?
  • Special dietary requirements.

Recruitment and publicity

  • Endorsement/CPD accreditation by professional bodies.
  • Distribution lists, notice in The Journal.
  • Excel spreadsheet for registrants’ details.
  • Invitation to journalists.
  • Email reminder before event.

Other items

  • Delegate packs.
  • Feedback forms.
  • Thank speakers. 

Sejal Parekh is a clinical demand management pharmacist and Giovanni Satta is a consultant in medical microbiology and infectious diseases, both at North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust.


The trust’s Anti-infectives educational conference was held in London in January 2014. 

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2014.11136738

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