Ten lessons to remember when hosting a conference

Ten lessons to remember when hosting a conference

Gary Stacey

Lesson 1. Maximize interactions among people. For example, it is great if you can manage to have everyone eat together. This way people can find each other and talk. Make sure that there is space in the poster sessions and hallways for people to interact. Have social gatherings were people can interact. A meeting is an excuse for people to interact. Organizers sometimes concentrate so hard on the formal program that they forget the real reason that we have meetings.

Lesson 2. No matter how great the meeting everyone will remember and talk about the one or two things that went wrong. Unfortunately, this is human nature. Therefore, as an organizer, you need to try to make sure that the bad things are minor. The meeting rooms need to be people friendly…. easy to hear and see the screen, not too hot or too cold, etc. The food needs to be great. The poster room needs to be spacious, etc, etc. If your only problem is that a bus was late or a projector jammed then people will talk about this but it is clearly minor.

Lesson 3. Don’t economize on the things that matter. For example, it is better to cut your reimbursement to speakers than to rent inferior poster boards or purchase cheap, poor quality food. A few speakers may complain if you don’t pay all of their expenses but everyone will see the poor poster boards and the lousy food.

Lesson 4. People do not like to walk between buildings to get to different sessions, poster rooms, etc. If you can manage it, choose a venue where everything can be housed under one roof or, at least, very close to one another.

Lesson 5. Don’t choose politics over substance when designing your scientific program. You see this all the time when the program is made up of all the old names with very few young people. Moreover, the old names, although politically powerful, really don’t have anything new to say. Meetings are expensive to organize and are expensive to attend. No one wants to spend a great deal of money to go and hear a stale scientific program. Clearly, politics need to be served but one can do this in other ways. For instance, put the political heavies in as session chairpersons or
have them give a plenary talk. Try to fill your program with the people that are doing the most exciting work. (Having said this, however, I think it is right and proper to highlight at least a few local folks. After all one reason to host a meeting is to introduce local research to a broader audience. These scientists are often overlooked in International meetings and they deserve their moment in the spotlight).

Lesson 6. Don’t be afraid to put your personal stamp on the meeting. For example, at the ISMPMI meeting that I organized, I put in a session on emerging research areas. This is something that I was personally interested in and I wanted to try to expand the meeting beyond its traditional boundaries. I don’t know how people felt about this but I certainly enjoyed it. You are doing the work, so do something that means something to you and that you will enjoy.

Lesson 7. Make the meeting Local! Out of town visitors, especially foreign, are coming not only for the meeting but to sample your locale (country). Don’t be embarrassed or bashful about introducing some of your local cultures into the meeting. 

Lesson 8. Use the meeting to your personal benefit and that of your colleagues. For example, we often organize meetings here to get the attention of our administrators and to highlight the scientific strengths that we have. Again, you are doing the work so get some benefit from it.

Lesson 9. Don’t do everything yourself. The sign of a good leader is the ability to delegate authority. Enlist the help of others. For example, get help in raising money. I know people that had a nervous breakdown after organizing a meeting. Clearly, an example of someone who did not delegate responsibility. The meetings I have organized were with the help of professional conference staff and an active local organizing committee. Quite frankly, they haven’t been that much of an ordeal. Maybe that is why I have organized so many meetings.

Lesson 10. The budget is the most important! If you can pay all the bills at the end then the meeting was a success!