Headache Relief for Planners

©2004 Edward G. Rozycki


edited 4/20/14

One of our important organizational rites of passage is to plan and run a conference. Those of us who have survived this experience may equate the serendipity that enabled us to blunder through it unembarrassed to foresight and skill, feeling free, therefore, to offer advice to unwary ears.

There is absolutely no problem to running a conference. The difficulties begin only lacking a superabundance of money, time and energy to spend on it. Real-world conference planning -- as contrasted with "wouldn't-it-be-nice" conference planning -- is done within the constraints of scarcity. Who will do the work? When will it be done? How will it be paid for? These are the operative questions. They tend to be answered last.

Choices under constraint, as the theory books tell us, are, at best, optimizations; one attempts to minimize unpleasantness -- seldom does one get away scot-free with something good. Understanding this is the primary step to becoming an effective conference planner.

Assume that someone will always be less than happy with whatever you plan to do. Expect criticism -- declarations of expertise are inversely proportional to commitment to work. Attitude is an important asset to a planner and such pessimism has the benefit of occasional surprise.

The first problem is to choose a date, picking one that will maximize attendance, competing as little as possible with other events that may draw away attenders. There are precisely seven days in any given century when this condition is optimized, knowable only in retrospect.

The second problem is to choose a place. Hotels are easier to deal with, more efficient, have better food and require more "upfront" money. They tend to lack educational equipment thus necessitating expensive rentals. Schools have the equipment and are cheap. That's it on the positive side. They necessitate much additional effort for set-up, clean-up and coordination. But there are no doubt psychic benefits to be gained from holding an educational conference at an educational institution. I am not psychic enough to discern them.

It would perhaps be more cogent to explain the process of planning by responding to comments garnered from the feed-back sheets returned from participants in a conference I organized some years back for -- let us call it -- X-Organization. The format will be this: a quote or two from conference participants will be followed by my response. Do not discount the seriousness of the reply on the basis of its levity.

"The food was great."

"The food was mediocre...there were insufficient vegetables."

De gustibus non disputandum est . A disparity of opinion on this point is probably preferable to only bad reports.

"Nice that things started on time."

"Adhere to the schedule better,... stop on time. "

"Some of the small groups were so-so."

"I couldn't attend more small groups because so many were interesting."

De gustibus again, it appears. Actually, one should plan to have a program that forces painful choices. It is probably an indication of appropriate appeal.

"The theme of Testing is dull."

"The program was too secondary education oriented."

"More college-level concerns should have been included."

"Where was (famous speaker)? "

The plenary speaker is selected by the Executive Committee. All papers are solicited from the membership. Few offerings are made, even fewer rejected and then only because of some technical difficulty. If a particular interest is underrepresented in the program, that is because not many from that group have bothered to respond to the call for papers. Originally there was no theme. But I found several papers that reflected the plenary speaker's topic. Thus ... we had a theme! (Famous Speaker is in Hawaii -- the costs of holding the conference there were somewhat prohibitive.)

"The conference fees were expensive"

The Spring 1994 Conference cost a bit over fifty dollars per attender. Most people paid a fee of fifteen dollars; some, twenty-five. Thus, everybody was subsidized. This is generally the case for all X-Organization conferences. The deficit is made up by dipping into the Treasury and is partly offset by publisher participation fees and advertising fees. This brings up an excellent suggestion.

"Students should get a reduced rate."

Since everyone was subsidized, it does not seem amiss to increase the contribution in this direction. A consideration for future planners.

"The business meeting should be held elsewhere".

"The business meeting did not allow for adequate treatment of issues."

Business meetings need to trap a quorum. Substance causes length which induces flight. Brevity maintains participation but trivializes concerns. Pick your poison.

The following is a list of items that need to be attended to assuming the conference is held in a hotel where mealtimes, table set-up, and much additional staff is available for last minute adjustments.

1. Plenary speaker arrangements

a. select speaker, obtain same (swim the Atlantic, too.)

b. establish arrival time and pick-up

c. provide lodging and escort

d. attend to return

2. Presenter arrangements

a. Cajole, threaten and seduce participants

b. Obtain commercial participation (booksellers)

c. Stay on their backs.

d. Assassinate no-shows (suggested improvement)

3.Hotel Arrangements

a. Reserve space, obtain map of rooms

b. Arrange catering

c. Negotiate contract and payments

d. Organize registration team (big job)

e. Order equipment, specify location

4.Program Booklet production

a. Get printing time estimate

b. Confirm times and places of presenters

c. Confirm advertising and publishers exhibits

d. Provide room map, overview of schedule

e. Type up descriptions of presentations

f. Take to printer

g. Pick up booklets

5. Registration Packets

a. Obtain envelopes, bags, etc.

b. Enclose program booklets, advertising

c. Prepare lunch tickets

d. Prepare evaluation forms

6. Additional facilitative behavior

a. Gnash teeth, weep and wail

b. Call for help

c. Check everything twice

d. Check it twice more

e. Look for scapegoats

f. Hope for decent weather

g. Ask yourself "Why am I doing this?"

h. Pretend to have a good response for g.

The procedure outlined is clearly -- but deceptively -- simple.  I know that by my spelling it out your organization risks a flood of volunteers each wanting to set up his or her own conference. You'll have to wait your turn, however. Maybe if you volunteer for the program committee.....