Organising a conference – the highs, the lows and some tips

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With conference season now firmly upon us, Zoe Macdonald and Cheryl Briscombe share what they learnt from being involved in organising the UKCRC Public Health Research Centres of Excellence 4th Annual Conference.

Our journey began back in July 2012 with a trip to Durham for a reconnaissance mission to the PHRCoE 3rd Annual Conference and Summer School, hosted by Fuse. The conference dinner was hosted in the stunning surroundings of Durham Castle, and the mammoth challenge of organising the next conference, to be attended by over 200 delegates from six major public health research centres, began to hit home!

Our first job was to find suitable venues in Cardiff for the conference and evening dinner and get dates in the diary for the heads of all six centres – not an easy task, even that far in advance. Having eventually settled on a suitable date and venue, representatives from DECIPHer at Bristol, Swansea and Cardiff were invited to join an organising committee. This brought together a wide range of staff and PhD students, including academic, management and admin staff. Such a mixed group was able to give varied points of view on what a good conference should be, and insight on how to address any issues. A separate scientific committee was also formed, which was responsible for deciding the conference programme. Keeping these committees separate but having some staff involved in both allowed each committee to concentrate on relevant tasks whilst keeping everything joined up throughout.
                                                    The conference organising committee, complete (mostly) with fabulous DECIPHer t-shirts.

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There are some things that will always be difficult when organising a conference – university accommodation is never going to be glamorous, and the balance between fitting everything into the programme and having painfully early starts (especially when post-conference dancing until the small hours is encouraged) is inevitably a delicate one. However, despite a challenging and, at times, stressful year, the conference went off without a hitch. This view seems to be shared by delegates on their evaluation forms and informal feedback, and we were pleased to see that ‘conference organisation’ was rated 4.85 out of 5 on the Likert scale. Whilst at DECIPHer we are breathing a huge sigh of relief, we have put together some useful tips for others organising such an event:

Effective delegation

Our top tip is to form a large organising committee, each of whom should have clearly defined roles but also be willing to muck in when necessary. Regardless of how reliable your organising committee are, though, effective delegation to those outside the organising committee is also invaluable.

If practical, a web-based registration system, where each delegate spends five or ten minutes registering online, saves one person having to input all the delegate information each time somebody registers. It also means that registration data can be extracted whenever necessary without having to get on to your office’s network, which we found hugely useful when we needed to access registration information using the Millennium Stadium’s sometimes-unreliable wifi.

As the papers presented at the PHRCoE conference all came from six research centres, the heads of the six centres were tasked with identifying who would present. We were also able to accept all posters submitted, as we allowed plenty of room to display them. As well as not having to facilitate a peer review process, this allowed more PhD students and early career researchers to present papers and posters than might otherwise have been possible.

Perhaps most importantly, having one person responsible for the task list and delegation was really important in meeting deadlines and ensuring everything got done.


                                                    Allowing lots of poster space meant we were able to display all posters that were submitted.


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Be prepared

We found the key to everything running smoothly on the day was to get as much out of the way in advance as possible. Pre-loading all 54 of the presentations, for example, was essential for keeping the sessions to time. Although sometimes difficult, it is worth chasing up any elusive presentations, as it can cause an enormous amount of added work on the day if just one or two are loaded late or need IT issues ironing out.

Having said that, however well you plan, things will always come up on the day, and having people free to deal with any emerging issues is essential. One thing that worked particularly well for us was dressing our organising committee in instantly recognisable blue DECIPHer t-shirts. These went down really well (more so with delegates than with those wearing the t-shirts!) as they helped delegates to easily identify who to ask for assistance.

Keep everyone informed

During the conference, one of our key tasks was giving the right information to delegates, in the right format. We chose to provide USB sticks at registration, containing all conference abstracts, the conference brochure and the latest DECIPHer newsletter. We also made all abstracts available online in advance of the conference, meaning delegates could print these if they wanted hard copies, and access them online during the conference.

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With the remaining information, we found the best way to provide this was via something portable and personalised. Providing abstracts online and on a USB stick meant the printed conference brochure could be smaller and easier to carry around. Dinner choices were printed on delegates’ place markers at the conference dinner, and delegates were given stickers at registration as a record of which workshop they’d signed up to.

Finally…enjoy!

We were also incredibly lucky. All the six centres provided excellent chairs, who managed to keep sessions running to time. We had the advantage of great transport links and the option of using the Millennium Stadium, which is right near Cardiff Central station. Such a central venue encouraged people to travel by public transport and meant that those travelling home by train didn’t have to worry about booking taxis or leaving early. We also had fantastic weather throughout. This had seemed an elusive prospect during our planning meetings in the depths of winter, but we were all glad we’d taken the chance and booked venues with outdoor space.

    We managed to have the conference during what felt like the two hottest days in Cardiff ever.

There are, of course, things we’d do differently if we were to organise the conference again (although we’re somewhat relieved that this task will go to the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies next year). For example, we realised afterwards that more structured time should have been given for delegates to view the posters, and that some sort of automated confirmation following registration would have made it easier for delegates to remember if they had registered.

Overall, though, it’s fair to say we’ve learnt a lot, we’re proud of how things turned out, and we’re looking forward to attending UKCTAS’s event (minus the royal blue DECIPHer t-shirts) next year!



Zoe Macdonald is External Relations Officer at DECIPHer. Cheryl Briscombe-Binford is Centre Support Officer at DECIPHer.

The UKCRC Public Health Research Centres of Excellence 4th Annual Conference took place in Cardiff on 8 – 10 July 2013. Full information on the conference, including the conference programme, abstracts and photos, can be found on the conference website. A selection of tweets from the conference can be found here.

1 Comment

  1. Wendy Kelk

    This is a great guide to hosting a successful conference – I especially think the preparation section is relevant because often people will forget about how much can be done to save time before the conference begins!

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