As an educator, I find that attending a good conference always gives me the refreshing feeling of reassurance that I am in the right profession, and one that offers new challenges, new insights, new formats for the more experienced and is welcoming to and encourages the less experienced. In sum, it is still for me, after my many years in it, a worthwhile and forward-looking profession.
However, what makes a successful conference? I offer below a list of things, which in my experience of attending and organising conferences are, more often than not, essential in order to make a conference successful.
In many ways, organising a conference is similar to preparing a lesson. There are pre-, during and post- arrangements to be made, and a backup plan for each phase. The more thought that is put into the planning phase, the better the conference. So we can say that organisation is the backbone of a successful conference: it’s where everything starts, where everything ends, and where we consider what everyone expects from a conference. And as we know, feedback forms don’t lie!
As a participant, I like there to be a good range of presentations in my area of interest, but also other choices too in case I fancy exploring other fields. I also like it when there is something different about the format, such as mini-courses which run over a couple of days during a conference, talking posters, or whatever else is proposed. I feel that regular conference participants are entitled to variety.
On the practical side of things, the printed program should be attractive looking, easy to use and easy to digest – some think of it as a souvenir of the conference. Last but not least, it should be made available on-line at least a week or so before the conference starts so that we can decide what to see, and sometimes even to book sessions in advance.
Comfortable rooms, high quality equipment, ease of access, transport to and from (i.e. hotels and venue) are the first things that come to mind when we think of a successful conference venue. However, free Wi-Fi is a great concern for many participants who work online and who cannot afford to take a full day off to attend a conference.
In the old days, the coffee break was the only option for socialising during a conference. We still much appreciate a well-presented coffee break with various attractive goodies and beverages, but we now also expect a nice range of social activities - we have got quickly used to them! I definitely look at the social program and try to make the most of it too. Quiz nights, poetry reading gatherings, stand up comedy, Pecha Kuchas, art exhibitions, city walks, etc are a wonderful chance to relax from the intense conference days and meet old and new friends. A most cherished bonus!
Nothing like a friendly efficient conference staff to make us feel well cared for, especially during very large conferences, where it is easy to feel a little lost. You will find that successful conferences usually have a good number of well trained people to help you out pre-, during, and post- conference
We all want to see our cherished authors and thinkers in the flesh and in action. However, a successful conference will need a good number of excellent presenters, the vast majority of whom are teachers from schools and universities. They work hard, quietly, to make a difference in the lives of their students. They play a major role in successful conferences.
Value for money
In these days of tight budgets, it is rare for teachers to be able to pay very large conference fees without some form of sponsorship. Reasonable fees, small concessions, and scholarship offers, wherever possible, tend to attract more participants. We need to remember: the more inclusive the conference, the more successful it will be.
Successful conferences usually have a very well designed advertising strategy. A conference teaser is sent out months in advance of the official announcement so that expectations are created and interest in attending. Well thought-out, catchy conference themes, logos, and slogans are certain to form a positive image of the conference in prospective participants’ minds and remain there for many years after the conference is over. Test this out. Which ones do you remember from, say, more than 5 years ago?
For the conference organisers, good advertising is a means of attracting sponsorship and casting the sponsorship net wider, which of course leads to the conference being able to provide more… in volume and quality.
We all know that plenary sessions are not to be missed because they are a chance to see and hear our favourite speakers. Along with that, there is the warm feeling of belonging to a group when the auditorium is packed full. Memorable plenary sessions are part and parcel of successful conferences.
The rule of thumb for organisers here is to locate the publishers' stands where contact with participants can be maximised. If you are attending the conference, you will want: hot-off-the-presses books and resources; enough space to circulate without spilling coffee on others; and of course freebies – the more the merrier. This may seem a frivolous part of the conference, when so much more is going on. However, teachers are bookworms and more often than not the exhibition room is a rare opportunity to browse through new titles, compare the latest editions of old favourites, and be surprised by new approaches, all offered by the market leaders in one spot. Then, there are the book signing sessions where we can meet our favourite authors and take a bit of them home.
Support for speakers
It is common now to find a lot of support for speakers before and during conferences.
They sometimes have a minder, a quiet room to review their notes before delivering their sessions and to relax afterwards. First-time presenters will never forget their first conference. Successful conferences ensure that the inexperienced and the unknown attract a reasonable audience, by scheduling their sessions appropriately.
Size of conference
I tend to prefer small conferences where I can get to meet and make friends. It is rare to find a small conference that has not been successful. However, in recent years very large conferences have provided an online space where communication amongst participants starts weeks before the actual conference begins. The British Council-IATEFL Online initiative is a good example of how to make a large conference friendly and warm, despite the large number of delegates. I think that a successful conference is one that finds ways to keep the communication flow constant pre-, during and post-conference.
Successful conferences encourage and support the publication of successful presentations, the creation of networks, evaluations of presenters and other tangible outcomes. Presenters can also share their slides or presentation notes and resources online, sometimes even before the event, e.g. IATEFL Online. Successful conferences stay in presenters’ minds long after they are over, just like a good film.
I have a friend who collects conference badges. She says they remind her of special moments in her professional life. Conference folders, bags, badges, pens, programme, T-shirts, lunch invitation, treats etc are a small part of conferences, but they go a long way towards making conferences memorable, more likely to be successful, and towards participants longing to attend the next one.
Last but not least, conferences are made up of people. These include the organising committee, presenters, minders, support staff, exhibitors, visitors, venue staff and gate-crashers! I find that it is when everyone involved is willing to make things happen, to make this the best conference ever, and of course to show cheerful flexibility in making adjustments and compromises when things don’t turn out exactly as expected that, by a combination of all these things, ultimately we end up with a successful conference.
These are a few pointers to organising and running successful conferences. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list but I hope it is useful within your context.
Thanks goes to Roddy Kay, in Brazil, for adding important points to this list.