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Your guide to planning a great conference

Dan Jacob, co-founder of the SociaLIGHT Conference.

Conferences and in-person events remain one of the best ways to bring people together for business purposes. But planning them isn't as easy as it looks, and I speak from experience, having attended or planned hundreds of events.

Here are 10 things to consider.

1. Identify an unmet need

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A problem or question that can be solved or answered by your event will help create demand.

Earlier this year, my business partner Theresa Laurico and I observed there were a number of organizations in Toronto that provide resources to entrepreneurs and small-business owners. Many of them were acting independently, with very little communication or collaboration. We ended up creating an event designed to bring these groups together, in addition to the entrepreneurs and community leaders they represent.

2. Curate your event based on survey research

The need for an original and compelling idea is obvious, but it's equally important to validate that idea with market research. An online tool such as Survey Monkey will allow you to quickly assemble a survey you can blast to your friends, colleagues and social networks to receive anonymous feedback on your event concept.

Surveys are important for two main reasons:

  • The information you collect will help to inform a number of business decisions. Keep in mind your questions should be focused, in order to isolate variables such as ticket prices, topics of interest, and potential speakers.
  • Once people have participated in your survey they are automatically invested in the success of the project. When it comes time to sell tickets, if your event reflects the interests or needs of your potential customers, sales should be a breeze.

3. Develop an identity

Event organizers often fail to give enough thought to the name or identity of their conference, and instead they focus on marketing when it's time to sell tickets.

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A clear, unique and vision-driven identity creates a more compelling story for potential speakers, partners and customers.

After providing different options in our survey and getting a lot of feedback, my partner and I settled on the name SociaLIGHT (where LIGHT is an acronym for "leaders impacting global humanity today"). Not only was it succinct and easily shareable on social networks, it was also a way to reclaim the word "socialite," redefining it as an individual who creates value and social impact in a community –our survey indicated these characteristics resonated with our audience.

4. Find the right venue

A good venue can be a challenge for a new event planner. A starting point in Toronto is a website called Event Source, which allows planners to search for venues by type of event and required capacity.

Make a shortlist of five or six venues you can then go and visit. A site visit is essential – you need to get a feel for the space and determine whether or not it can accommodate your needs. During the site visit, there are a number of important questions to consider:

  • Does the venue allow outside catering? It’s often the way a venue makes its money. Many of them have catering in-house or a list of preferred caterers they require planners to use, and some can get very expensive. You should try to find a venue that allows outside catering so you can negotiate separately, instead of being restricted by someone else’s choices.
  • Is the venue unionized? Unionized venues have specific rules about who is allowed to do what. How accommodating the venue is in allowing you to use your own volunteers as ushers, or letting you bring in your own audio-visual supplier, will help keep you under budget.
  • Is the venue accessible to your audience? Accessible can mean a number of things. Is the venue accessible by public transit? Is it wheelchair accessible? Can seats be removed from the theatre to accommodate any special needs?
  • What are the technical capabilities? How are the Wi-Fi capabilities? What does each Internet connection cost? How is the phone signal for live tweeting? As the use of technology becomes increasingly prevalent at events it is important to acknowledge these factors.
  • Costs are negotiable. At the end of the day, a venue wants your business, so it is important to remember to negotiate to ensure you are getting the best price possible.

5. Don't find speakers, find storytellers

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Consider whether potential speakers plan to lecture on subject matter of your conference's theme, or tell a story around it. Stories evoke emotion and when you engage emotions, even just a little bit, you stand a better chance of having people paying attention. Storytelling allows an audience to experience content in an engaging and imaginative way that will likely be better remembered.

Just because someone is a celebrity or a well-known author does not necessarily mean they are a good speaker or that they have a good story to tell.

If you are simply looking for a list of speaker names, your best bet is to visit the websites of major Canadian speaker agencies, such as Speaker's Spotlight, the National Speakers Bureau, or the Lavin Agency. However, there are fantastic speakers who aren't represented by these organizations – so it's also important to get creative and to look for individuals who relate to the topics or themes you wish to cover.

Once you have a shortlist of potential speakers, spend several hours on YouTube or, better yet, actually go to conferences to hear them speak live. You will get a sense very quickly whether or not a speaker is worth the money they are charging.

6. Look for partners, not sponsors

Corporate sponsors are one of the best ways to offset costs, but it's important to find organizations that not only provide financial compensation, they are also aligned with your vision.

Before meeting with potential partners, develop a sponsorship package that outlines the details of your event. Some things to include: the demographics of the target audience, anticipated attendance, venue selection, confirmed speakers and anticipated media coverage. The most important thing to include is what a potential partner or sponsor receives in exchange for support. The most common method is to establish "levels" and outline what elements are included in each one, such as on-stage branding, speaker introductions, logo placement in marketing materials, booths, or the opportunity to distribute an item in the gift bags.

The objective shouldn't just be financial support, but to create a long-term partnership. One of the SociaLIGHT partners is the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network ( ORION), which wanted to better connect entrepreneurs from across the province to promote education and innovation. As a sponsor, ORION provided financial support which, in turn, will enable young innovators from across the province to attend the conference and connect with others. It also believed in the long-term vision of the conference, and it is building an online platform to help with resource sharing and to allow SociaLIGHT to extend beyond a standalone event.

7. Create strategic affiliates

Once you have built your product it is essential to market it through the proper channels. One of the ways is to partner with strategic affiliates: groups or organizations that reflect your target audience. You achieve two things:

  • You create an ally potential customers already trust and that will market on your behalf – often with a discount code – to encourage these groups to buy tickets.
  • You indirectly curate your audience, which helps sell the event to potential sponsors and, most importantly, creates value for attendees because you are filling the room with other people they want to meet.

8. Your website is your best marketing tool

The title says it all. Here are few things that will make your website an effective marketing tool:

  • Event information. Make sure your website contains the date and location of the event, the schedule of the day, a list of the speakers and their bios. Your website will serve as the main portal by which people find information on your conference and determine whether or not they will attend. Having all the information for people will help convert potential interest into sales.
  • Promotional video. Capturing the essence of what your event is about is one of the most effective marketing tools. A video should be no more than one minute long, and should be designed to get people excited and interested in purchasing a ticket.
  • Social media integration. Adding social media buttons to your website helps people share your event through their social networks and create buzz for your conference. Remember to register social media profiles for your conference early on.
  • Make buying tickets the focus. When it comes down to it, your website is a platform to sell tickets. Creating links to the ‘tickets’ page and integrating your website with a user-friendly platform such as Event Brite or Guestlist is a fast and straightforward way to begin selling tickets.

9. Generate media attention and PR through unique story angles

An effective and important way to amplify interest in your event is to secure a media partner that can provide marketing value for your event in the form of in-kind advertising. It is also valuable to find a unique story angle related to your conference and to pitch the story to local media to encourage them to come cover your event.

Media helps create awareness to the general public, who may be interested in attending in following years. Good media coverage also serves as a way to strengthen your relationships with sponsors and strategic affiliates going forward.

10. Put together a ridiculously passionate team

Whether hired or volunteer, assembling a team that collectively subscribes to a shared vision will have a direct impact on a conference's level of success.

Planning events involves many different skills, from logistics and technical show production to managing speakers, selling sponsorships, marketing and PR – the list goes on and on. The important thing to remember is that if you want to plan a successful conference, hire good people.

With these guiding principles in mind you should be set for success. It's critical to never lose sight of why you set out to organize a conference: passion. Whether it's books, food, business or technology, it's what will keep you motivated.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Dan Jacob is a passionate event producer, entrepreneur & chief IDIA guy at IDIA Events. He is also co-chair of the SociaLIGHT Conference, billed as Canada's ultimate entrepreneurship and leadership event, being held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre on Nov. 26.

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