how to organise low-budget, low-maintenance conference

How to organise an international academic conference with a low budget?

1) make sure you’ve got even a low budget, or a clear plan of how to get one.

2) get partners. there are two things you should be interested in a) institutional support and finance: if you have a budget to share, they might chip in. make sure they realise it’s not gonna be too much work for them and that they get their names on the organisers’ list. b) practical help: it is much easier and more fun to organise a conference with someone else, but it is important that this person should be working near-by (not in a different country) and you should share a common vision about the practicalities, too.

3) write the Call for Papers (CFP): choose and clarify a theme that is wide enough, but not too wide, depending the audience you look for. pose the research question and the thematic in an interesting and even challenging way. this ensures that people who really want to engage with this would bother to send in a paper, and you are not overloaded with papers.

4) set up a deadline in the CFP that is far enough from the conference date so you can make sure that you can organise the rest of the conference with more confidence about its contents and close enough that you would be confident that these people actually will be able to make it and are motivated to plan sending in a paper. send out reminders and if needed extend the deadline.

5) distribute the CFP – remember that once it’s in email distribution it may end up anywhere. there is also a difference  in the results between sending it to all possible networks that one knows and just certain ones. there is also a difference between national and international networks – even if they feed into one another. you might want to target the call so that you do not get a load of responses – or you might want to reach far (especially with a narrow topic).

6) choosing the papers makes sense to talk consult other people. never think that you do not want to invite people that you already know – think rather that these are the backbone for your confidence with the conference. if you know them they are likely to come. don’t, nevertheless, only rely on people you know: it’s much more intellectually stimulating to have a real mixture. (and anyway, you are the organiser will have little time to socialise.) reject weak papers. make sure people understand that you really appreciate they sent their abstracts.

7) decide on the scope of the conference once you’ve seen the proposals. it makes sense to ask others to participate (by giving a paper too, if you find suitable sets of papers they are interested in. obviously financial possibilities etc. restrict the size of the conference. and the more people the more work.

8) if possible gather the abstracts into a set, since that’s easier to show it around to your partners, (potential) sponsors, publishing houses etc.

9) book rooms in advance. nevertheless, you might realise only closer to the conference how much of the ‘ordinary’ audience (non-paper-givers) will be present, so try to be realistic from the start but do make new estimates if things change. check the rooms you book and advertise in person, if at all possible, and make sure the official booking and the advertised ones match. make sure they are not too far apart from each other.

10) fix the catering: offering coffee may be the most expensive thing in your conference, but it might be just that what people remember about it. even a nominal fee might make the visitors unsatisfied, even if this would be a perfectly reasonable system. remember, that they have come a long way to contribute to your conference. try to get sponsors (university, city hall, foundations, think thanks or any institution that may benefit from your conference) for the coffee breaks – and also importantly wine and soft-drink receptions after key notes. it is very important not to let people just wither away – especially in conferences like the european ones which take place on university campuses, often in city centres. if you can’t get sponsors go for coffee tickets or ask for donations – or a conference fee that would cover at least these. (but if you ask for a conference fee, do not ask money for coffee!) fix one conference dinner – making sure it’s not too expensive for most people and asking for menu and participation figures well ahead of time.

11) conference packs – having some set of papers to offer to all participants, especially paper givers is important. in major conferences conference bags are also somehow seen as important: doing a low-budget conference, you must make sure that people do not expect all the material things and focus on the contents!

12) one of the thing to fill the conference bags with is material from publishers, while doing advertisement you are creating a conference atmosphere. in larger conferences also invite publishers along if possible. do make sure that you invite them ahead of time and book space for them. otherwise you can try to find way to exhibit things without the publishers themselves being present. in larger conferences publishers sponsor receptions, which is handy for the conference organiser and for the publishers themselves.

13) advertisement. once the conference venues are fixed, start doing advertisement. also do it after the panels are drawn. posters are useful thing, especially on location – but nowadays the internet has taken over. make sure you have a conference web page, which you keep updated. it is easy for the paper-givers and participants to keep updated with it. it is also good for cross-linking and web searches. also inform the press and the university, faculty, department (and their public relations people) about the conference. close to the time of the conference make sure it’s on the university webpage, mailing list etc. you might be surprised how many people would actually have been interested in the conference had they known about it.

14) reserve time for email enquiries and other contacts.

15) organising a low-budget, low-maintenance conference – never offer any funding for people. if you have the chance collect a list of other available funds, do so and send it on. you can of course spend a lot of time trying to get these funds, and it would be lovely to get people from especially from beyond the richest countries to participate, but if you are limited with time and resources, skip this step. remember that administering the available funds will require an effort (booking and paying tickets, etc.) so do it if you can.

16) if you can, recycle left over things from previous conferences that have been organised in your university. also recycle the badges. keep low profile: do not impose pre-registration or fees, if you do not have the infrastructure (people) to help you on the day.

17) to cope with stress make sure that you have some institutional support, and someone who tells you that it will be alright. it is good to have people around who tell you that your are facing a challenge, but that one could imagine you know and believe yourself. it’s more important to have those who support you.

18) make sure you have some volonteers (or if you can afford paid aid) for the days you organise the conference, preferably already a few days before. make sure that they know what they are supposed to help you with – even have tasks to fulfill and responsibilities to take. that is why it is vital to confer before the conference days itself. you can also ask your friends, if nothing else, but do it directly so that they understand what you ask from them and that they can also reject your request. make sure there’s someone beside you, whom you can trust when you should be in two or more places at the same time!

19) make that the people close to you know what you are dealing with, when organising the conference. even if it was really a low-maintenance conference, it causes a lot of stress as you can never know for sure whether everyone is turning up, what kind of catastrophes will occur, and so on. as in many other stressful situations you might really be a nuisance to your loved ones, friends and family. do not make any hasty decisions just before or after the conference.

20) after the conference follow up the situation, keep in touch with the people. sort out last minute bills and other things.  check the budget. try to fix a publication for the conference papers. stay active towards the people who turned up and reserve time for responses about the conference. (i know i had to take a week off myself, to try to deal with the other things that i had no time before the conference.)

21) finally, be patient, open for new challenges and ready to innovate and make big things out of small things. be sincere about your failures (in time keeping etc.) and allow these misgivings for others too. pretty normal stuff, eh?

it’s not that i would have followed all these ten points… but they were hopefully useful thoughts emerging out of the conference i just organised, on discourses about nationalism and populism at the University of Helsinki.

it was a difficult task as most of the time i wasn’t in finland – and i hardly knew that university. luckily i had the access to the university computer system even off location, and i could make calls through skype-out even from abroad.

i had no idea how many people there would be, when booking the rooms. it could well have been only the paper-givers, as it was a conference season with major european conferences taking place at the same time. in the end besides the ca. 30 papers there were upto 150 participants present. the response was overwhelmingly positive – even if there of course were a lot of things that didn’t go according to the plan. no-one would know the whole extent.

one more thing: try to sleep and do not drink a glass of orange juice with vitamin C if you wake up in the middle of the night. that killed my freshness for the second conference day… oops.

thanks to everyone who has been there for me!

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