A Trip Down Memory Lane: Top tips I’ve learnt over 20 years of event organising

Its 6am and I’m back into the groove work wise post holiday. That means, for me, that I need to get prepared to run 2 one day conferences in a week in the first week of October. In many ways this is a foolish endeavour, but due to SARS CoV2, delays and the impending clinical business of winter it seemed the only way. As these events loom therefore I will be calling upon 20 years of organising events, both big and small, in order to try to make them a success.

I haven’t always worked as a scientist, I know, shocking! For a very small window between my BSc in zoology and starting an MRes in Biophysics I worked for Birmingham City Council in a couple of roles. One of those was as an event planner. I cannot tell you how brilliant that job was, some days I can’t believe I left, but deep down science was always my calling.

When organising an event there are some decisions you need to make early on. The big one being whether you are going to organise it yourself or outsource it to someone else, be that a company, venue or individual.

The decision about whether to outsource or not depends on a number of factors:

Manpower – organising events is time consuming and for very large events I.e. large conferences, you are unlikely to have the capacity to do this by yourself. I usually draw the line at events of over 350 to organise with a small voluntary working group, but it depends on the event and how much cat hearding is required

Infrastructure – do you have access to IT and other support to permit registrations, have a Web presence etc. In some ways this is less of an issue these days with platforms such as Eventbrite but they will take a cut of any charged ticket. You will also need to have things like a bank account that funds can be paid into, which can be problematic depending on who you are organising for with budget codes etc. If you don’t have the ability to register attendees you may have to find a partner organisation.

Finance – Obvious I know but events cost money. Some of the ones I’ve organised (especially the ones I’m running in October) make a considerable loss as they are about giving back, sharing knowledge, and developing networks etc. Some non work events I’ve helped run have been focused on breaking even with profits donated to Charity. There are others that have needed to make money in order to justify their existence. How much money you have to spend or need to make will dictate how much outsourcing is appropriate/possible and is more common for events that need to make money or at least break even, as these tend to link to scale.

Marketing – Do you have preexisting networks or links for you to be able to use to reach potential attendees? Twitter networks? Professional body mailing lists? If not then you may need external support or advice on how to get your event info to reach the people who might be most interested in it. Again, this is usually more important if you are trying to run a for profit where you needs 1000s to attend. It is certainly less of a concern if you’re organising a hen do.

Designing your brief

Start with your why. Who are you organising this event for? What are you trying to achieve? Are there learning or other outcomes, such as the bride having fun, that you need to achieve? Whichever way you decide to go in terms of organisation you will need to have a clear brief in your mind linked to these questions and others in order to decide what you want your event to be. You’ll need this for yourself if you are making your own decisions, but you will need it to even get a quote for an external events company. Spend some time doing your thinking here and you will save yourself a lot of drama later on.

You need to decide:

  • How many people i.e. small family event for 8 or large conference for 5000, plus everything in between
  • Catered or not. Short meetings may not need full catering, if you are organising an event with food what might the dietary requirements look like, how long will you be giving for breaks as this will impact on what type of food you can provide, is it a formal event as food will need to match this etc
  • Is onsite accommodation required? This is more common for multi day events, or scenarios where people will be coming from further afield i.e. weddings, or international meetings
  • What feel are you trying to achieve: formal, informal, networking focused
  • What level of technical support do you need: audio-visual, ticketing etc
  • Always bear in mind accessibility requirements, especially if you are organising a public event. This doesn’t just mean in term of physical access to spaces but to the content that will be provided. I run small loss making events so I can’t address this the way I’d like but you should be aware of the limitations of what you can provide
  • Who are your target audience? Where are they based? What links do you have with them? How will your achieve your objectives with them i.e. lectures, group work, open circulation?
  • How will you evaluate the event and what does success look like?

Your brief will dictate:

Room type and number required I.e. are you going to have breakout sessions or lectures or both

What kind of seating you want i.e. for lectures you might want lecture type seating, if you are having a networking event then cabaret might be more appropriate, or if the focus is on a larger single group working together then board room might work best.

Food choices, the more formal the event the more formal the food. It would seem really odd to have silver service in the middle of a conference day for instance.

Venue is everything

If you find the right venue to fit your brief (either yourself or via a planner) everything else becomes much easier. As we are a small team we tend to go for venues that can offer a package of support i.e. they come with furniture, audio visual options, flip charts and other paraphernalia and most importantly (as catering is super important to participant experience) good and plentiful food options. Your choices will vary dependent on whether you have greater resource either in money or time than we do. Knowing your ask means that you can find the right fit for you.

Find your team

If you are going to go it alone in terms of organisation then you need to find your team. This is true whether you are organising a group outing for friends or a work event. The kind of team will depend on the people who are doing the event planning. Some events benefit from creative disagreement to ensure inclusion. For the most part I like to work drama free as organising these events with limited resource is stressful enough. I therefore try to find people to work with who are interested in collaboration and are focussed on task completion. This works well for the type of events I’m currently involved with, but there are definitely events where innovation of process during the planning is part of the learning (such as nosocomial) and these require more risk taking and creativity.

Some scenarios also mean that there is less choice about who forms part of the the group. It is therefore crucial that whatever group you end up working with it is important that you have an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of everyone so that you can maximise the efficiency of the group and minimise frustration. There are things I’m really good at, I can hold a vision in my mind and have ideas. I need someone in the group therefore who grounds me and keeps me to task and deadline. It also helps if everyone has the same passion for the work as you do, or at least are equally committed. Uneven distribution of workload is one of the things that inevitably leads to stress in these settings.

Evaluation

One final and yet super important thing is to plan as part of the process how you are going to evaluate both the event and it’s impact. Learning is key. Did you participant love/hate the venue? It will impact on whether you will use it again. Did the delivery set up facilitate the learning needs? Did the agenda fulfil the brief? You are bound to do this more than once, even if not for the same event. Learning what went well and what could be improved is important in order to get better at this. Also understand that you will never please everyone, don’t take criticism to heart, you have put yourself out there and done something. Use comments as learning not as judgement.

That said if you want to join me at either of our upcoming events you can judge me against this post and see how well I/we stack up

Environment Network 2021: Designing and building for infection prevention – 8th October, London

Healthcare Science Education 2021: The role of innovation in education – 4th October, London (free)

All opinions on this blog are my own

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