9 Fine Lessons about Conference Planning from Social ICON


“What should I do here, Bri?” asked my client.

It was the first conference either of us had planned, and I had just delivered the news that the food and beverage contract terms were $56,000 more expensive than she had accounted for. This could be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Do I cancel the entire thing and cut my losses?”

“If you want to cancel, I will undo all that has been done for you and do it well,”  I answered. “But that’s not a decision I will make for you. If you do decide to move forward, we will make this the most memorable and fabulous experience for each and every attendee. It’s your call.”

Here’s the truth about large events, they are stressful.

Planning your first conference is especially unnerving, as so much has to be arranged in advance. A venue must be chosen, keynote speakers must be booked, the website and social media must exist, content must be created, deposits must be made-- all before you can sell that first ticket.

Is it worth it? Abso-freaking-lutely.

When the day finally arrives, and your emcee takes the stage for the first time, it’s 100% worth every ounce of blood, sweat and tears that it took to get there. When you look out among the crowd, and you know you’re going to change lives, it’s a feeling like no other.

Lucky for you, I want you to learn from our lessons. I’ve compiled a list of 9 things you should do before you spend a single dime on planning a conference.

1) Establish your conference objectives.

Whether your objective is to motivate, educate, enlighten or to provide a fun experience, there are so many reasons to throw a conference.  Before you begin, you should establish the goal of the conference, then envision how you would like your attendees to feel when at the venue and during the event.

First, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the conference mission?

  • Who are the 4-5 types of personas that will be attending this conference?

  • How much are those potential attendees willing to pay?

  • How much are you willing to invest to attract those attendees?

  • What do you want those attendees to leave feeling or knowing?

2) Conduct some serious due diligence by doing your research.

So you want to plan a conference. That’s cool. Do you have a name for it? Have you looked at extensive business registries and web URL’s to double-triple-check that your name isn’t being used by another company? You haven’t? Ok, well then your name hasn’t been chosen. Get to work.

Now, you must do research on the market in which you are targeting. Are you planning a conference for wedding planners? Fabulous, then don’t plan it during the peak wedding seasons, such as March, April, May, September or October. Your market will be working!

Do some additional research on trends, your venue, buying behaviors and other relevant purchasing decisions. You’ll thank me later.

3) Be sensible with accomodations and have a clear understanding of your venue contracts.

Providing accommodations is necessary, but if it is your first time conference, you should only room block 15-20% of your total expected attendance. Overestimating the rooms that will be reserved for your event is the quickest way to turn your conference revenue upside down.

If you choose a venue that is a hotel conference center, be sure you ask the following questions:

  • What is the drop-dead date to reduce my room block if we do not meet the capacity?

  • What is the drop-dead date to cancel my event if we do not reach our estimated ticket sales?

  • What is my penalty if I cancel the event?

  • Is there any discount applied when utilizing in-house food & beverage?

  • Do the totals you are showing me include taxes and gratuities?

Get the answers to these questions and put them somewhere you can see them while planning. Add the drop-dead dates in your calendar and make sure your team has reminders set, too.

4) Use Eventbrite. Just do it.

Unless you have a custom web builder with a built-in registration ticketing system, use Eventbrite. Yes, the site does take a percentage of sales, but it is worth every penny when you are conducting registration for your event. Eventbrite is fully-loaded with analytics, built-in communication, a seamless app for registration and a place to successfully refund tickets.*

*Tip: Consider ahead of time whether you will allow refunds. If you build your Eventbrite event with refunds available, you cannot change your mind and decide that refunds are unavailable.

5) Seek support from the city in which you are planning.

So, you’ve chosen the type of conference and the venue in which you plan to hold it. Now, what? In many cases, there are local grants, visitors centers, local chambers and associations that may help you sell your tickets.

Here’s a checklist of folks to share your event with and ask for support:

  • Local Area Chamber

  • Local Tourism Group or Board

  • Local Economic Development Group

  • Local Facebook Groups and Pages

  • Local Media Calendars

  • Local Social Media Influencers

6) Include plenty of networking time during your event

When attendees pack their bags for the conference, their wardrobe includes business attire, possibly workout attire and almost certainly cocktail hour OOTD (if you don’t know what this acronym stands for, Google it).  Chances are, part of the reason they are looking forward to the conference is to have the opportunity to harvest new relationships. Be sure to intentionally build time slots into your itinerary that allow for attendees to interact with each other.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Welcome Reception (typically held within an earshot of registration)

  • Dedicated Cocktail Party (complete with libations and snacky-snacks)

  • 90-Minute Breaks for Lunchtime

  • Always End the Final Conference Day by 2:00 pm

7) Make Every Speaker and Attendee Feel Like VIP

Oftentimes, attendees who purchase “standard” tickets expect to get basic treatment. With our first event, we wanted to deliver the contrary. Although the VIP ticket holders had the opportunity to take advantage of certain perks, general ticket holders’ experience was anything but standard.

Here are a few tips and tricks to go above and beyond:

  • Start communicating with all attendees via email at least six weeks in advance

  • Have dedicated volunteers at every entrance of your venue to guide attendees to their desired destination and to answer questions regarding the conference

  • Assign designated registration staff who will recognize names and faces of speakers and be able to locate badges and lanyards quickly

  • Send your speakers a text message of your point of contact’s picture and contact information to utilize when they arrive

  • Do a complete walkthrough of the green room and backstage areas with speakers upon arrival

  • During the Welcome “Kick-Off” Reception, encourage all speakers and attendees to network

8) Be prepared to be flexible (like Twizzler flexible)

Sometimes, the plan is: there is no plan. We ran into numerous last-minute changes leading up to the conference. For instance, our original emcee, who was a huge draw for many attendees, had to resign when she decided to fulfill her calling by running for Congress three weeks before the event. In the weeks preceding the conference, we learned that wifi ain’t free (it came with a price tag of $40,000). We didn’t receive a quarter of speaker presentations until the night before, in some cases the day of. There were a few hiccups with the audio/visual. And ten-minute breaks are hardly ever ten minutes.  

Luckily, we secured a new emcee who joined the crew of first-time conferencers and absolutely brought the house down. We relied on personal hotspots for internet and saved ourselves a pretty penny (thank you technology gods). We managed to get all the presentations organized and prepped prior to speakers taking the stage. After debriefing with the AV team on the first day, it was all smooth sailing. Although our ten-minute breaks turned into fifteen, we still managed to begin and end our days on schedule.

With all that being said, we are brought to our ninth and final piece of advice.

9) Hire Social ICON to manage your next conference

Sure, it seems self-serving. But seriously, we know how to provide top-to-bottom services in both event management and digital marketing. Not only do we help you manage every point in the decision making process, we do it with a smile on our face because we are truly passionate about the outcome of event experiences. We get all ooey-gooey inside when the final day comes to a close. We are so event-obsessed that on the drive home, we are already planning for the next year.

Here’s a glimpse into the services that we provide:

  • Conference Branding

  • Website Development

  • Ticketing/RSVP Management

  • Venue/Site Selection

  • Content Creation

  • Social Media Management

  • Digital Communications

  • Public Relations

  • Budget Management

  • Sponsor Management

  • Event Decor & Design

  • Audio/Visual Management

  • Speaker Management

  • Vendor Management

  • Onsite Event Staff

  • Onsite Social Media Marketing

  • Event Photography and Videography

  • Print and Promotional Materials

  • Post-Event Communication

You know, all the things.

I am so glad that my client ultimately decided to move forward with the event. You will be, too.

I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t offer you a free event consultation with our team. Check out Iconic Events for more information!