How to plan an academic conference
A successful academic conference is the result of a major time investment, detailed planning and a good dose of enthusiasm. This guide outlines the important phases of conference planning to help you get the organisational and administrative tasks under control, as well as advice to help you promote and run your academic conference. As you can imagine, there is a long list of factors to consider when planning and running your first academic conference, so let’s get started…
Why are academic conferences important?
There are three reasons holding an academic conference is beneficial for your career:
1. It helps establish yourself in your academic field
2. It’s great for your academic CV
3. It’s an invaluable networking opportunity
How do academic conferences work?
Academic conferences are simply a chance for academics and researchers to get together, present and discuss their work. That means your academic conference can take any form you wish!
How to organise an academic conference: the basics
Set the date
We suggest opting for date that falls in term-time – this can always be extended later. Don’t forget to check if there will be any similar conferences in the same year, to avoid overlapping.
Choose a theme
If you are thinking of organising an academic conference, you’ve probably already got a really good subject in mind. But if you haven’t, try to choose one that puts a new spin on a popular topic to be more certain of attracting speakers, delegates and attendees. Too narrow and not enough people will want to come, too broad and your conference will not be focused enough.
Get help from your institution
If you are a postgraduate or member of staff, make sure you let your university know what you’re doing! Speak to the administrative staff in your department and the university’s events team, if there is one. They are bound to have lots of advice and are most likely going to be willing to help you organise things.
Get professional help
If you are not associated with a specific university, we suggest getting some professional help to organise the practical side of things. Then you can focus on the academic side of things. Whether its an in-house dedicated events team like the one we have at Senate House or a conference planner, their guidance will help the conference planning go smoothly.
Set your budget
- Budgets can seem a pretty daunting if you’ve not handled one before. Here are some best practices for managing your budget for the conference:
- Know how you are going to pay for everything and where any profits will go– will you be using your departmental account, do you need a special code?
- Never guess costs, always calculate your expending with up-to-date quotes.
- Always assume the worst-case scenario when it comes to both expenditure and income (it sound’s pessimistic but it will make for happy budgeting.)
- Know what you need to pay for upfront and what you need to pay for after the conference.
- Aim to make a profit, as this could be used to fund another event.
- Ensure registration fees and any funding cover your expenses plus a contingency.
- Ensure the registration fee reflects what’s being offered on the day (especially for academic conferences that are more than one day).
How to find funding for academic conferences
Extra funding is always a good thing. Here are some places we suggest you look:
- Departmental funding bodies
- Subject associations
- Postgraduate skills development grants
- Higher Education Academy
- Relevant businesses and organisations
- Commercial companies
- Local firms with connections to your discipline
Tip: Don’t forget to create a conference email address
Keynote speakers or call for papers?
When it comes to the task of getting people to speak at your conference you have two main options. You can invite big names or people from your own institution to present. The latter is a great option if you would like control of the program from the start and if you want to suggest the topics your speakers cover. However, invited speakers can be expensive and they often have very busy schedules. Submitting a call for papers is another way to find speakers and it also acts as marketing for your conference. Of course this option has cons too, as you cannot control who proposes a paper.
If you are submitting a call for papers we suggest you always:
- Use fake deadlines.
- Specify the type of presentation you’re accepting and the word count.
- Specify whether or not you are seeking submissions from a specific discipline only.
- Clearly highlight your contact details and details of how to submit papers.
When it comes to selecting your papers/speakers always make sure you:
- Confirm your acceptances before you send out rejections.
- Choose a keynote speaker whose work will appeal to the majority of your audience.
- Remind delegates of the time allotted to their paper before the conference.
Don’t be frustrated if someone drops out or requests a change of day for their paper – these things happen. Always have a reserves list to accommodate this.
Drafting a programme
You should be drafting the programme for your conference alongside selecting the content. Don’t underestimate how long drafting this process will take; it is a tricky task after all!
The main practical things to consider are:
- The format: how many slots do you have? Will you have a single strand of speakers or parallel sessions? There are pros and cons to both, parallel sessions do allow for more speakers, but may be frustrating for delegates if they are missing key sessions.
- Make sure the conference is well paced, but still has plenty of refreshment breaks and chances for delegates to socialise.
- If you are having panel sessions, make sure you clarify the session format and rules on timing with your chosen panel chairs.
- Who will chair? Making the last speaker of the day chair the conference is a great way of ensuring the day runs to timings.
Don’t forget to take your delegates’ travel arrangements and journey times into account when scheduling sessions.
Before you finalise the programme make sure you run through it from the perspective of your attendees. Quality papers and a good keynote speaker are the skeleton of your conference, but make sure you’ve built lots of opportunities for your attendees to network, exchange ideas and enjoy themselves around the intellectual stuff.
Choosing an academic conference venue
Selecting a great venue for your conference is another important part of the planning process. Here are the main things to consider:
- Location: pick a location that is easy and convenient for people to travel to.
- Transport links: make sure you select a venue close to public transport links.
- Facilities: make sure the venue has up-to-date AV technology and WiFi. An in-house technical support team is also a massive help.
- Size: bear in mind how many people you need to accommodate when choosing your venue; an overcrowded or half-empty room are not ideal.
- Catering: a venue with in-house catering means one less thing to organise after all.
- Accommodation: if your conference lasts more than one day make sure there is a plenty of accommodation close by.
Other important things to consider…
Security - do you need to hire any security for your event?
If your conference is going to last more than a day, consider whether you need to organise accommodation for any of the participants. If you are not paying for their accommodation, make sure you provide a list of suggested hotels and B&Bs in various price brackets.
Don’t forget special dietary requirements when organising food. We always recommend sampling the menu to ensure quality.
Pricing and ticketing
When it comes to pricing you want to cover your costs, but beware of charging too much for tickets.
If you are planning to sell tickets to your conference online, here some key considerations you should take into account when choosing an online ticketing platform:
Make sure it is…
- Easy to use – ideally attendees should be able to to register and purchase tickets on the same page
- Customisable – so you can create a custom page for your conference (you should also have a custom URL)
- Mobile friendly – as people are just as likely to be registering via mobile as on a desktop
Make sure it has…
- Good customer support
- Good reporting tools and data capture – so you can keep track of how many registrations/tickets have been sold easily
- Multiple price options – great for setting different pricing tiers and offering different ticket types
Remember you want to make saying YES as fast and easy as possible so only include essential fields in your registration process. It’s good practice to give delegates a deadline by which they can withdraw from the conference and receive a refund.
Tips on selling tickets – special offers and discounts
Offering special offers (especially for group bookings) and a time-sensitive early-bird discount is a great way to ensure consistent ticket sales.
How to promote your academic conference
You’ve worked hard organising your academic conference until this point; now you want to make sure that hard work pays off by getting bums on seats. It’s important to start promoting your conference early. Your program does not need to be finalised before you start getting the word out.
Your messaging should be clear, compelling and benefit driven. Always include the topic, place and time as well as indicating whom the conference is for.
Images send out a stronger message about your event than any clever words ever could. So make sure you choose them with care!
Make sure a call-to-action is obvious and prominent on all marketing materials.
How to promote your conference online
There are loads of methods both online and offline you can use to promote your academic conference. Avenues of promotion fall into three main categories: owned media, earned media and paid media. Using a blend of all three is the best way to really shout about your event to your peers.
Owned media (channels that you directly own or control)
Taking advantage of any channels you own (such as a website, blog or mailing list) to promote your conference is a good idea because you don’t need permission and it’s free.
Earned media is any free promotion hosted on a third party site. Promoting your academic conference through earned media gives you the potential to market to a much wider audience than your direct circle of influence.
Earned media channels to consider include:
It is important to be authentic, engaging and transparent if you want to earn people’s attention on social media. Pick the social site that the majority of your audience uses, to focus your efforts on rather than starting multiple social pages for your event. This is important for two reasons: one, it encourages more interaction in one place and two, running a social media account is very time consuming. If you are willing to put the time in, this is a really rewarding way to promote your academic conference. Our 28 rules for marketing your event on Twitter (add hyperlink) is a great place to start for more advice.
Bloggers and influencers
If you have a good relationship with bloggers or influencers within your industry perhaps they can help you promote your event. Do not contact bloggers for the first time with the sole purpose of getting them to promote your event. A much nicer way to build a relationship could be something such as inviting them along for free.
Paid media maybe less budget friendly, but it is a much more time efficient way to promote your event. Paid media channels to consider include:
- PPC advertising – you can set up pay-per-click text adverts using search engines search as Google and Bing to target people searching for academic conferences or terms related to your field of study.
- Display – you can also create visual ads that are displayed across Google’s network for websites. You can filter the kinds of sites Google displays your ads on based on a number of factors to make sure you’re reaching the right people.
- Sponsored Posts (on social media and other websites)
- Advertising in academic journals
Other promotional tools
Don’t forget to create posters for your academic conference to spread the word around your institution.
Getting big names to attend
If you want to attract top-class scholars to your conference make sure you start promoting it well in advance. It is also important you have a strong program as well as making the benefits of attending your academic conference really clear in all of your marketing.
How to run an academic conference
The most important piece of advice we can give you about running an academic conference is: don’t try and do everything yourself. Try and enlist the help of your institution’s events team or organise a team of volunteers. You will be very busy in the run up to the conference so try and delegate tasks such as running the registration desk and preparing conference packs.
Make sure you have not forgotten to organise:
- Registration Packs
- Name Badges
- Ample tea and coffee
On the day:
- Arrive early
- Familiarise yourself with the building
- Check you have enough chairs
- Check you have enough tea and coffee.
- Check your software is compatible with the venues
- Bring back-ups for all technology (USB sticks, spare plugs, cables etc.)
- Introduce yourself to any in-house staff
- Keep track of time
- Breathe, relax, and enjoy the efforts of your hard work.
Hosting your academic conference with University of London Venues
Situated in central London, the hallowed halls of Senate House has several flexible rooms perfect for hosting both large-scale academic conferences and intimate meetings of minds. Our event rooms and breakout spaces combine conferencing with entertaining and all rooms are equipped with reliable WiFi and the lasted AV technology. Our event staff at Senate House has a great deal of expertise in event planning and will support you every step of the way. Get in touch for more information.
Hosting Your Academic Conference At Senate House
Not only is it conveniently situated in central London, the hallowed halls of Senate House also has several flexible rooms perfect for hosting both large-scale academic conferences and intimate meetings of minds. Our event rooms and breakout spaces combine conferencing with entertaining and all rooms are equipped with reliable WiFi and the lasted AV technology. The event staff at Senate House has a great deal of expertise in event planning and will support you every step of the way. Get in touch for more information.