25. The Do’s and Don’ts of Planning a Conference

Conferences are an effective vehicle for forming, shaping, and nurturing our movement. They offer documentation of animal abuses, activist training, and lots of inspiration and networking opportunities. Many of us have attended a national animal rights conference. But what’s involved in creating one?

When and Where

Once you have decided the general purpose and theme of your conference and secured the necessary financial backing, the next two questions are when and where to hold it. The eight weeks between mid-June and early August work well, because students are out of school and older folks find it easier to take time off from work. For the same reason, weekends and adjoining weekdays (except for Independence Day weekend) work well.

The host city needs to have a large population of likely registrants, reasonably priced hotel rooms, and an airport served by many airlines. Our favorite cities have been Washington, Los Angeles, Portland (OR), and San Francisco, or one of their suburbs.

The choice of actual venue is based on four considerations: capacity to handle your expected attendance, sleeping room prices, and willingness to host dogs and provide animal-free bedding. Most major hotels can handle several hundred people, but only a few in each city can accommodate up to 1,500. Larger numbers require a convention center, which destroys the intimacy and community of sleeping, eating, learning, and networking in the same space.

Most hotels have two fairly separate profit centers: sleeping rooms and “banquets.” Your attractiveness to the hotel is based on how many sleeping rooms you will guarantee. Your meeting rooms are called “banquets,” because union contracts forbid hotels to rent meeting spaces without employing food workers. They get around this by giving you the meeting spaces for “free,” if you buy enough of their food at exorbitant prices.

Who’s In Charge of Operations?

With the hotel contract secured, you can now work on building your operations management team.

Your very first manager should be your website and registration guru. An attractive website will sell your conference to your public and contain all the pertinent information on registration, housing, food, exhibits, sponsorships, and program.

Your promotion manager will recruit additional sponsors, exhibitors, and attendees. Sponsors put up money, register their staffs, offer speakers, and promote your event.

Your food manager will secure food donations from plant-based food manufacturers and work out detailed menus and prices with the hotel chef. Because the exorbitant hotel food prices include rental of meeting spaces, you may need to subsidize them from registration fees. Food donations can be used to reduce hotel meal prices and to enhance your networking receptions.

Your exhibits manager will sign exhibitor contracts, assign exhibit locations and electric power outlets, and work out receiving and shipping details. During the conference, they will open and secure exhibit spaces and deal with special requests.

Your staffing manager will assign folks who have offered a few hours of their conference time in exchange for free registration. They will assist primarily with set-up and breakdown, registration, hospitality, and program production.

Your registrar will print badges and any meal tickets, will set up and break down the registration area, and will supervise on-site registration.

Your facilities manager will procure and organize all the needed equipment and supplies, get them to the conference venue, place them in the appropriate locations, set up the conference office, post signage and bulletin board, then reverse the process after the conference ends.

Your hospitality manager will manage a staff that welcomes attendees, checks badges, answers questions, and hosts receptions.

The above are descriptions of functions, rather than individual responsibilities. In most cases, one person should be able to discharge more than one function.

What’s On the Program?

Everyone wants to speak at a conference and the competition is intense. But there is a lot more to structuring an effective program than assigning speaking slots.

Here are some decisions you will need to make at the outset:

  • Number of days
  • Number and length of concurrent sessions
  • Number of speakers per session
  • Number and length of plenary sessions
  • Networking receptions
  • Special events

The number of concurrent sessions is generally limited to 5 by most venues’ meeting spaces. Typical length is 45-60 minutes. The number of speakers per session may vary between 1-4, but 2-3 is best, plus a moderator. This is based on the assumption that most topics can be adequately introduced and explained in 15 minutes, with additional details provided in a handout or internet references.

In order to reduce instances where similar topics are scheduled at the same time, you may wish to organize the concurrent sessions into tracks with mutually exclusive topics.

Plenary sessions, involving all attendees, and lasting 1-2 hours, can be scheduled at the beginning and end of each day. The topics should be of general interest and the presenters may be heads of sponsoring organizations or other popular movement figures.

Networking receptions and special events are opportunities to meet other attendees or attendees with special interests.

Speakers submissions may be generated by personal invitation and by open public enrollment.  All speakers should share outlines of their presentations with others on their assigned panel and submit their visual aids before the event.

Who Runs the Program?

Running the conference program has its own staffing requirements.

Your program manager issues an early invitation for speaker submissions, determines who is qualified, and makes the assignments to specific sessions, perhaps under the general guidance of a program committee.  Matching speakers with appropriate sessions is a highly sophisticated process requiring intimate familiarity with the speakers and the topics. At the event, the program manager makes sure that all scheduled speakers and moderators are present and properly briefed.

Your production manager makes sure that all audiovisual aids have been properly scheduled and that session rooms have the proper furnishings and audiovisual equipment, then assigns projectionists and room monitors to each session. At the plenary sessions, they control the stage, lighting, and intermission music. They hire a sound engineer to make sure that all rooms are equipped with sound amplification and recording equipment, as well as a couple of photographers and a videographer to record the entire proceedings.

You may also wish to hire a program editor to compile, design, and produce a printed program booklet. You will want to produce a pictorial report of your event on your website and social media.

To keep our speakers and attendees safe from COVID-19, our
Animal Rights National Conference is taking a break this year.

The views expressed here are of the author and do not necessarily
represent the views of the Farm Animal Rights Movement

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