“ Write here only if you have personal experience of working as a conference organiser. Why did you decide to become one? What are your qualifications? What are the ups and downs of the profession? „
For the last 6 months or so, 5 full time students (volunteers) and one worker (paid) met on a regular basis to organize a conference. At 4pm yesterday it was all over, and while I cannot speak for the others involved, I’m feeling a little odd to say the least. I’m not sure how to describe it, but it’s a weird mixture of elation – we carried it off and it went wonderfully – and sadness – it’s all over now. It all started back in February last year, when I was attending 2001’s conference. It was fun and seemed successful – everyone learnt a lot and had a good time. After the final goodbye speeches, we were asked to put our names down if we’d like to be involved the following year and, on a whim, I did. Come August I was spending a lot of time in an Austrian office clicking “Check Mail” on Yahoo (read the “Love on the Internet” op to find out why) when suddenly an email appeared from a previously unknown source. The author’s name was Anne-Marie, and she was the member of the charity involved who was looking to make up a team of students to plan the conference. Was I still interested? She wanted to know. I thought about it for all of 3 seconds before sending her a positive response. Between then and the middle of February the team met up 4 times. Initially this was in London at the charity’s hq, but it soon became apparent that this wasn’t a perfect solution since we all had to travel for ages to get there. Our first hurdle was overcome by deciding to meet at our respective universities, all of which were much more centrally located and easy to get to. We talked a lot at these meetings – in fact that, and eating chocolate cake, was practically all we did do. We discussed everything from the wording on the invitation letters to be sent to the universities, to the theme for the fancy dress gala dinner. Although we didn’t all get what we wante
d all the time, everyone’s voice was heard and no one’s views discounted without proper discussion. The time flew by, with bi-monthly meetings and a lot of work in between times, and soon it was time for our first meeting at the venue in question. We decided we needed to go to the hotel and stay over night in order to get to know it thoroughly. It’s a big place (it can cope with 2 or 3 500+ delegate conferences at once) and we needed to know it inside out. During this time we met the conference manager and some of the other staff, we “lived” as the delegates later would, we drew up maps and schedules for the main weekend, and had great fun making a huge list of everything that could go wrong. Fast forward 3 weeks and you end up at last Thursday. After work / lectures we all headed for Liverpool to check in and start getting sorted. After dinner that night we spent nearly 3 hours putting together plastic binders full of delegate packs, sticking up signs for the students to try and stop that many getting lost, making up 300 bags of crisps (10 flavours for each of 30 tables) and lots more besides. The next day after an hour and a half in the gym (for me – or an hour and a half extra in bed for the others) and a quick breakfast, it was time to start the final preparations. We had an office overlooking the main lounge which quickly became our haven. Filled with trashy magazines, chocolate and fruit, plus wonderful cheesy songs, it really was the place to go to get away from it all. We were up there having a quick break when we heard voices down below. A glance out of the window and we were delighted (or maybe horrified) to see out help desk swarming with people. It had begun. That was about 3pm on Friday and things after that are a blur in my mind. We all spend hours running around sorting things out (delegates not being happy in double beds, far too many helium balloons bursting, a diabetic loosing ALL the
insulin they brought with them….) I missed most of my allocated breaks – as did most of the others – but I got to see the Fat Club I’d missed on Tuesday night and squeeze in another hour at the gum, so it wasn’t that bad. The conference included lots of training sessions – delegates choosing the groups they wanted on 4 occasions – and so we had to welcome and later thank all the external trainers who arrived, set up their rooms and generally be their PAs for a couple of hours a shot. While all the students were in meetings or out shopping, we spent 3 hours decorating the huge ball room with 60s flowers, candles, sparkly bits and helium balloons. A few hours later we were back downstairs, fully dressed up in our costumes, waiting to welcome the guests. There was a 3 course meal and then a disco, and I think the best bit for me was returning from the bar with two of the others, and seeing that in our 5 minute absence, almost everyone had begun to dance. It was amazing – nearly 300 people all sticking around the ball (last year many took off to Cream, and to the bars of Liverpool) and, well, dancing. The next day consisted of meetings, thank yous and a massive clean up operation before we could leave, but it was worth it. In the office we had a flip chart of nice comments people had made, and we soon ran out of space. That was another highlight – hearing just how much fun everyone had had, and realizing that our hard work had paid off. You might think we had too much fun for it to count as work, but it was tough in many ways, although the results made it worth while. We weren’t being paid a penny except for our travel expenses and a small thank you token from the charity, and we had to give up our time to do it. It wasn’t all fun and games – being perky at 7am after having got to bed late is impossible for me, so Rachel and I snuck off at midnight despite the “lightweight!
” comments. At the end of the day, it was an amazing experience – we learnt a lot and had fun, and I know I’m not the only one feeling pretty chuffed today. Finally some qualities I think are essential for conference organizers: · Flexibility - even if you are planned down to the ground, things change and you need to be able to embrace that rather than object. · Sensible – it sounds odd, but you need to be full of common sense and not a ditsy person. You need initiative so that when things go wrong, you can sort it out rather than turning to someone else to find out what to do · Organized – duh! If you’re one of those people who has a wad of unfilled papers on your desk and 3 lost diaries buried in your room somewhere, this may not be the job for you · Team player – you very rarely get the opportunity (or posses the ability) to stage an event on your own, so being able to work with others is a must · Good customer service skills – almost all conferences involve some sort of out side organization – be it speakers, caterers, decorators of whatever. You need to be able to deal with these people in a friendly, professional manner at all times The blurb with this category asks, among other things, “What are your qualifications? What are the ups and downs of the profession?”. I have absolutely no relevant qualifications, and have never done anything like this before. None of us had a clue when we started, and yet we’ve been told by numerous people that it was the best conference ever – I guess we just picked it up as we went along. As for the ups and downs? There are a lot of stressful moments when everything starts to go wrong, but there are also numerous fantastic ones. Being on stage and looking down at a sea of 300+ faces, knowing that without you they wouldn’t be there, is a fantastic feeling. Getting to
meet important people and stay in nice hotels is something I know I would enjoy if I did this all year round :p and the thank you letters and emails that in our case have already started to flood in, cannot be topped in my book. Have fun planning!