How to Host an On-Campus Conference (Guest Post)

A Note from Katie: Michael Kenny approached me to write a guest post, and I was intrigued by his background as co-founder and co-president of Tufts Engineering Mentors. As a student, he worked with his twin brother to build one of the largest student groups at Tufts, coordinating mentorships and conferences along the way, and working to help others learn how to create mentorship programs as well. Holding a conference is a great way to reach a large group of students and community members, and Michael makes it sound easy! 

Host Your First Conference – it’s Easy!

by Michael Kenny

For many motivated students, the classroom is just the beginning of what college offers, and taking part in existing on-campus events and organizations is an expected next step. For those who are fully engaged with issues and ideas, creating a unique and self-driven program or event is a real ambition. 

Steve Vinter, Google’s Engineering Director in Cambridge, delivers the keynote address at MentorCon 2015.

Steve Vinter, Google’s Engineering Director in Cambridge, delivers the keynote address at MentorCon 2015.

Running your first conference can be a daunting task – you need a venue, speakers, attendees, concessions and more. You may have organized some smaller events in the past, but the sheer size and complexity of a conference might scare you.

Fear not! With a small team, minimal resources, and a disciplined approach, even a first-time event organizer can host an awesome conference. 

In February 2015, I watched my team’s efforts come together into the largest engineering mentorship conference in the nation, MentorCon. When we started planning in November, I had worried that I would never see the conference become a reality.  Now I know: it’s not nearly as difficult as it seems.

Check out the plan below which lays out exactly what you need to do to make your conference a reality.

1. Build a Team

Hosting a conference is very possible, but you can’t do it alone. You’ll need a small team of (at least) three who share your vision. Under your leadership, these three will serve the roles of Marketing, Operations (event logistics) and Speaker Outreach.

Your role as the leader is to get things started, provide extra manpower when needed, and to keep team members on-time and accountable. You’ll want to get your team together six months before the conference date to get started.

2. Brainstorm

With a team assembled, you need a clear vision of what the conference will look like. This is important for two reasons: so that your team can work efficiently and cohesively, and so that you can articulate your vision clearly to potential sponsors, speakers, and attendees.

Some things to think about are: date, time, location, number of speaker sessions, topics, potential keynote speakers, sponsors, partners, food, and who you want to attend (just your school, or open to other students/community members?).

3. Website

Get a website early. It doesn’t need to have all the information right away and you can update it as you go. Having a site provides a landing page for people wanting to know more about the conference, and gives you a place to direct people to when marketing the conference.

Never made a website before? Me neither! Google how to build a WordPress Website, it’s just like editing a word document (with a few more features such as tabs, etc.,). Check out what we built at www.MentorCon.org (and you’ll get to see how we organized our conference)!

4. Venue

You’re off to a great start! You want to think about venue early because the best ones are often booked months in advance. Make sure you pick a venue that can support your speaker schedule and lineup. Will there be multiple speakers talking at a time in different rooms? How many attendees do you expect? You don’t want a venue so large that the rooms feel empty, nor something so small that it’s cramped.

Consider reserving backup spaces. Ticket sales will give you a good predictor of attendance, but you won’t get that number until much closer to the event date. As a side note, if you are giving out free tickets, be aware that many people may get tickets but not show up (estimate 50%). At our conference, we charged students $5, which covered food, materials, and equipment rentals.

5. Speakers

There are three types of speakers you may have: keynote, individual, and panelist. Typically, your keynote speaker will be most difficult to lock down because they are the highest profile. You want someone with huge name or brand recognition that will draw an audience. You’ll want to start looking for the keynote as early as possible, as they tend to be very busy.

Individual speakers are those who might not have the same pull, but have enough credential to lead their own speaker session.

Panelists can be anybody: students, recent grads, professors, etc. The purpose of a panel is to provide a range of experiences, rather than the deep-dive that an individual or keynote speaker brings.

Networking is a powerful tool for securing these speakers – talk to your classmates, faculty, and administrators about who they know, and take a look at your school’s notable alumni page on Wikipedia.

6. Sponsors

Sponsors and partners are a valuable asset to a conference – they supplement your funding and bring legitimacy to the event. It is best to ask for sponsorship in person, and wise to wait until you have concrete details about the conference before approaching potential partners.

When meeting with potential partners/sponsors, make sure you know what you want going in, whether it’s a discount or freebie, and that you can articulate the benefits to the business well.

A great strategy is to establish tiers of sponsorship, such as platinum, gold, and silver, with each providing the sponsor with additional advertising and perks at your event.

On a related note – you should never pay full price for food items, and sponsors always love feedback and photos after the event.

7. Marketing

This is the most important part of your planning. You can have the best conference in the world, but it’s not helping anyone if nobody knows about it. Start as early as possible with postering, emailing, and social media blasting – advertising is all about spaced repetition. Most importantly, include a call-to-action, namely, buying a ticket.

Investing here is crucial, make sure your marketing materials stand out. Spend on colored and oversized posters, and have someone who knows what they’re doing design them, even if you have to fork out some money to do so.

Your marketing lead can get started on this from day one, as well as investigating the best advertising outlets to target, and developing a plan to provide spaced repetition.

8. Logistics

This role requires someone who is detail oriented, resourceful, and ideally has event organizing experience. From choosing and securing the event location(s) to coordinating what’s for lunch, this person is solely responsible for everything that isn’t contacting speakers or marketing.

How much staff is needed? How many seats will there be? Where do people sign in? What happens if someone shows up late? Who’s getting the food or providing speakers with water and a VIP experience? Are the cameras charged?

This person needs to have it planned out meticulously, and needs to be prepared for the unexpected. On the day-of, this person will need an army of supporters and volunteers, and a schedule of where each helper will be at any given time.

My advice: make sure to keep some people available for miscellaneous tasks, you can never plan for everything that will happen.

 

John (left) and Michael (center) accept the Vincent Manno Leadership Award from Department Chair Bill Messner (right). 

John (left) and Michael (center) accept the Vincent Manno Leadership Award from Department Chair Bill Messner (right). 

There you have it! Planning a conference is a very manageable task if you’ve got a good team and plan in place. As the leader, your role is to keep things on track, and assist as needed. You sit at the intersection of the three roles, and ensure that everything fits together smoothly. When you do get started, I’d love to know about it and am happy to help along the way. Just drop me a line at Michael.reilly.kenny@gmail.com and check out our website at NationalEngineeringMentors.org.

About the author: Until I graduated this May, I served as the co-founder and co-president of Tufts Engineering Mentors. Together with my twin brother, John, I helped build what became one of the largest student groups at Tufts University, amassing over 250 student members in just two years. The program became a launchpad for our development as leaders and as contributors to our communities. I credit my recent admission to the Harvard Business School 2+2 program to my involvement with this program.

Please share your questions, comments, feedback, and experiences hosting your own conferences in the space below!