Giant Conference

How to plan a giant conference without losing your mind

Giant Conference

Well, eSymposium2012 was in November, and OTRK12 is next week. I’ve learned a lot about planning conferences this year, having been on the planning team for both events. I’ll pass along a few tidbits of wisdom that you might be able to use (and that I should refer to next year). A bunch of this is registration-type stuff, but some of it is big picture.

Label your workshop sessions in an human-understandable, machine-sortable way.

For example, I should have used 1A-01 for Day 1, Session block A,  Workshop 1. Other sessions during that block would be 1A-02…1A-10. The next block would start 1B-11…1B-21. Day 2 would start 2A-31, or whatever the first available number would be.

This is sortable (important to use two digits for the session number) and understandable (when you see it all laid out, at least). It’s best not to start the numbers over for each day/block, because the participants can easily distinguish between 1B-22 and 2B-52, but 1B-22 and 2B-22 is harder.

Have one Google Spreadsheet with many worksheets.

Share it with the planning team. Put it all in one place, not in multiple workbooks. Everyone goes to the same link, and you can just say “go to the Workshops tab” or “I made a new sheet for ‘Lessons Learned'”.

Versioning is awesome, and it’ll save your bacon when someone accidentally deletes the workshop titles or every participant’s email address.

Have a website that can be updated by multiple people.

This is really important. We all have other jobs to look after, so this isn’t just about the website, or registration system, or any other component. If only one person has access, that’s a bottleneck or a single point of failure. It’s still good to have a go-to, primary person for the website, but there needs to be at least one other person waiting in the wings who can make changes quickly.

Have a website that can handle useful widgets.

We used a Google Site for OTRK12, and it doesn’t seem to be able to handle widgets very well. I can’t seem to get a Twitter Search widget working so that we can have a live feed of the #OTRK12 hashtag. Help would be appreciated. WordPress perhaps would have been a better option, in retrospect.

Order extra food.

Don’t assume the portions will be sufficient. Order at least enough food for an additional 5-10% of your numbers so that the venue is prepared and prompt. It’ll cost you, but it’s better than running out, believe me.

Include both roles and specific tasks in the spreadsheet, and refer to them constantly.

This is a nod to Martha Walli, big time. Every task is listed in a sheet in the planner workbook, and when they’re completed it’s indicated (with a “completed” note beside it, or with a strikethrough). Also, the person responsible to look after the task is listed beside it. Then everyone knows who is looking after everything.

Use dropdowns/radio buttons instead of text fields wherever possible/appropriate during registration.

For example, we asked people to type in their board name for OTRK12. That was a no-no. Even though it’s long, we should have provided a list of all 60 boards to choose from, and then an “Other” option with a text field. I’ve spent waaaay too much time standardizing board names (is there a hyphen in Simcoe-Muskoka?), and there are another 20 that need fixing.

Make things big and bold.

We had some important links that were smaller and less contrasty than other stuff, and they were missed by people because of it. We should have done that differently.

Use separate fields for everything you can, and error-check if appropriate.

First and last names need to be separate fields. Make sure you can see the date and time people registered. Email addresses have a particular format that can be checked for; if it’s reasonable, do it. Clean up any commas in registration if you’re getting CSV files out of the system; better yet, get Excel sheets or Google Spreadsheets out of the system.

Remember to allow for extensions in phone numbers

Don’t use the 3-field format; just use a text field so people can type in what they need to. I appreciate it when people use forms like 705-555-1212,10216 so that a smartphone will pause to give time before entering the extension.

Delay registration until your workshop lineup is finalized.

Our short turnaround on everything for OTRK12 meant that we didn’t have our workshop lineup finalized until about two weeks before the conference starts, and March Break was in that two weeks. Ouch.

So we opened up initial registration in late February, then asked everyone to go back and register immediately following March Break. There were a few glitches, which was unfortunate, but the turnaround time was simply too short. I’ve been emailing like crazy trying to get everyone to select sessions so that we can allocate breakout rooms to presenters. Wild. I think we’d have been better off delaying the whole registration process until the workshops were finalized; certainly it would have been less work for me.

Create tracks, and make sure there is a path for each one.

This is something I think we did especially well this year. For example, if you were a principal, there were/are sessions appropriate for administrators during every session block. Categorize your audience and ensure there is a track for each category. If possible, provide a choice of sessions during each block for each track (e.g. at least two sessions for Blended Learning teachers, two for admin, two for eLCs/DeLCs, two for e-Learning teachers).

Allocate rooms for breakouts based on session registrations.

Let people choose their sessions, then decide where to hold them. Try to have at least two, preferably three largish rooms available. At the same time, try to anticipate which sessions will be wildly popular, and put them in different session blocks (e.g. don’t put Rose in the same block as the iOS Slam).

This approach is harder for the planning team, but you’re way more likely to give people everything they want. And that’s the point, right? For eSymposium, our breakout rooms were of limited size, so we ended up running multiple copies of sessions simultaneously. Fortunately we had a fantastic team of presenters/facilitators who were willing and able to do this (yay Sudbury-North Bay Region!) and it worked out beautifully.

Get tons of WiFi.

Choose a venue that can handle Internet access for more people than you’re expecting. By a factor of three, preferably. Everyone brings multiple devices to these things; that’s the way things are. The hotel/conference centre won’t believe you, but you need more connections and bandwidth than they’ll think you do.

Use Twitter

Use a hashtag related to your event (just one; we accidentally had #esym2012 and #esymp2012 both going; it’s #OTRK12 for this conference). Plaster it everywhere. Pick it way in advance, advertise it lots. Post using it, follow it, retweet interesting stuff. As a conference attendee, Twitter becomes my note-taking machine, and is my search engine for it later.

Hey, if you’re not attending OTRK12 next week, please follow on Twitter (I like TweetDeck for the speedy updates) and retweet the stuff you think is useful.

Delegate, but designate a watchdog.

This one’s the hardest, but the most important. Another lesson from Martha. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Get a team, divide the responsibilities according to expertise and availability, and run with it. But someone has to check on everything, to make sure nothing’s slipping through the cracks. It’s a job all by itself, srsly. Choose the person with the broadest range of skills, who can help almost anyone else who’s having difficulty, and make them the watchdog. But maybe call them first aid, or renaissance-helper, or something; it sounds nicer.