1. Determine the “Why”
Sit down with your partners (if you have them) and talk through the end goal of the conference. Is it to generate revenue? Secure new clients? Get publicity? Keep this goal in mind as you proceed through the rest of the list.
2. Create your wish list
In an ideal world, what would your conference look like? Jot down details such as location, speakers, number and quality of participants, food, and fun activities.
3. Draft a budget
How will you pay for your event? Investigate any resources you can use for free (such as donated space) and what you can charge participants to cover costs and still make a profit (if that is a goal). Make a budget spreadsheet listing the major cost items of your wish list – location rental, staff, speakers, meals, signage, audio/visual equipment, printed materials, giveaways, and fun extras. Don’t forget to include costs for marketing the event, such as a website, and build in a 10 to 15 percent cushion in case expenses run over.
4. Choose practically
Cost will obviously be a factor in choosing where to hold your event and what services to provide, but so will attendance. You want to select a location that is either in the same city as many participants, or close to it.
Your ideal speaker may be Donald Trump, but realistically you probably need to go with a less-pricey option. A resort is certainly appealing, but does it have enough meeting and personal rooms, and will participants enjoy the locale enough to pay a premium?
Consider polling participants from past events like yours to understand what’s most important when attending such a conference and make selections based on this feedback.
5. Work with vendors
Begin working with the service providers of the items in your budget spreadsheet as early as possible. Understand what will be provided in each case, and review contracts and cancellation policies carefully (for instance, you need to know if the hotel will provide A/V equipment and support in its meeting rooms, or if you need to bring that in yourself). If you are in need of a specific vendor, I recommend checking with the Convention and Visitors Bureau in your destination city.
6. Find speakers
Reach out to your network to identify the speaker(s) who will best help you achieve the conference’s objectives and are within your budget (do not ask or expect professional speakers to appear for free). Review demo videos and talk with people who have heard this speaker before. When communicating with a speaker, provide her with ample details so she can customize her remarks to your audience, and make sure you are on top of her travel arrangements and other needs.
7. Set the agenda
Draft a detailed timeline for your conference that starts early (8AM is reasonable) and ends early (4PM). Schedule a mix of formal speakers, small group workshops, and free networking time. Plan to feed your participants every few hours, either with a full meal or a break snack. After the day’s agenda is complete, consider hosting a dinner at a nearby restaurant or local entertainment such as a tour.
8. Market your event
Create a logo and color scheme for your event, and display it on an event website with online registration. Rally your troops to spread the word through e-mail and guest posts in online media targeted to your audience. If appropriate, make use of local event listing websites. Consider offering discounts to organizations that send more than one participant.
9. Plan for a stress-free “Day Of”
Communicate actively with your participants and vendors in advance so they know where to be and what to expect. Get their contact information and make sure they have yours. Tour the facility before your conference begins to make sure your staff is in place and everything is in working order. As things wind down and invoices come in, review them line-by-line so that you can resolve disputes on the spot.
10. Evaluate your event
Now that you are ready to go into the event-planning business full time, let’s see what you can learn for next time. Have your participants fill out a paper or electronic evaluation form and look for common pieces of feedback.