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So You Want To Organise Your Own Conference?

There are several types of conferences; the dictionary definition of conference says “A meeting for the exchange of views”.

My interpretation of conference, being a conference producer, is a place where people meet to confer and share knowledge. In the sharing theme I have decided to detail the elements required to ensure your conference goes smoothly. Whether you are getting a conference production company like mine to do it for you, or if you are going to manage it yourself, follow this outline and you can be assured that if you have made ample allowances for each of the items then your attendees (usually called delegates) will have a great day out. The better the feedback from the delegates the better the conference will have been received by the end client, either your MD or client depending on whether you are doing it yourself, or are an event organiser.

There are many different types of conferences, one of the most popular types are seminars which are normally an academic style forum where people go to learn about a certain subject.Quite a few companies run free seminars to teach their clients about the products they sell and how they can help to fulfil a need. Quite often the clients do not realise they have the need until the seminar is over!

I mention Forum above because this is probably (at least to my knowledge) the oldest type of meeting or conference that I am aware of. My partner Sam will cringe at this, as when I discuss my work, I always have to get the Romans in somewhere!

A Short History of Conferences

The forum as many people are aware was the centre of power in Rome for many hundreds of years, a Roman general would return from a successful campaign and he would have been received at the forum and made a speech from the rostrum to the people of Rome.

So for thousands of years people have been having conferences around the world, the tools for doing the job have changed, but I can imagine and have indeed read about, the effort and organisation that went into preparing for one was as important then as it is today.

Things haven’t changed much no matter how large or small a conference is, there are some rules that we must all follow.

The Right Venue

Once you have a reason to hold a conference and an audience to attend the next step is venue selection, this is crucial as you will need a room large enough for the numbers attending, without being too large. If you are going to have a conference set with rear projection then the throw distance has to be taken into account when you are looking at the room, (I will come onto throw distance later when thing get more technical) as this uses space too.It is also a good idea to try and make sure you have extra ‘breakout’ rooms available for delegates to have private discussions and to make and receive phone calls.

Once you have a main meeting room suitable for your delegate numbers, you then have to consider where they will have tea and coffee breaks for networking and if there is potential for setting up display stands for other products. Quite often a conference you will have a large group of industry leaders and corporate decision makers, why not create a form of exhibition area to promote ancillary products or services?

Quite often the majority of your conference attendees will be international visitors so a good conference production tip is to choose a venue location that offers easy access to the nearest airport.

Remember if you are going to do the job right you are also responsible for the delegate experience prior to arriving at the venue, you want them to have a pleasant journey and feel as relaxed as possible on arrival so venue location is very important.

Conference Production

Once a venue has been selected and it fits with all the criteria above, then it’s time to give your production company a call, they will normally recommend a site visit, so the room can be measured to check all of the conference production elements fit within the space proposed.

There are various different styles of the seating and this is an important consideration. There is theatre style seating where the delegates sit in rows next to each other. Then you have classroom style seating where delegates sit next to each other with a slim table in front similar to when you might take an exam. Then there is cabaret style seating which is where delegates are seated on round tables normally 6 feet in diameter, with this style it is important that the delegates aren’t seated all the way around the table to ensure nobody has their back to the presenters or stage.

After your production company has completed the site visit they will propose the elements of staging you require to achieve your purpose. This will include stage and set, video projection, sound, lighting, crew levels to operate the show, and any pre-production requirements.

Pre-production

Not all conferences require pre-production, for example if your conference has PowerPoint slides you may want your production company to create them for you, a lot of companies now have the staff to do this in-house, but if that is the case they need to be of a professional standard.

You may want a video to be created, there are different types of messages you could utilise a video for, for example, a short opening sting, like an advert, to give a high impact start to your show.

Sometimes there may be presenters that can’t attend so you could have them videoed prior to the event and then played back during the conference at the appropriate time.You will have no doubt seen this kind of video message in awards ceremonies and of course the world famous This Is Your Life program.

Not all presenters are comfortable with presenting, so a speaker coach may be a good idea, the coach will do as much or as little as is required. Usually they will come into your offices and asses the presenters, presentation techniques and will advise accordingly.Speaker coaches can be invaluable to the success of your event if your presenters are new to their role and do not have any public speaking experience.

Event management companies do this kind of work day in day out and so they are used to taking into account all the aspects of a successful conference, so it is recommended that you engage a professional event manager for larger, or really important conferences, until you have cut your teeth on a few smaller projects.

However, if you decide to do it yourself, then below are some useful hints and tips to creating your own successful production.These tips are the culmination of over 25 years working as a conference producer.

Set and Staging

A conference set is usually a timber framed construction covered in a material of a colour that fits the client’s corporate colours, normally this would have an aperture in it for rear projection with a screen, the screen should be large enough for all of the audience to see the content on the screen without straining their eyes.Remember, the larger the audience then the larger the screen needs to be.

The base of the screen, known as the under panel, needs to be at least 1.2m (5ft) to ensure the audience has a clear view over the heads of the people sat in front of them.
This is where the ceiling height comes into play. For example if you had a screen height of 2.5m, a screen base of 1.2m and a screen header, above the screen, of 300mm the minimum ceiling height required is 4m.

There are many different styles of set you can use, many companies have a stock set option which is pre-built, when it is used it is recovered to suit the client’s corporate branding. Other styles of set include a bespoke set where you consult a designer who will take a brief from you regarding the theme of the event and come up with a purpose built set with various options. This is of course more expensive compared to the standard stock set options.

Whether you decide on a stock or bespoke set it is advisable to have some scale floor plans created to ensure all the elements fit into the available space and most production companies will do this in-house. if you went for the bespoke option you would receive some 3D drawings so you can visualise what the set will look like in the venue.

Once the set has been decided upon then the stage will also need to be included in the plans. The most cost effective stage option for corporate events is a standard stage the width of the set, which is normally about 2.5m deep and 450mm high.

The size also depends on what you want to have on stage during the conference, for example if you are going to have just one lectern or two, or if there is a requirement for a top table or some comfortable chairs and a coffee table for a more relaxed question and answer session.

Video Projection

Video projection is required if you want to put an image on the screen behind the speaker. The image can be data or video playback or indeed both. At small conferences this may just be a data projector and a laptop, controlled from the lectern, either with the client pushing buttons or with the help of a remote mouse so a presenter can move around the stage area freely.These are a great tool and whilst being relatively cheap to buy really help the presenter to get into their presentation!

You can also use a stage monitor screen so the presenter can see the slide changes without having to turn and look at the screen, the presenter should never have their back to the audience. To enable this you will require what we call a VCA DA this piece of equipment splits the signal from the laptop to both the projector and the stage monitor screen. Generally this is a trade tool only of the AV industry so if you can’t find one ask your conference production company to provide it.

If the presenter is more akin to speaking than using a computer and doesn’t want to control their own slides then a cue light system can be used. This is a hand held controller that when pressed sends a signal to a light backstage and a technician then forwards the slides for the speaker.

If you want to play DVD’s you will require a DVD player with a preview monitor and a switcher. There are many different switchers you can use but it is recommended that if you’re going to play a lot of videos during your event then a good quality data switcher should be used. By using multiple DVD players each video can be queued up whilst another is playing and then the switcher changes the signal from one player to the other, this avoids the audience having to wait while the DVD’s are changed and makes for a very professional presentation.

So you’ve got your data projector, your cue light system, your stage monitor and your DVD playback.

What other ways can corporate events be enhanced by using video projection?

Recently I did an event which had a live camera feed.

The client wanted this for two different reasons firstly there was a presenter that didn’t have any PowerPoint slides except a name slide, so when he was presenting we had a live camera feed on the screen so the audience had a more up close and personal experience with the presentation. Then we utilised the live camera feed during the question and answer session for the same effect. By using two cameras we were able to switch between the person asking the question and the speaker responding to the question so everyone could properly see and hear both the question and the answer.

The second reason was that the client wanted to use some footage for the internet like a webcast. Certain elements of the conference were edited out and compressed for the internet so that delegates who were unable to attend could get a feeling of the content of the conference|, simply by watching it on their PC’s}.

Sound System (Public Address PA)

The sound system can range from a couple of speakers and one microphone in a small conference for say 50 delegates, or multiple speakers and microphones for up to thousands of delegates.

The basic sound system requirements are speakers, amplifiers, microphones and a mixing desk, to enable each microphone or set of speakers to be turned up and down as required.

The speakers are generally on stands, however if you are organising a large conference they may be able to be flown from truss above to give an even coverage in the centre of the room. As audiences get bigger then it gets a bit more complicated.

In the event that you do have a very large audience than a delay line is required, this ensures that the signal reaches all of the speakers in the various locations around the room, or venue, at the exact same time removing any echo there might be.

There are various different types of microphones, the most commonly used these days are the tie clip radio microphones which enables the presenter the freedom to walk around the stage cable free.

If the presenters are going to stay at the lectern then lectern microphones which are wired are more suitable.

With regards the amplifier, most professional amps will run four speakers so if you need eight speakers for good coverage then two amplifiers will be needed. When the amount of speakers and amplifiers is specified, the next piece of equipment required is a mixing desk, generally people who are doing their own event don’t plan for this, but it can be the one piece of crucial equipment that makes the difference between an amateur and a professional event.

The mixing desk takes in all the signals that need to be heard through the speakers, such as the microphones, CD players and video playback. Once the equipment is plugged into the Mixing console, a feed is taken out of the desk and into the amplifiers, then from the amplifier to the speakers.

After this has been done the sound engineer then equalises the system which in layman’s terms means making it sound good in areas of the room. A well equalised sound system will have the feeling for the delegate, that the presenter is seated next to them not shouting from the front of the room.

All mixing consoles have a basic equaliser on the unit itself, however a professional conference producer will know it is advisable to get a separate graphic equaliser which has more options on it.

In a very large room it is recommend having what is called a multicore which as the name suggests is a cable with multiple cores inside it that carries the signals up and down the room from the control position from front of house to the control position backstage.

Lighting

Lighting is one of the most important visual elements of the conference. If you don’t have the luxury of a bespoke conference set then lighting can make all the difference.

There are several different types of lighting available, there is up-lighting normally provided by Par 64 floor cans, which you will recognise from seeing any professionally staged event. These can have coloured gel in them to add a set wash. There are also Fresnells which is a type of lamp which can hang from a truss or floor stand and again these can have a coloured gel in them to provide a set wash or coloured lighting effects. Profile lights are used to highlight elements of the set such as logos, steps or other details.

The most modern type of lamps on the market are LED lights. They are the most expensive type of lighting but they are worth it if you have the budget, the beauty of this type of lighting is that it can change colour at the press of a button|, which saves having to use gels to set the colour, and of course is a much more flexible for of lighting. I am sure you have seen LED lights being used all over the place these days, in torches, in mirrors, in cars, there are even some new cats eyes in the road that use LED lights.

Once the Lighting type and style is specified then it’s a good idea to get a lighting designer involved.

The designer will specify the type of lamp, where it should go, and what it’s going to do, if possible it’s best to hang lighting on a truss in front of the set, as opposed to using floor mounted stands. After the lighting has been decided on then it will need power, this usually comes from the venue supply via a dimmer rack to the lamps.

Crew

The crew is very important as they pull all the elements of the show together, professional conference production companies will know the value of a crew communication system which comprises of headphones and belt packs for each crew member allowing them to communicate with each other.

On larger shows we have a production manager and if required a conference producer, either one of these will show call, which means they will tell the crew what they should be doing and when they should be doing it. For example, when a video is due to be played they will let the video engineer, the sound engineer and the lighting engineers know in advance so they are ready when the caller say run VT.

Transportation

Again transportation is a crucial aspect of any event, or else how is everything you have ordered going to get there at the right time on the right day? The size of the vehicle is dependent on the size of the show, it can be anything from a transit size van up to an arctic with a 40ft trailer. It is the responsibility of the conference production company to decide on the type and size of transportation, but remember if you are booking a venue and it’s a large show that requires an arctic then make sure the vehicle can get into the loading bay! Fortunately it is not from my own experience that I have learnt this but from watching a competitor learn the it the hard way many years ago at an event I was working at!

In Summary

Organising a conference requires a lot of forward planning, the more you put in to it before the event the smoother it will run on the day.

Remember to look after your crew because they are the ones who enable it to all happen, look after your presenters because they are the ones it is happening for, and most importantly look after your delegates if you want it to happen to them again in the future. If you follow these basic rules that then you will have a successful event, good luck!

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