Guidelines for Planning a National Conference

These guidelines have been prepared based on the experience of the Global Health Education Consortium and its predecessor, the International Health Medical Education Consortium. Though some references are specific to GHEC, it has broad applicability to any organization planning a relatively large conference drawing speakers and participants from around the country and abroad. GHEC plans to develop guidelines useful for a smaller, shorter regional conference, where timelines are much shorter, overnight stays are usually unnecessary and the financial commitment is limited. Numbers, where provided, assume attendance of approximately 400.The below guidelines start with a broad brush timeline, followed by more detailed considerations. Suggestions for improvement are welcome. Send them to Tom Hall at [email protected] or Karen Lam at [email protected] This manual was made possible by the contributions of the following individuals:
Joyce Dobson, Tom Hall, Charles Kelley, Karen Lam, Sara Pirtle, Anvar Velji
By 12 – 14 months pre-conference
By 10 – 12 months pre-conference
By 8 – 9 months pre-conference
By 6 – 7 months pre-conference
By 4 – 5 months pre-conference
By 3 months pre-conference
Last weeks and days pre-conference
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Budget & Fundraising
AV Equipment
Marketing & Publicity
Conference Program
Other Considerations

We assume the conference host and location has been identified more than one year in advance, and that the host will carry out certain functions before the conference that precedes the one they will sponsor.

By 12 – 14 months pre-conference

Conference chair and co-chair(s) designated
Letter of Commitment obtained from appropriate senior official(s) of host institution
Initial ideas developed regarding theme(s)
Host institution Conference Planning Committee (CPC) designated; at least several members, including host institution staff, attend the conference preceding the one they will be responsible for
Prepare agenda items for Board of Directors (BoD) – or other overseeing body – meeting regarding key conference decisions
Obtain BoD input on key decisions, including preferred dates
Initiate call for speakers
Coordinate with hosts of current conference to ensure CPC receives timely findings from post-conference evaluation
Award Committee designated

By 10 – 12 months pre-conference

Confirm date, venue, theme and logo for conference
Confirm participation of senior host institution officials at opening session
Locate and contract with hotel/institution, taking into account conference and guest room requirements, food capabilities, moderate costs, transportation access, exhibit and poster viewing areas. Negotiate contract carefully; request discounts or tax deductions, if applicable; request complimentary hotel rooms based on number of paid rooms; watch out for high penalty costs if room targets are not met
Circulate for review/comment by overseeing body detailed conference income/expenditure budget
Circulate for review/comment by overseeing body detailed marketing & PR plan; develop marketing kit for use in soliciting conference grants
Circulate for review/comment detailed fund-raising plan
Circulate for review/comment a White Paper on the conference theme, suggested sections to include: Title, Preamble, Main body of paper, Conclusion, Agenda for action
Identify and confirm keynote speaker(s)
Identify and confirm major theme “tracks” (if desired) and desired balance between plenary, panel, workshop and roundtable sessions, as relevant. Since most conferences have at least 50% student and resident registrants, be sure to include both plenary and breakout sessions appropriate to their interests Circulate for review/comment draft program schedule
Put preliminary conference decisions on website & email announcement with info about dates, venue, theme, and advance info about when a call will go out for session and poster abstracts. Note: Every opportunity should be taken to remind potential attendees by email of the conference and during this early period the announcements can be made as to when abstracts submissions can be made.

By 8 – 9 months pre-conference

Post on website call for session and poster abstracts, requirements for each type, deadlines, online forms
Send emails announcing call for abstracts along with update info on conference
Prepare and use fund solicitation packet, including info on preliminary conference program, major speakers, expected attendance, other special features, and selected info about past conferences
Complete selection, invitation and to extent possible, confirmation of invited speakers
Ensure that CPC has ample student conference planning input either through direct representation on the CPC or a separate Student Committee. Invite student help with speaker selection, invited sessions, student-run sessions, student housing, and student-run or other entertainment
Advise host institution PR unit of forthcoming conference and solicit their help, both with host institution publicity and with local and national media

By 6 – 7 months pre-conference

Post on website links to online conference registration service, and for making online hotel reservations; arrange for automatic online (and printable) confirmation of registration and reservation. Specify cancellation policy but be lenient in its application. Consider organizing a “matching system for lodging” to provide low cost student housing, eg, with local students
Email announcement opening of online registration and hotel reservations; provide interim update on conference preparations. Consider pros & cons of printed brochures, but have all registration online.
Make announcements and reminders that abstracts can be submitted online for speakers, panels, workshops, roundtables, and posters; urge others to communicate info to other relevant parties.
E-mail or letters to potential exhibitors with conference info and inviting them to register online.
Place promotion ads in affiliated journals and newsletters, and post on info on relevant websites, eg, Global Health Council. Send basic conference information and conference info URL to relevant student organizations such as AMSA, IFMSA, Student University Network for Social and International Health (SUNSIH), and others.
Update preliminary program with each major change or increment; post updates on the website and keep the Program Committee informed
Conclude contract and arrangements for A-V equipment
Conclude contract and arrangements for poster stands. Obtain stands that are vertical so that posters can be displayed on both sides. Note stand size and advise poster presenters of maximum poster size.
Conclude contract and arrangements for printing the program
Conclude selection of invited speakers
Identify program printer and designer and obtain printer’s deadline dates

By 4 – 5 months pre-conference

Conclude poster selection and communicate results to submitters; provide guidelines for poster presentations and recommend to presenters that they consult the website for such guidelines.
Conclude session selection and communicate results to submitters; provide guidelines for session presentations
Update website info about the program (provide specific information on speakers, plenary sessions, workshops, auxiliary meetings, registration, housing forms)

By 3 months pre-conference

Organize PR efforts for local attendees
Continue and perhaps expand ads; periodically send email reminders to other organizations to ensure that conference announcements are on their websites
Identify potential host(s)s for next 1-2 years of conferences
Prepare promotional splash for next year’s event from closing ceremony
Identify staff and students who can help with conference logistics, registration table, etc.
Confirm final arrangements for welcoming reception and/or invitational dinner
Select and confirm food choices for meals and session breaks
Conclude arrangements for after hours entertainment, if offered
Re-affirm arrangements with contractors (A-V, poster stands, etc.)
Allocate sessions and meetings to available rooms

Last weeks and days pre-conference

Print program and other required materials; consider including an abbreviated “At-a-glance” schedule
Prepare or arrange for sponsor banners to be used with exhibits
Walk thru venue with to make final decisions regarding room allocation, chair/table orientation and dais placement, sequences, attendee flows, exhibit table and poster stand placements
Prepare attendee handouts as appropriate (eg, name, affiliation, email list of registrants)
Prepare attendee name badges and place names for speakers
Prepare name, affiliation and email list of registrants for duplication and distribution
Prepare evaluation forms and arrange for their distribution so as to maximize returns
Prepare message boards
Oversee deployment and testing of A-V equipment; have on-site student or staff available to learn about troubleshooting problems after company technician leaves
Oversee deployment of poster stands and ensure availability of necessary supplies, eg, tape, pins
Arrange for emergency contact info
Hold a meeting with CPC for final distribution of on-site tasks during the event.



Block out overall program schedule early and minimize subsequent changes. Consider adaptation of this basic design: Opening day, late afternoon / evening: registration; ‘ice breaker’ reception with light refreshments; if funds permit, invitational dinner for major speakers and conference leadership; First full day: Continental breakfast, box lunch and two coffee breaks; morning plenary(ies) and if possible, one breakout session; afternoon breakout session(s) and perhaps a plenary; time for exhibit and poster viewing; entertainment after last session. Consider having ‘round table’ discussions on diverse over lunch. Second full day: Continental breakfast, box lunch and two coffee breaks; additional plenaries and breakout sessions; consider having award ceremony before end of conference to reduce risk of significant attrition and print award statements in program to minimize presentation time.
Provide adequate transition time between sessions (eg, 10 minutes)
Develop evaluation form and determine how to get a high return of completed forms (give small premium in exchange?). Tabulate results within one month and distribute Board of Directors, next conference host, and consider posting summary results on web. Consider extracting positive comments for marketing materials

Budget and Fund-raising Considerations

Be ruthless in developing a realistic income and expenditure budget; make conservative assumptions about fund raising. Conference chairs must maintain control of budget and not let others make decisions (invite speakers) without your consent. Put budget on Excel spreadsheet and invite review/comment by appropriate others and conference leadership. If possible, use standardized Excel budget format to allow for development of a longitudinal series of conference budgets.
Develop plan for obtaining sponsors, grants, etc. Develop generic letters for soliciting support and include appropriate informational materials about the conference host and its past conferences
Ensure that host institution(s) make contributions, eg, student travel awards (especially for persons from low income countries), welcome reception, dinner for invited speakers, etc.
Review recent year registration fees and revise as necessary; establish early registration discount and set deadline date
If using an online registration service and credit cards, factor in expenses to registration fees
All financial agreements and major solicitations should be vetted by conference leadership; ensure close coordination between various solicitations to avoid duplication, confusing messages, excessive or inappropriate requests
Collect all receipts for reimbursement
Obtain contracts with outside vendors (AV, poster panel companies, etc.)
Consider special registration rates to be made for international students and faculty depending on available grant subsidies.

Venue Considerations

5 or more concurrent sessions with 100+/room; 50+ posters; 10-20 exhibit tables; continental breakfast, coffee breaks and for registration; small, lockable room for staff use and storage during conference
If hosting at a hotel, select hotel taking into account such factors as: size, price and flexibility of sleeping rooms; location; number, space, layout, acoustics, lighting, unfettered visibility and costs of conference rooms; availability of auto parking; flexibility of seating arrangements (theater vs. roundtable style); washroom access; A-V capabilities; accommodations for those with disabilities; space for at least 50 posters and at least 15 exhibits; food service; space for continental breakfast, coffee breaks, etc; airport access; reputation and perceived staff competence; ability to handle unexpected overflow registration; proximity of cafes, stores or malls, rental cars, etc; hotel concessions and freebies
Written contract between hotel and conference host should include all relevant details. Other matters that may need to be addressed in the contract or a written MOU include: AV equipment and technician availability (at least for the first half day), meals and reception considerations, airport transfer and tour transportation issues; and hotel provision of some ‘free’ rooms based on number of paid-for rooms. Request or insist on deals including discounts to area attractions, comp rooms, discounted service charge, etc.
Conference hosts should again make a careful walk-through of the venue with the hotel’s meeting planner several months pre-conference to make final decisions about: attendee flow patterns; room assignments; seating style; AV equipment location; poster and exhibit placements; meal location; and to ensure adequate take-down / set-up time for reconfiguring rooms between sessions

Catering Considerations

Verify hotel offers a good variety of tasty menu options and costs
Confirm menu selections well in advance; confirm order several days pre-conference
Confirm ability to host welcome reception and, if planned, a pre-conference dinner for invited speakers
Use quality box lunches rather than a buffet to leave time for posters and exhibits; prefer having access to both sides of the food tables to minimize delays
Watch costs carefully with coffee breaks and receptions; they add up quickly
Confirm that vegetarian options will be available at all meals
Minimize or avoid high fat food

A-V Equipment Considerations

Verify that the hotel or a reliable contractor can provide, install and test quality equipment, and can replace defective equipment quickly
Arrange to provide in meeting rooms: dais/podium mike, loud speakers, display panel and overhead projectors (may be unnecessary), projection screens, laptops pre-loaded with PowerPoint, Excel, Word and all relevant PowerPoint files, and easels with paper (or blackboards) and markers. Plenary meeting room should have several additional wired mikes (for panels) and preferably, two handheld mike(s) available for audience Q&A participation
A-V technician on site at least during first half day; A-V competent volunteer available on site during rest of conference
Keep at least one spare pre-loaded laptop available during conference in case of equipment failure
Consider having one or more: VHS capable video projector; camcorder to record presentations; digital camera; cassette recorder.

Speakers Considerations

Develop master list of potential invited speakers at least 10-12 months pre-conference; in making selection, monitor carefully number of speakers requiring full support, especially from distant locations. Speakers who can cover some or all of their own costs are especially valuable.
Maintain tight control over process of speaker selection and of communications with speakers to reduce risks of having too many speakers or too ‘overlapped’ speakers; select keynote speaker but have in mind a last minute backup keynoter
Seek a good balance between ‘big name’ speakers and those without wide recognition but who have abundant field experience relevant to the conference mission; seek an appropriate balance according to gender, minority/non-minority, developed/less developed country origin, and student/non-student status.
Most initial invitations will likely be through personal contacts and by telephone but the follow-ups should be made with written invitations. These should include: date, time and if indicated, other panelists at time of speaker’s intervention; request for biosketch and confirmed contact information (with specified deadline); query as to any special A-V needs; request for electronic transmission of PowerPoint presentations a week in advance of conference; agreed upon terms of support of speaker (lodging, meals, registration, transportation, etc.) and reimbursement procedures (eg, are receipts required, will a fixed amount be paid, will conference host pay hotel directly, etc.); and advise speakers of any plans to post PowerPoint files on web. Some speakers may be able to cover their own expenses and, if they are capable, they should be invited to do so!
Obtain speaker biosketches and contact information well in advance; provide deadline for their submission; develop suggested format and word count so that biosketch presentations are not widely divergent; be prepared to draft and submit for review biosketches prepared from much longer submissions by speakers
Formally thank presenters at conclusion of conference and arrange for thank you letters by appropriate person to invited speakers after the conference. Consider making small speaker gifts.
Consider assigning key conference planning members to be special contacts for speakers during the conference
Put speakers’ PowerPoint presentations on a master disk or computer so that presentations flow smoothly. Test functioning of equipment and electronic presentations beforehand.

Poster Considerations

Determine number of posters that can be accommodated based on available space, type of poster stand, and maximum poster size
Set dates and requirements for submission and selection early; provide information to membership at least 8 months pre-conference so they will be ready to submit abstracts promptly
Provide for immediate / automatic email confirmation of receipt of abstract
Notify acceptance or rejection promptly; provide acceptees with prompt and complete information about preparing their posters; if possible, refer them to a the event’s designated webpage where such information is posted.
Name and orient poster selection committee 8-10 months pre-conference
Decide whether or not to make poster awards; if ‘yes,’ decide on number and nature of awards; name and orient poster judges 3-4 months pre-conference; decide on judging criteria and procedures
Arrange for online submission; decide on abstract format to be used in the written program and design submission form accordingly to minimize editing and re-formatting
Arrange for vertical poster stands that accommodate posters on both sides
Provide adequate space between poster stands to reduce crowding and provide numbering (1, 2, 3,…n) at the top of the poster stands.
Provide adequate time for viewing (two hours minimum)
Consider dividing available poster time into even and odd poster numbers, whereby those with an even-numbered poster are asked to be at their posters during one time slot and those with odd-numbered posters are present at the other time slot. This allows presenters to view other posters and exhibits.
Consider providing a certificate of participation to all those showing posters
Purchase supplies relevant to poster display (tacks, double-sided tape, etc.)
Supervise poster stand delivery and setup
Assign a dedicated person to supervise student poster setup

Entertainment Considerations

Consider offering 20-30 minutes of entertainment, probably best at end of first day. Best entertainment will be active and colorful, eg, dance, skits or lively music. A classical music quartet or similar can run the risk of having the audience ending up talking or wandering about.
Consider involving students or inviting a student ‘show’
Consider opportunities for student networking
Consider providing local city and tour information in registration packets and for attendee guests

Marketing & Publicity Considerations

Select conference graphic design and logo early; use with all relevant correspondence
Prepare exhibitors prospectus and a grant/contract solicitation prospectus
Develop public relations strategy and timeline; contact host institution PR section and obtain their involvement; prepare press releases and informational handouts for local media; consider inviting local media to conference
Consider printing a brochure
Prepare posters in electronic format; send to key contacts for use in local promotion; consider printing a limited number of posters for distribution and use at host institution
Request other affinity organizations to post information about your conference in their newsletters and on their website
Solicit the host institution’s support and direct involvement in publicity, marketing and fundraising.

Communication Considerations

Keep website up to date on conference; periodically check website to make sure it accurately reflects current situation
Find opportunities to send brief conference update messages to full listserves every several months during 6-12 months pre-conference, and at least every month in last six months. Don’t rely on potential attendees to spontaneously check website for conference news

Conference Program Considerations

Get quotes from different printers at least 6 months in advance based on several levels of presentation and page size; make selection early, obtain contract, follow deadlines closely, and keep printer informed of progress. Set deadline for having program at least 24-48 hours before conference. Always order at least 50 extra copies and determine if there will be a charge for extra/lost copies
Confirm you can review (and then approve) the draft program before full printing run is made
Set final print run based on registrations plus at least 50 copies
Consider including a list of registrant names, affiliations and emails in registration packet but not in program. This can best be prepared at the last minute by the host institution
Consider including most or all of this information in program: Cover; several listing persons on relevant conference committees, staff acknowledgments, and sponsor acknowledgments; Letter from Conference Chair(s); Contents; Mission Statement; General Information; Conference Agenda (abbreviated); Session Details; Posterboard Abstracts; Speakers’ Biosketches; Awards & Scholarships; Conference Exhibitors; next year’s Conference Information; Sponsors, organizers, acknowledgments. Consider including: Conference White Paper; separate abbreviated pocket session schedule, or perhaps this could be included in the program on different color paper for easy reference; and paid advertisements.
Determine if evaluation will be included in the book and if so, ensure it can easily be removed and consider printing on colored stock
Preliminary program should be on web 6 months prior to conference

Other Considerations

Arrange for adequate paid and volunteer staff assistance at time of registration and other key events. Consider offering free registration for student volunteers. Provide acknowledgment for major staff contributions
Pre-print name tags, if possible using online registration software. Consider including conference theme and logo on tag; consider displaying preferred first name in larger font, along with last name and affiliation; prefer tags that hang around neck. Consider distinctive ribbons for invited speakers, conference hosts and leadership
Order tote bags well in advance; prefer economy and functionality; display conference logo, date and host institution’s name
Solicit conference freebies to include in tote bag, eg, city publicity info and map, hotel and conference bureau items
Provide name markers for plenary and panel speakers: Prepare on stiff paper stock name plates for conference speakers; suggest exclusion of degrees and honorifics
Provide opportunity for the following year’s host to speak to plenary
Consider whether to translate any sessions, presentations, and if so, will this require the renting of translating equipment or will translation company provide?
Consider walkie talkie radios for registration and program chair(s)
Consider and price tours/fun activities for accompanying person
Give CPC members and/or volunteers jobs/assignments with clear objectives
Organize presentation of awards ceremony. Be particularly careful to plan it when maximum number of persons are there to observe and not at the end of the conference. Keep presentation short and have an articulate and prepared presenter as MC to make it meaningful. Get pictures. If award winner has a book, he or she could sign it.
Consider special reception with award winner and charge for it or use as special VIP event.
List awardees and poster winners on website

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