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If you're thinking of organising a conference for teachers and other educational professionals, you can learn from the best – and the worst – practice. Here are 11 tips that you ignore at your peril!
1. Have the conference programme sorted out before tickets go on sale. I do sometimes receive invitations to buy a conference ticket when it's not even clear what talks are going to take place there. Sending out invitations before all of the speakers have been confirmed isn't wonderful, but at least it indicates that the topics have been decided and appropriate speakers approached. Asking people to trust what is, in effect, a blank sheet of paper is really a definition of optimism.
2. Have one website and login, even if better individual apps are available. Sometimes conference organisers have a website for the conference programme and updates, another one for the conference blog, another one where people can sign up and take part in discussions, another one... Well, you get the idea. Perhaps each of these uses the best tool available for the job, but that's at a huge cost of having to remember the details for multiple websites.
3. Have passworded access to slides. Some people may object to paying for a conference only to discover afterwards that all the talks and presentations are available for free online. They may know that downloading a set of slides is not the same as actually being there, but when it comes to watching a video of a presentation that is often even better than attending in person (better view, no disturbance from people talking amongst themselves).
4. Make Early Bird tickets available, and definitely not late bird tickets. I once attended a conference at which I was penalised, in effect, for buying my ticket as soon as sales opened. As an incentive to people to buy tickets after the virtual ticket office had been open a few months, the organisers offered a free subscription to a resource. I was told that I couldn't enjoy that freebie because I'd booked too early. That sort of behaviour is not fair on those who have supported you by purchasing a ticket early. It also smacks of desperation: why have you had to offer such a thing at such a late stage? Isn't anyone attending?
5. Give attendees the opportunity to have their Twitter names on their badges. That really helps to facilitate networking, because people spot those they've been following and conversing with online. Being able to put a face to a name can be very powerful.
6. To assist in this process, consider having a conference app which enables people to communicate with other attendees. This isn't strictly necessary – after all, there is always Twitter. But it may be a 'nice-to-have'.
7. When organising the programme, please don't put the keynotes on at the same time as other talks. I attended a brilliant presentation by a young teacher at one conference. All six of us really enjoyed her talk – the other 150 attendees were at the big name keynote. I thought that was very unfair on someone who had clearly made a great deal of effort. It also meant that many people missed some very good information.
8. On the subject of 'big names', remember that there are plenty of experts who have not become (nor wish to become) celebrities. Perhaps having a big name or two helps to attract delegates, but don't overlook experts in schools, universities and people you've met at other conferences.
9. Remember that you don't have to pin down every minute. Why not have a slot (perhaps one of the parallel sessions) and a room available for people who wish to discuss issues that are not covered in the conference programme?
10. Make sure the wi-fi is good, available everywhere, and that there are enough watering holes for the number of delegates you're expecting.
11. Finally, devise (and promote) your conference hashtag. If you don't, confusion will reign ("is it Conference17, Conference2017, Conference_2017...?").
There's no guarantee that following these tips will ensure your conference's success of course. You also need great content that is timely, good publicity, a good location and the right slot in the calendar. But not following them will almost certainly affect ticket sales, maybe not this time, but next time.
My book, Education Conferences: Teachers' Guide to Getting the Most out of Education Conferences, is available on Amazon at http://viewbook.at/conferences
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It's been a busy period conference-wise. In the near future I hope to report on all of them: dealing with the new Computing Programme of Study, dealing with data and Ofsted, an RM Apple day and the awe-inspiring Apps World 2013.