By Vanessa Tautter |
Over a year ago, my colleagues and I decided to organise a conference at the University of Graz. For many of us, it was the last year at this particular university and, in a way, we also saw the conference as something like a farewell party. We spent the following nine or ten months preparing and organising what would become the international and interdisciplinary student conference “Transcending Borders – Redrawing Perspectives”. In the end, the conference was a great success! Therefore, in the following, we share some advice for those of you who want to embark on the demanding, but extremely exciting and rewarding path to conference organisation.
The best advice is probably to start planning the conference early. We had our initial meeting in August 2017 for a conference taking place in May 2018. In the beginning, figure out what you actually want to do: What are you interested in? What’s the topic and title of your conference? What should the programme entail? Who’s your target group? Don’t worry, you can still adapt these ideas should issues arise at a later stage, or should you simply want to change them.
It is very helpful to gain support from individuals who have already organised conferences in the past from the very beginning. You can, for example, ask a professor or lecturer who you know well or who is renowned for supporting student activities for help. We had our ‘guardian angel’ who helped us whenever we needed something. We could also use her good reputation to ease the organisation process. For example, she would (co-)sign funding applications, invitations for visa applications and confirmations for participants.
Additionally, even if you happen to organise your conference without a specific institution, getting support from an institute or research centre can be useful. It looks more professional and can give you some advantages (in our case, a free venue). When it comes to visa applications support by a specific institute and/or professor can be very helpful too.
For the day(s) of your conference, try to recruit some volunteers to help out with the registration, catering, etc. in exchange for free food and a confirmation of participation. Students are willing to do a lot for free food!
Think about how many people you want on your team and who you want to work with. Keep in mind that if you are, for example, only three people, every single one of them will have tons of work to do. Our team consisted of five people and we tried to share all tasks equally. Everybody should have an area which they are responsible for (e.g. funding, communication, finance, catering, …). Larger areas can also be assigned to more than one person. Additionally, work together with people you enjoy working with. You will end up sitting in a lot of meetings with them, in addition to exchanging messages constantly on the the communication app of your choice. Working with people you like will make the whole experience much more fun and it will be a great opportunity to learn from another.
Who’s gonna pay for it? This is probably one of the most relevant and urgent questions for many conference organisers-to-be. Quite frankly, it is also the question we worried about most. While this question may be the least fun to talk about, it is unfortunately very central to the whole process. Access to funding (or lack thereof) impacts quite fundamentally how you can go about organising the conference.
So, in the early meetings, think about what you want to do and calculate how much money you will need for achieving your aims. Do you have to pay for the venue? Do you aim to fund participant travel and accommodation costs? Will you pay for lunches, dinners, coffees, cakes? Will you print programmes, posters, postcards, artsy stuff? Are you aiming for a publication? Also, what is the absolute minimum of funding you need? For us, it was important to be able to fund participants. We wanted to give everyone an equal opportunity for presenting at our conference. As we were extremely lucky with the funding, in the end, we were able to offer our participants an all inclusive package that covered their accommodation and travel costs and provided us with enough money to pay for food.
When trying to find sources for funding, we strongly suggest talking to people at your university or in your area who have organised conferences in the past. Find out where they got money from. Also ask them for advice on how to apply for funding at different places and institutions. And, most importantly, exploit all potential sources! The longest and most detailed application does not guarantee money. Therefore, apply to various places and put as much effort as you can into every application. When writing funding applications, find your conference’s assets. Why should anyone fund you in particular? Also think about what is important to each institution. We continuously emphasised that we were a self-organised student conference aiming at an international audience. This worked quite well with some of our sponsors.
Calculate everything over and over again. When putting together your financial plan, at first use estimates and then, little by little, enter the correct costs once you learn about the actual prices. Keep everything up to date and make sure that everything is in good order! Also, make sure to check your sponsor’s requirements! Avoid mistakes in your financial plan and have several people double check it. Google Sheets is a good resource for this. Your whole team can access and add to it. Just make sure no one messes up the calculations and always back them up offline too. It is also a good idea to have one person who is ultimately responsible for the financial plan, who knows how it works and where to find what.
Once you know who your target group is, you can go about advertising your conference. The focus of our conference was international and interdisciplinary, and we aimed to address students of all levels (bachelor, master and PhD). Include such information on your target group in your Call for Papers. Again, when it comes to communicating your CfP, use all resources available. Send it to all mailing lists and newsletters you are familiar with (at your university, in your country as well as abroad), talk about it at other conferences, address student groups and research associations, use social media – whatever comes to your mind! Annoying people and being overly enthusiastic pays off in the end.
It is also very useful to show presence online. We used Facebook to advertise our conference. This works quite well with students. Additionally, we created a homepage that featured all the important information about our conference. Also, include a link to your homepage in your Call for Papers. In turn, the CfP should be the first thing people can access on your homepage. You can add additional information at a later point. Make sure that everything is clearly and logically structured. At the time of the conference, our homepage featured the following sections: Home (news and updates), About (about the conference, the University of Graz, the city of Graz), Call for Papers | Posters, Best Paper Award, Getting There (to Austria / Graz as well as to the venue), Team, Contact, Location / Venue and Tips for poster presentation. Over the months, we gradually added information and sections to the page. Check it out at: https://traborp.wordpress.com/
Additionally, also think about ways to advertise your conference on campus and around town. Make it visible! We wanted to attract a large audience. Therefore, we printed posters, programmes and postcards and spread them everywhere. As our designer Petra Kostevc has outlined in an earlier post, use a nice design that carries a message and stands out – a design that people remember. A thoughtful design may also attract additional sponsors, institutions, professors, lecturers or research institutes to support you.
When it comes to internal communication, we also used social media and other online resources. Facebook groups are extremely useful for working together. Facebook Messenger (or any other messenger app), on the other hand, is helpful for more immediate communication and urgent questions. You can usually reach someone very quickly. Additionally, we also used Trello to organise all our information (schedules, catering, accommodation, keynotes, bills, funding requirements, etc.). Again, Google Docs and Google Sheets are also extremely useful tools for working together.
We had more or less regular meetings from August 2017 until May 2018. They were most frequent over the last two months before the conference. Just a hint for your time management: Organising a conference is a lot of work – it is fun and rewarding, but keep in mind that around the time of the conference you will most likely not be doing much else.
Have an agenda for every meeting! It will help you to focus and work more efficiently. You don’t want to waste hours and hours just talking about random stuff, then realising in the end that you haven’t actually got anything done yet. We used Google Docs to create an agenda before every meeting – everyone can contribute to it. Before the start of the meeting, sort it according to broader themes and topics. At the end of the meeting, assign tasks to everyone. And, set deadlines! Be nice to each other and tell your colleagues in advance if you are extremely busy at a certain period (e.g. exam times) or if you need a well-deserved break. The others can cover for you for some time. Breaks are important, as are your degrees. After all, the conference is just one of the side projects you do for fun.
We always started meetings by sharing positive feedback and praise. Realising what you have already achieved is very rewarding, particularly during the most stressful times. Also, don’t forget to take breaks. Go outside, breath and catch some fresh air.
Finally, we’re getting to the more academic part of the conference! But as you can see, it makes up only a tiny bit of conference organisation.
Thinking about your programme starts with the Call for Papers. It has to include all the important information applicants need to know: the topic of the conference, a brief introduction to the topic, the target group, your expectations, the mode of presentation (paper/poster/art/etc.), deadlines, information on abstract and bio, contact details. Have a look at the Calls of other conferences. This will give you an idea of how they should look like. It will also help you figure out what exactly you want applicants to submit as part of their proposal and how long it should be. Be as precise as possible. If you’re organising a student conference, you might want to include more or more detailed information as it may well be the first conference for a lot of applicants.
It’s two weeks before the deadline and you have hardly received any proposals? Stay calm. Almost everyone submits right before the final day. This happened to us and we were a bit nervous about it. But in the end, we received double the number of applications we could accept (from literally all around the world!).
Plan a long meeting during which you discuss all proposals. Bring food and time. Everyone should read all proposals beforehand in order to contribute to the discussion. At the beginning of the meeting, set criteria for the selection. They can, for example, concern the inclusion of different disciplines, whether applicants submitted everything they were supposed to, their level of studies, where they come from (internationality) – and, obviously, the quality of the proposal. Discuss every proposal and make a decision together.
In order to create a provisional programme, write the different topics on small pieces of paper and try to find common themes. Once you’ve established those, you can find names for your panels. When scheduling the panels, don’t forget to check the availability of the presenters. Not everyone will necessarily stay for the whole conference. Additionally, don’t forget to include some time for discussions and don’t forget to add enough breaks! Have your colleagues double check the programme and schedule. If you are organising an evening programme (e.g. conference dinners, a reception at the city hall…), also add it to the programme and ensure that the timing works.
Food and Drinks
Providing food, drinks and goodies will make people happy. Make sure you have enough food for all your breaks. There will not always be time available to leave the venue to buy something during the conference or there may not be any restaurants in the area. Finger food and cakes (basically everything edible) will be highly appreciated. Tip: Check any dietary restrictions with your participants beforehand. Also, start looking for caterers early enough – especially if you’re organising a conference during a busy season (e.g. Christmas). Ask different caterers and compare prices!
It is also nice to be able to offer some goodies to your participants. These can, for example, include pens, notepads and bags. Ask at your university, institute or student union whether they have free material for conferences. We also added leaflets and maps from the tourist office so that participants could learn a bit more about the city they were visiting. You can usually also get those for free. You can also look for additional sponsors that might offer drinks, chocolates or candy for your goodie bags.
Have someone around who knows how to connect projectors and computers as well as how to use USB sticks, the internet, PowerPoint, Prezi, microphones, speakers and all the other technical items your participants may wish to use. It is also always a good idea to try everything before participants arrive to ensure that the IT is actually working. But, in case something isn’t, just stay calm – also during the conference. As long as you stay calm, no one will even notice that there is an issue.
Preparing for the Conference
Check when you can access the building or room(s). Ensure that everything you need is in place (e.g. projectors, computers, chairs, tables, glasses, microphones, …). Start the setup of the conference as early as you can to make sure that you finish before the participants arrive. Have simple office supplies around: You will probably need some scissors, tape, pens and sharpies at some point. If participants have to sign forms, prepare those in advance to run the registration process as smoothly as possible. Assign a couple of people to work at the registration, particularly at the beginning of the conference. Make sure that the caterers know when to come and how to set up. Put signs everywhere: To guide attendees to the venue and to the bathrooms, to help the caterers find their way, a welcome sign… There is no such thing as too many signs! Also, create some blank signs with your design for backup – you will need them.
During the Conference
It is a good idea to create a detailed plan both for the organisers as well as the helpers. We called ours “The Battle Plan”. It basically told every single person involved what to do and when to do it. For example, who will change the name signs for panels? Who will change the glasses and get fresh water? Who is chairing which panel? Who is introducing the keynote speakers? Who is responsible for the microphone, IT, registration desk? But also, at what time can which person take a break to just enjoy a panel. This will make it easier for everyone involved. The better you organise your conference beforehand, the easier you can deal with problems on the day (e.g. postponed keynotes). It also makes the life of your volunteers easier. Not all of them will be able to stay for the whole conference and they will highly appreciate it, if they can get hold of an exact schedule. Moreover, participants will also bombard them with questions – and, the more your volunteers know from the beginning, the easier it will be for them to provide help.
Have a ‘headquarter’ somewhere that is always occupied. This can, for example, be a registration desk. We also had our ‘backstage area’, where we could store everything we needed at some point or another. Our backstage area was simply an empty seminar room.
However, the most important thing during the conference is to stay calm and smile. Give the impression that everything is great, and everything will be great. And, don’t forget to enjoy the conference that you have organised!
After the Conference
After cleaning up the venue, if possible, take a short break. Then, head straight back to finish up your finances, upload photos and do everything that still has to be done. And, don’t forget to appreciate what you have managed to put together and celebrate!
Organising a conference on your own is certainly a huge task. We also struggled at times. We were nervous whether things would work out alright. We were scared of messing up the finances. Yet, in the end, we did a very good job. We had a great time and a chance to meet amazing people. We received extremely supportive feedback. Our team also grew closer and we continue to support each other. While we put a lot of effort into the organisation of our TRABORP conference, it certainly paid off in the end. It was an amazing experience – memories to never forget.
So, we can only recommend starting to plan your own conference right away!
The international and interdisciplinary “Transcending Borders – Redrawing Perspectives” Conference was organised by Marlene Fößl, Rosa Hergan, Lennart Oschgan, Maria Sonnleithner and Vanessa Tautter. The design was created by Petra Kostevc.
Marlene is currently completing her MA thesis on animals in medieval cartography at the University of Graz.
Lennart studies German and English Philology at the University of Graz and is additionally pursuing the teacher training programme at the same university.
Maria studied English and History as part of the teacher training programme at the University of Graz and is now working as a high school teacher.
Vanessa studied History and English at the University of Graz and is now a PhD student at the Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories at the University of Brighton.
Petra is in her final year of postgraduate studies at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design at the University of Ljubljana.
All images by the TRABORP team, designs by Petra Kostevc.