Conference Organizer Handbook

Organizer Handbook

You know that guy that’s always going all when I was young, things were tough, so you need to go through that too? Yeah, nobody likes that guy. So here’s an inexhaustive list of all the things we wished we’d known when we started planning the dozens of events with thousands of attendees that we’ve put together over the last couple of years. Don’t think of these as rules or strict guidelines, just nudges in the right direction. Feel free to improvise, modify or even disregard them entirely.

The First Steps

This section is for those of you who know you want to hold a cool event, but don’t know where to start. If you already have an idea of what kind of event you’d like to organize, feel free to skip this section.

Creating the Vision

The vision is everything. It’s what’s going to guide every decision you make, what will unite your team. What you’ll use to sell your event, why people would come to attend. If you’re unclear on this, try asking yourself—why do you want to organize this event? Who are you organizing it for? What impact do you want it to have? What’s going to set it apart? For instance, we created IndiaFOSS because we wanted to bring the FOSS community in India together, so software developers, policymakers, communities and enthusiasts could learn from each other. Knowing exactly what we were striving for from day one helped keep us motivated through all the ups and downs.

Naming the Event

Look, let’s be real, nobody wants to say they’re at the Ultimate Super Awesome Conference for FOSS Lovers from Around The World (or do they?). You don’t want to be three days away from D-Day with all the merch printed up only to realize that you’ve done the unthinkable and created an unhashtagable name far too long to fit on any of the swags. If your event name’s got two words, it’s probably too long already.

Think about your vision. The community. The region. Inspiration can strike from anywhere. Maybe mash a couple of words together like PyCon did and create a new non-word that only the cool kids would know. Or forget the mashing and throw a couple of words together like we did with IndiaFOSS. The point is, it needs to convey what the event is about and, above all, sound cool.

Building the Team

Now that you know what kind of event you’re trying to put together and what to introduce it as it’s time to start assembling a team. You could go fishing in your networks or just release a volunteer call. Maybe start with a core team and add volunteers as you go. Whichever way you decide to go about it, make sure they’re just as excited about the vision as you are. Try to identify people whose skill sets would fit your needs rather than just calling your friends.

The kind of team you build would depend on the nature of the event, but for most, we recommend trying to find people to fill at least the following spots:

  1. Outreach Manager: To handle social media, reach out to colleges, find communities with similar interests, organize pre-events, anything to let your target audience know about your event.
  2. Curator: To review speaker proposals, identify speakers that align with your vision, vet the speakers and organize rehearsals.
  3. Website Manager: To create a kickass website that can handle all the traffic you’re hoping you’d get.
  4. Designer: To dream up cool merch and social media content for your event.
  5. Event Manager: To handle all the logistics, right from setting up the venue to booking vendors for food, printing, photography and anything else you might need to run things smoothly.
  6. Lead Organizer: To create the vision, to pull everything together, to be everyone’s go-to for everything related to the event.

The Nitty Gritty

Now that you have a vision and a team to help you execute it, it’s time to really start visualizing it. How big is the event going to be? How many days would it span? How many attendees would it ideally have? None of these details need to be set in stone in the initial stages, but it’s important to have a rough structure in mind before you start, so you could break it down into tasks and figure out how to execute it.

Don’t worry if that sounds too daunting, flip through this handbook and our recommended tasklist to get a gist of what activities you’ll need to perform. But essentially, you need to find a place, people to fill it with and something to keep them there. To find a place, you go scouting for venues, to get the people, you tell every Tom, Dick and Harry who might care about the event, and to get them to stay, you find interesting speakers and fun activities that engage their attention. Easy peasy. Well, not exactly, but here’s a more comprehensive list to get you started:

The Place

The venue you choose needs to be reflective of your vision. It wouldn’t make sense for an event that strives to increase awareness about global warming to be held in a fully air-conditioned hall with plastic bottles in every seat, would it? You also need to think about the kind of experience you’re trying to create for your audience. For instance, if you want the audience to interact with each other and the speaker, seat people accordingly. Maybe opt for a wider hall, instead of a longer one. Maybe consider getting a less intimidating venue, maybe fill it up with bean bags instead of chairs. Maybe have a pizza party for lunch instead of a formal sit-down. It all depends on the kind of experience you’re trying to curate. But if you’re getting a large hall, don’t forget to set up a stage high enough for the speaker to be seen from every corner and get mics and speakers that let them be heard as well. If your event is going to last all day, make sure to provide food and refreshments accordingly.

The People

What’s the point of organizing a cool event if no one’s going to show up? There are few things quite so heartbreaking as putting together an event for an empty audience. Step one for making sure that that doesn’t happen is to get the word out about your event. This can be done by posting on social media, organizing pre-events, partnering with communities with similar interests, creating cool merch, hosting a website, anything that could help the news of your event reach its target audience.

The Content

You’ve got your venue and your audience—now all that’s left to do is to put on a show. You could send out invites to eminent personalities or release a speaker call and encourage people to send in proposals. But whether they’re industry leaders or prodigies or just a regular Joe with a cool idea to share, vet your speakers thoroughly and make sure that they understand your vision.

Try to pepper your itinerary with different sorts of sessions to keep things interesting. You could organize networking sessions, icebreakers, Q&As, panel discussions, whatever fits your schedule best. Oh, and don’t forget to document the event, even if you have to shell out a little extra for a professional photographer and/or videographer. There’s nothing quite like FOMO to sell out an event.

The Money

Yes, we know we said you only needed three things, but it’s not 5001 BC anymore, you need money for everything. Now that you have a rough idea of everything you’d need to put your event together, it’s time to start creating your budget. If you don’t know how much a particular item would cost, call up vendors in your area to get a general idea.

In case ticket sales can’t cover the expenses you’re going to incur in organizing the event, or if you’re not planning on charging for tickets, you could always reach out to communities and businesses to help you out. You could send them sponsorship plans with tiers outlining the benefits offered for contributing to your event or ask them to help you in kind by providing products or services in exchange for publicity.

The Tasklist

Protips and Pitfalls

  1. Nobody likes a micromanager but do make sure that every volunteer has a clear idea of what’s expected of them. If they want to help but don’t know where to start, consider making checklists for them.
  2. Holding regular meetings with your team is essential to keep track of progress as well as to keep your team motivated.
  3. We recommend creating a group for the attendees to get to know each other and to share event updates and announcements.
  4. Don’t forget to offer subsidized rates for students if you’re charging for tickets.
  5. Even the most perfectly scheduled events can sometimes not go according to plan. Keeping buffer times after each session, as well as before each break could help put things back on track in case any of the speakers exceed their time limits.
  6. While we’re on the subject of contingency plans, it wouldn’t hurt to talk to backup vendors in case any of your vendors decide to back off at the last minute.
  7. Make sure to set up multiple registration desks as participants often arrive in waves.

And that’s it! Two months of dedicated preparation with a clear vision and a motivated team is all it takes to put together a great event. We’re glad you decided to take the leap. In case there’s anything else you’re still stuck on, feel free to reply to this post. We wish you the best.

Important Links:

  1. FOSS Conference Standards
  2. Tasklist for Conference Organizers [Quick Guideline]
  3. How to Submit a Talk Proposal for a FOSS Conference?
  4. Telegram group for queries
  5. Organize a conference