This guide was written in 2003 and therefore reflects the technology which was available at that time. We have chosen to make it available because it contains advice which is still relevant today.
An informal guide to arranging a scientific meeting
Jenny-Ann Hardie*, Ingvill Løken**, Nils Kirkeby+, Karina Smith++, Anneli Høiden Skogstad† & Adrian Smith++
*Amersham Health, Oslo; **Norwegian Medicines Agency, Oslo; +Scanbur-BK A/S, Nittedal; ++Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, Oslo and †National Hospital, Oslo
We have organised and attended many meetings over the years. Some go well, others seem to attract one disaster after the other. In an attempt to learn from our own and others’ mistakes, we have compiled this informal but rather incomplete guide, in the hope that it may be of some use to you, regardless of the size of the meeting to be organised.We are aware that the amount of text we have devoted to some of the topics does not necessarily bear relation to their importance, and many of the comments will appear obvious or trivial. In our experience, however, small details can be the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’, or, alternatively, the final and appreciated touches to a memorable event. Many of the suggestions presented here were the result of our work in the organising committee of the 32nd Annual Scand-LAS symposium held at Gardermoen, Oslo in April 2002.
The success or failure of a meeting is dependent upon many factors:
- The organising committee
- The scientific programme
- The social programme
- The meeting venue and accommodation (and the distance between them)
- The finances
- The food
- The service you provide (before, during and after the meeting)
- How you look after yourself
Beyond doubt the most important single principle is:
ATTENTION TO DETAIL!
The Organising Committee
A meeting can be a pleasure to organise, and great fun at the same time, if the committee is composed of people whose chemistry is well matched, and who all clearly fulfill a vital function. Don’t invite people to be members of the organising committee until you have really had a chance to consider how well they will function in the team, and keep numbers down to a minimum. Choose people who have a proven ability to work hard, and, not least, accurately under pressure, and give them plenty of praise. It is far better to delegate some tasks to non-committee members than to include them all in the committee.
The Scientific Programme
Professionals attend meetings in order to get updated within their field and to meet colleagues from other institutions. Thus, the scientific programme is the single most important success factor. The meeting should have a theme and the scientific programme should reflect this theme. Be careful so the title does not put limitations on the choice of lectures, but allows you to cover a broad spectrum of relevant subjects. Make your meeting attractive by inviting acknowledged speakers but also allow young scientists to give presentations. Try to have contingency plans if confirmed speakers cancel at the last minute.
The Programme Book or Proceedings are important parts of many meetings. It is important to set realistic deadlines for abstracts, advertisements and other material that is to be included. Discuss this with the printers well in advance, as these deadlines may well coincide with other busy periods such as deadlines for registration.
The Social Programme
The social programme is an important part of any meeting, enabling participants to establish contacts from other organisations in an informal atmosphere. If you are planning outside events, be realistic about the likely weather conditions. Participants may forget to bring warm winter clothes even if you have asked them to. Don’t expect many people to volunteer to take part in organised games, so recruit participants in advance. If there is an Exhibitors Evening, make sure that this is a success, as the exhibitors are likely to be a vital source of revenue for the meeting.
The Meeting Venue and Accommodation
Several factors may influence on your choice of hotel: the turnout you expect for your meeting, the size and number of lecture halls, room availability and location. In our opinion, the ideal venue has:
- accommodation capacity for all participants
- the lecture facilities that you require
- adequate leisure facilities
A venue situated away from a city centre with all the urban temptations may have a positive effect on the attendance at lectures, and may also prevent unwanted attention from demonstrators. The security of the participants must be also given high priority.
Most people prefer to stay at the hotel where the meeting is being arranged. However, participants with a limited travelling budget may find the accommodation rates in expensive hotels too high. A cheaper alternative in walking distance from the venue hotel should be available.
Before preparing a budget, clarify if a surplus is expected from the meeting, and if so, the size of it. Get an overview of all items of expense that you want to include, as early as possible. Before deciding the registration fee, make sure all imaginable expenses are included, and add a little extra for unforeseen items. Based on previous experience, take contact with sponsors that may be interested in being represented at the trade exhibition, if there is to be one. Try also to recruit more unorthodox sponsors such as industrial companies and governmental agencies, but do not take it for granted that they will support the meeting. Such contributions should be considered as extra income and should not be included in the budget.
Ensure that you have a good overview of the economic situation just before the meeting starts, so you know if you can afford extra unexpected expenses, for example hire of taxis instead of using public transport if delegates are getting tired.
Make sure that all those who are to be refunded travel expenses or paid lecturers fees are made aware of exactly which items are to covered, and those that are not covered, to avoid unpleasant misunderstandings afterwards. Make a letter of contract between each of these and the committee. These terms must be agreed upon before the meeting is committed to using the person.
Investigate the tax issues for foreign speakers, so that there is no doubt as to how much money the person will actually receive (you may have to deduct tax at a high level, some of which may eventually be refunded to the lecturer many weeks later).
Spend sufficient time considering the economic consequences of your choices, and think through what the person to be asked is likely to be expecting from the meeting. He or she may have very different ideas. Take these agreement forms to the venue so you can show them to any participant who is dissatisfied.
Local specialities may appear to be exciting but may not appeal to everybody. Be sure that the restaurant provides an international menu and also can meet special diet requirements such as vegetarian dishes or gluten-free bread. Make sure people provide you with this information when they register for the meeting, so the restaurant can be prepared.
The Service you provide
Availability of information about the meeting
Be careful about issuing letters of invitation to delegates, as these may be abused by people who are merely seeking to gain entry to the country.
The Internet is a useful tool to reach out to potential participants. The programme should be as available as early as possible, so potential participants can decide whether or not to attend. Make a page of practical information that you can add to as the need arises, and inform readers that they should return to the website at regular intervals.
Make sure there is abundant and clear information about how to reach the meeting. Even if you are familiar with the area, go over the route that delegates will use and write a detailed description, with distances and times. Inform delegates if they have to pay parking fees, local taxes or if they must avoid prohibited areas.
Describe the likely weather conditions in the material that delegates receive in advance, but emphasise that there may be variations. Make sure there is a link to a website showing the weather forecast for the venue area.
Explain any restrictions due to animal health regulations, for example in the event of an outbreak of a contagious disease. Provide a link to the local/national authority's website, particularly if delegates are expected from agricultural areas.
Remember that not every potential participant has easy access to, or is familiar with, the Internet, even if they use email. Prepare an announcement that can be distributed by post to all members of the sponsoring organisation, and to other relevant institutions, and make sure that it contains the same information that is available on the Internet.
Make a presentation sheet of the association and the aims of the meeting, which you can give potential sponsors, so they know more about the organisers and the event itself.
Registration fee and payment
Despite the possibilities available today on the Internet, we strongly recommend that you do not allow electronic registration. The sender's email address is not always visible when using some email providers, making it impossible to know who has registered or paid. The safest system in our opinion is to use a form that is submitted by telefax or standard post. Spend considerable time should be spent designing a detailed registration form that is easy to understand and that includes all necessary information and enough space to be able to write legibly. Ask for both a telephone number and email address, in case one of the two is illegible. Give the draft form to a few potential participants and ask them for their opinion. It is worth considering at this stage what type of participant list you will be providing. There may be security issues here, but some time should be taken to ensure that the information provided is in fact correct, so that the list is a usful document after the meeting. Some exhibitors may be interested in a copy of the list before the meeting, to circulate advertizing material, so it is worth considering in advance how you will answer that question.
Spend some time deciding on rules for reduced registration rates and cancellation charges, and when these rates apply in relation to the start of the meeting. If these are fixed wisely, they will help you anticipate how the financial state of the meeting is developing, and will avoid a lot of last-minute changes.
Consider carefully which forms of payment should be accepted. Avoid cheques if at all possible. Bank transfer in your own country's currency, with all bank charges to be paid by the sender, is preferable. Make sure delegates can also pay by credit card (MasterCard or VISA) or by cash when they arrive. Have money in the registration office, with a receipt block, so that delegates who have paid too much can be reimbursed, and those who have not paid can do so. Work out in advance roughly how much money you need in the cash box, based on the total amount to be reimbursed, and make sure it is available in small enough denominations.
Letter of confirmation
Spend some time composing the text, so delegates get all the information they need in one letter. This letter should have a link to a website with up-to-date practical information. Make it clear on the website and in hardcopies of the first and second announcements that confirmation letters won't be issued until evidence of payment of registration fees has been received. Nearer the time, you may need to send out letters indicating that the delegates are registered but that payment has not yet been received, asking them to bring evidence of payment with them.
Use a computer database programme that allows you to generate a large number of layouts from the same set of information (punched once), e.g. name badges, confirmation letters and reminders.
Many of these will be your friends or colleagues. To avoid misunderstandings or bad feelings, send all of them a standard agreement form that they sign and return in good time before the meeting (give a deadline), detailing which expenses you can pay and whether there are to receive any fees. Make sure the form includes room for a few sentences describing the speaker, which the session chairman can use to present the person.
Make all your arrangements with them in writing, so there can be no questions, and maintain a ringfile with printouts of all mail correspondence with each speaker. Bring it with you to the meeting! Obtain their full postal address, telephone and fax, and email. Obtain a mobile phone number so you can contact them quickly in case they are delayed on the day of their lecture.
Send all lecturers an email thanking for their contribution, as soon as possible after the meeting. Send them a fax immediately afterwards asking for a specification of their travel expenses, using a form you design, asking them to return it by fax by a specified date. They should be asked to send the original form, together with their receipts for expenses, by post. Send thank-you letters to all sponsors and exhibitors as soon as possible after the meeting, in addition to the letter with practical details sent to them immediately after their offer of sponsorship.
The Registration Desk at the meeting venue
It is a great advantage if this is staffed by at least one person who knows some of the delegates, and the environment within which they work. Make sure that those staffing the meeting reception desk behave in a friendly and courteous way at all times. They should clearly show that they are doing everything in their power to help the delegates. This will help to ease tension if unforeseen problems should arise. Someone will inevitably turn up unannounced and claim that they have sent in a registration form, or will claim that their secretary has paid for their hotel room in advance, despite the fact that you have no evidence of the fact. But nobody expects the registration desk to be open 24 hours a day. However, make sure opening hours are clearly displayed, and that they coincide with convenient lulls in the programme (e.g. coffee and lunch breaks).
Make sure that the registration office has all the necessary equipment. It can be time-consuming and expensive to rely on the hotel's equipment, which may be in use, incompatible with your computers or expensive to hire. At a minimum there should be:
- A computer with a copy of the latest registration database, connected to a printer. This should preferably be the computer that was used to compile the database, to eliminate any unforeseen computer problems.
- Ample paper and spare name label sheets. Several delegates will end up wanting new name badges because their name has been spelt wrong, the flag on the badge is the wrong country, or they have spilt wine on it.
- A copying machine, preferably a fast one. Ample supplies of all paper types and overhead transparencies.
- Access to the Internet (this may have to be via the hotel's computer).
- Other items of office equipment including tape, staplers, hole punches, scissors, and batteries of all sizes in use
There should be a separate lockable office housing this equipment, away from the noise and stress of the registration desk, where the senior registrar can sort out the more complex issues one at a time with participants, and where he/she can work undisturbed.
Participants may contact the meeting desk with a variety of personal questions, such as the need for a doctor or advice on rebooking their flight. Clarify with the hotel in advance what they can contribute with, and let them handle as much of this as possible.
Equipment for the lecture rooms
Bring your own equipment in case the hotel doesn't provide everything:
Pointers (mechanical and/or laser)
Felt tip pens and overhead transparencies. Leave these in a prominent place on the podium.
Name sign holders and lecturers' names, printed in advance, to be displayed on the podium so latecomers know who is talking.
Spare pens for flipovers
Make very sure what the hotel is providing (at what cost) and what is not provided. Consider bringing your own computer projectors, slide projectors and one laptop for each lecture room. Try these out in advance to check compatibility, image size and brightness. Check that all the necessary leads are present in the projector bags.
Hire a technician, or several if you are going to be providing parallel sessions (not even the best technician can be two places at once). This is very well spent money, and saves a lot of stress, particularly in the beginning of the meeting while you are getting used to the facilities.
Tell the lecturers how they are to bring their computer presentations. This is usually best brought on a CD that can be quickly loaded onto one of the computers used at the meeting. Floppy discs are too small, and not all computers have disc drives. Check which version you have of presentation programmes like Powerpoint. This should be specified to all lecturers. If possible, install a version on the meeting’s machines that will cope with all possible versions likely to be used. Try and get lecturers to send their presentations in advance, although this is difficult! At the least, insist that they bring backup in the form of overhead transparencies or 35 mm slides.
Remember to bring battery chargers for all equipment needing them. Just as important, remember to use them during presentations, so computers don't power down during the talk!
Bring plenty of extra cables (SCART and S-VHS video cables, computer power cables and extension leads) and adapters in case foreign lecturers forget to bring them.
Make sure you have some spare light bulbs and cassettes for slide projectors, and one extra LCD projector in case of failure.
Consider the need for security and whether it is necessary to hire extra staff. Choose a company that is familiar with the nature of the anticipated problem (and preferably with the venue), even if they are more expensive than competing companies. Inform the local police and venue well in advance of the nature of the meeting, and check for the likelihood of demonstrations.
Make a list of mobile phone numbers to everyone in the organising committee, and give copies of this list to all members, as well as the hotel desk and the technical support team. It can take surprisingly long to trace people in an emergency, even in small hotels. Make sure that all key members of the organising committee have communications equipment.
Have a meeting noticeboard and encourage the delegates to check it regularly. Don’t however trust this board for important messages: make an announcement when everyone is present (count heads if necessary). If there are foreign participants, make sure everyone understands.
If participants are to use public transport between venues, make sure you have given them enough information, and try it out in advance, on the relevant day of the week (tram times may be very different at weekends). If you are sending participants information in advance, make sure the transport timetable will still be valid at the time of the meeting! Choose accommodation that is suitably situated, e.g. on the same tramlines as the meeting venue, so delegates can just follow the lines if they prefer to walk. Consider giving them week-tickets or the equivalent.
Set aside a few minutes at the start of each day for a short “housekeeping” talk, to update participants on practical details. This also gives you an opportunity to address and explain issues about which delegates are beginning to get annoyed, before they become major issues. Avoid changing the times or venues of events, but if this is inevitable make sure that these are clearly announced and signposted, both at the original venue and the new one.
Keep to the schedule, so delegates can plan phone calls and meetings between lectures, and make sure that lunch and coffee breaks are respected. It is a great advantage if parallel sesions start and end at the same time, so people can change sessions with a minimum of disturbance or irritation.
Write down all messages and things you want to remember, preferably on a copy of the programme so you can recall them at the correct time.
Look after yourself!
Write the speeches you will be holding (e.g. for the opening session, congress banquet and closing session) before the meeting starts. You won't have enough time to do this properly during the meeting, and you will probably forget important people you should have thanked. However, be ready to update these manuscripts with details, particularly humorous ones, from the meeting as it progresses.
Get enough sleep, and eat a solid breakfast in peace. That may be your last chance to get a square meal and eat it undisturbed, and it is essential to get the energy you need at the beginning of the day. In addition, drink plenty of water (not beer or soft drinks!) during the day: dehydration will make you feel more tired, make you more prone to headaches and will reduce your ability to concentrate.
Keep a finger on the pulse of the meeting. It is a good idea to use contacts within the different participant categories (e.g. lecturers, scientific staff, technicians and exhibitors) who will report to the organising committee if things start going wrong. Choose these contacts carefully, so they really mingle with their group, and choose people with a good knowledge of psychology, who can themselves help to defuse potential problems.
Try to correct any problems that arise as soon as possible, and make it clear to the delegates that you take their remarks seriously and are acting on them. The fact that you are enjoying yourself does not necessarily mean that the delegates are. Tell them that the meeting is for them, so they must help make it a success, i.e. make sure they realise that they have some of the responsibility for a successful meeting. Show that you are working hard. Don’t be overheard saying that everything is going fine, because there is bound to be someone who doesn’t agree with you! Don’t appear arrogant or unethical, and take care of your own reputation: it is important that the chairman of the meeting is respected and authoratitive at all times.
Don’t relax until the meeting is over. The participants’ last impressions are equally important, and these may be the lasting images they have of your meeting.
Allocate enough time to attend to the necessary paperwork once the meeting is over, and complete this while everything is still fresh in your mind.
Finally, be prepared for a feeling of anticlimax once the “adrenaline kick” is over. If all has gone well, it can be an effort to get back to the mundane business of everyday life.
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