Lessons Learnt by ICSEI Congress Organisers
Hosts are invited to add to these notes.
Begin with the end in mind. Think about how you would like the conference to run and this should lead to how you want to design your program. Based upon the information you want in the program, ask for this information in your proposal forms. Also, design a database NOW that includes all the information you will want to keep track of, and update it as you receive information. Donít wait until October to begin your database. It will be a "race to the end" in keeping up with it. One conference organiser printed a sample of the categories they used to track their database.
Organisation is the key. Keep track of all your information on your "master database" and then run small reports from your master list. For example, when you want to check to see if you scheduled someone to present twice during the same time slot (since it can get confusing with all the co-presenters), you can a mini-report from the database. Have an organised method for planning the program. For example, once a proposal is accepted, you could use a skeleton outline of all the session rooms and times, print the titles of the papers on stickers which you can fix to coloured post-it notes by theme, and then physically manipulate the post-its until your program is complete. This makes putting the program together rather easy. Then, as people withdrew from the conference, you can see at a glance where you have space in which to fit them. Also it helps you accommodate "late" proposals.
Make a detailed budget very early on and follow it up on a regular basis. If you find out that there is a deficit coming up itís often possible to cut expenditures if you do it in time.
Do not count on attendees until they pay. When attendees promise to pay and then donít turn up at the conference ( this happens often, even with those who have had their proposal accepted), if you still count on them attending, that hurts your profits and can even cause deficit problems. You may wish to consider making a procedure that puts people on the programme (as presenters) only when they have paid the registration fee. It probably wonít make the conference organisers popular but it may persuade attendees either to turn up or to tell organisers that they are not coming.
Have 'form letters' on file. As time progresses, you will receive a dozen e-mail messages requesting the same information. Keep a form letter in your e-mail files, and then copy and paste it into the message instead of recomposing the message each time. Also have hard copies ready to fax at a moment's notice.
Be aware that many people will be late for deadlines and will not "follow directions" on your proposals. One team originally had a proposal deadline of September 15 and then pushed it back to October 1 to accommodate for the beginning of school. In retrospect, this left a very short time to select proposals, design the program, type the program and have it printed. Make the proposal deadline as early as possible, and then accommodate the late ones when they arrive. One team continued to schedule and reschedule presentations until December 18 (and then even on-site at the conference)!
Divide and conquer. Divide tasks to make the job more manageable. Towards the last month before the conference these tasks tend to became full-time jobs. One teamís Conference Manager was a full-time position from September through January and they also had four graduate assistants helping twenty hours a week each on conference mailings, faxes, and many other tasks that arose as they prepared for the conference. The "Assistant Conference Manager" kept the master database updates, kept track of registration money, and ordered supplies they needed for registration. She spent 20+ hours a week for the Fall semester working on ICSEI. The "Hotel Coordinator" spent hours communicating with the hotel, and this became a full-time position especially in the month before the conference. The "School Visit and Volunteer Coordinator" spent many hours coordinating with schools and volunteers, and this too became a full-time position the month before the conference.
Put everything on your website. Put your proposal information on the website. Put your registration form on the website. Put your conference program on the website. People liked our "schedule at a glance "as well as the complete program - some people were able to let us know about typos before the program was printed! No matter how minor the detail may seem, put it on your website! Also link this to the ICSEI website.
Make peace with imperfection. Organisers have worked diligently to group paper sessions by theme, and then inevitably one or more of the presenters withdraws their papers. So, there comes a point where you do the best you can even though it was not as ideal as your original program.
Expect the unexpected. The ICSEI 1999 team had the worst flooding in history the weekend they set aside to put the program together and a massive snowstorm the week of the conference. Four major airline hubs (Minneapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago) were disabled and over 1600 flights were cancelled resulting in 200 fewer registrations than anticipated and serious shortfalls in income. These two events definitely impacted ICSEI '99 - the flooding pushed back our deadline of notifying people of proposal acceptance, and the snowstorm kept our numbers low. A keynote speaker cancelled last minute for ICSEI 2002 so the organising group got together with members of the ICSEI Board and created an alternative session at the last moment, drawing on the expertise and experience of conference attendees (of which there was plenty).
Hard work pays off. The time you spend planning (agonising) over the conference is worth it in the end. Not only can you learn a tremendous amount from the experience, but organising teams have received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from the conference attendees.