Conferencing and making conferences

Last month I breathed a huge sigh of relief, gratitude and immense pride after the successful completion of OWTNM 2015. The OWTNM 2015 was the 23rd Optical Wave and Waveguide Theory and Numerical Modeling Workshop. Here is a video from the conference: https://www.dropbox.com/s/j7aqcnst1q536zt/City_OWTNM_edit01.mp4?dl=0

While this was my first experience of making a conference happen, I learned so much, I am off now to CLEO to teach a short course on Finite Element method. I am so very glad that I will be mostly attending and not responsible for more than my short course and after that my own person!

I wanted however to share some of my learnings from OWTNM here.

For those of you organising (or thinking of) their first conference these tips might come in handy!

1. Dates: make sure you get the dates that don’t clash with another premier event of the same nature. That way you don’t compete with other conferences.

2. Venue: a city that has strong tourism appeal, easy flight connections and travel ease will invariable attract more people. Though big cities can be expensive, they are easier to get to, find hotels of all budgets and there are things for people to do in the leisure hours they have. Apart from choosing the city, the actual venue should be easy to reach by public  transport and preferably not in the wilderness. Disabled access, enough toilets, some social space for delegates to sit and relax, wi-fi access make things pleasant.

3. People: perhaps the most important thing of all! You will need the right people for each task. For local committee and reviewers you may need senior academics. Some of these will only review papers, some will only give you contacts (with distinguished speakers you want to invite for example).They may not have time to do the running around, so be realistic in your expectations of them.

You will need people to do the nitty gritty work; making the conference programme, book of abstracts etc. These have to be people who you can rely on to do a good job on time. they will tend not to be super senior.

Advisors: again probably senior people who have organised several conferences and from their experience can help you a lot with timely and useful advice. the previous year’s organisers are good potential advisors too. Someone who had organised an event in your institution is good to speak with aswell: they know how to deal with the challenges specific to your institution.

The heavylifters: no (not counting the very expensive and professionally managed, like CLOE) conference is possible with out the sincere and dedicated work from an army of student volunteers. These young people, mostly post-grads, PhD students, do a lot of the running around. They can come up with the most creative ideas, solutions to problems and exciting inputs. Remember though that they are not experienced in this so can make mistakes. Be prepared to supervise and also be calm and listen!

The administrative staff! you will need to work with finance, catering, IT, security and such services. All these individuals will have an impact on the conference but for most it is not their primary concern. So you must be sensible in dealing with colleagues from these services: make sure you communicate clearly, ask for things in advance and remind them as needed.

4. Communication: a good website is a must for a successful conference. Getting people to learn about the conference, giving them information about paper submission, acceptance, registration, visas, accommodation, venue etc… all this determines how many people attend and how much they enjoy the event. Make sure your website is updated constantly, and emails are answered promptly. An easy to navigate, attractive site is always better than an eyesore!

Communication is important also within the team . You need to make sure people know what is expected of them. That you know what they expect from you! Remember to thank people and acknowledge their efforts, their contributions.

5. Finance and sponsors: you need to start with this almost as soon as you know you will host the event. Ask previous organisers for sponsors who gave support. Talk to all the companies in the field, professional bodies, publishers. Call people! Sometimes you will have to call them again and again. It is harder to say no to someone verbally than in an impersonal email. So call! You will need conference information to sell the event to them: Highlights from the previous year, and what you expect will happen this year, the benefit to the company. The website is very handy for this. That is why keeping it updated is an enormous help in attracting sponsors.

6. Flexibility and planning : somethings will go wrong despite your best efforts. Try and keep some slack in the plans you make. Above all you need to stay calm, rational and informed to make the best decisions at a time of crisis. Make sure you have a list of tasks that need to be completed, and by when, what their priority is. This master plan should be updated regularly and will help you stay on track.

Delegate: don’t try and do every thing yourself. You have picked a team that you trust, now show confidence in them!

For now that is all I can think if! Don’t hesitate to send in your comments and thoughts.

This is part of the wonderful team of students who made OWTNM  2015 possible.DSC03777

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