Conference planning can be daunting especially if you have never been tasked with it before. Not to worry, this article will provide you with information, suggestions and advice on how to plan a conference from A to Z (see the table of contents) so you will be a pro in no time. And, if you need help, we’re here to assist you to ensure your conference is a huge success.

Whether you are planning a conference for 200 or 5000 attendees, having a conference planning guide is essential. In addition, when hosting a conference it is important to have a checklist (download below) for planning to make this task much easier and more organized.

Let’s talk about why conferences are so important. Successful conferences bring like-minded individuals together to share the latest in technology, and ideas and to network. Conferences should be not only educational but be entertaining. You want to engage the attendees and energize them – bringing them back up-to-date on new information and ideas relating to your business.

Venues must be researched and booked. Motivational speakers and other forms of entertainment need to be hired. VIPS must be taken care of. The list goes on and on. Step-by-step guidelines and conference checklists are invaluable. Whether you are going to hire a conference event planner or assign teams to organize the conference, the steps are the same.

When hosting a conference, timelines are of the utmost importance. For instance, as early as nine to twelve months before planning the conference a team should be chosen and responsibilities assigned. In addition, the number of attendees, a theme, and a budget, must be developed. Follow along with me as I guide you on how to organize a successful and memorable conference that is sure to engage and impress.

Sample Checklist Spreadsheet   Ask an Event Planner

A) Pre-Planning 8-12 Months Out

There are many working parts to planning a conference. The thing is, organizing is crucial. To make it less exhausting, it is important to follow these conference planning tips. First things first; here is a short to-do list to get you started:

  • Decide what the purpose of your conference will be
  • Who your audience is
  • Profit or non-profit
  • Location of conference
  • Numbers of attendees
  • Will the conference be organized internally or outsourced?

Once these questions are answered we can proceed to the next steps. Now, we fine-tune the details.

1. Deciding on a Theme When Organizing Your Conference

When deciding on a theme, think about what message you want your attendees to take away with them. It should be relevant to the goals of your conference. It should allow for diversity so as not to limit speakers and topics. The following are some ideas for creating a theme and topics for hosting your conference. Your theme is meant to attract your audience, enhance your brand and possibly win sponsors:

  • Choose a theme that can be interpreted in many ways to allow for a variety of speakers
  • Choose topics that will encourage questions and lively discussion
  • Choose topics that reflect first on your community and then global topics that deal with issues from around the world
  • Choose a theme that reflects your corporate culture
  • Interweave your theme on invitations, giveaways, brochures, and name tags to set the tone of the conference

2. Organizing a Conference Requires a Format

Now that your theme is established it’s time to proceed to a format to establish your conference idea planning further. When deciding on a format, be innovative. Elements of hosting a conference will play a tremendous part when deciding on a format. Conference event planning should deliver a memorable experience to all the attendees. The format of a conference depends on the specific goals and objectives of the conference. Some basic format ideas are listed below:

  • Trade Show
  • Panel discussions
  • Workshop Sessions
  • Break out Rooms
  • Keynote Speaker Conference
  • Project presentation posters
  • Hybrid Conference

3. Conference Planning Requires Establishing a Budget

Woman with spreadsheet

Financial planning is difficult when dealing with a conference budget. There are so many costs involved in budgeting, but to make it easier follow the below step-by-step guidelines. You will have fixed costs (such as the price of the venue, equipment, staff, licenses and permits), and variable costs (dependent on the number of attendees, marketing costs, incidental costs, etc.). A conference planning checklist will be an invaluable tool when preparing your budget. See some ideas below:

  • Identify all costs of the conference from venues, catering, logistics, entertainment, speakers etc.
  • Secure quotes before committing
  • Incentivize your suppliers for donations by publicizing their businesses at the conference
  • Create a budget worksheet in Excel
  • Look for sponsors and grants to assist with lowering your expenses. A win-win situation
  • Always, always, always allow for an extra 10 to 15 % in expenses just in case!

B. Logistical Conference Planning 6-8 Months Out

4. A Strong Team is Essential for Conference Planning

Team hand bump

A strong and dedicated team is important when organizing any event, especially a conference. Your team should be headed up by a coordinator who will make major decisions and who will delegate tasks to various team members. It may be prudent to engage volunteers for smaller tasks. If your budget allows, you may want to consider hiring an event planner to help with the pre-planning and day of execution of your conference. The basic responsibilities of this team are as follows:

  • Firstly, roles and responsibilities must be identified and defined
  • The chairperson along with the heads of each team must decide on the date of the conference
  • A team assigned to creating a budget is crucial
  • A team for sourcing venues based on the budget is required
  • A team must be set up to source speakers, entertainers, and catering
  • A team should be selected to investigate the need for liability insurance

5. Setting the Date and Sourcing the Venue for the Conference

Where to start? By far the most crucial aspect of any conference is selecting and securing the venue for your specific date and time. When finalizing these decisions there are many factors to consider:

  • When choosing the date of the conference, investigate all possible conflicts such as religious holidays and special events that may affect attendance. The date when organizing a conference will sometimes determine the venue.
  • Finding the ideal location for your conference is essential to insure that it is accessible to all attendees
  • Consider parking availability if your attendees will be driving. Valet services are also a solution if parking is far from the venue.
  • Does the venue have an ambiance or will you need to rely on decor to enhance the venue?
  • The venue must have enough space to accommodate all attendees. Capacity is extremely important.
  • Does the venue offer services such as catering or are you allowed to bring in outside food and drink
  • Does the venue provide tables and chairs etc. or will you have to rent
  • Does the venue have audio-visual capabilities or are you required to bring them in yourself?
  • Is the layout of the venue conducive to the type of conference that you are planning
  • Consideration for special needs attendees such as ramps and wheelchair-accessible restrooms
  • Ask for a floor plan to lay out your setup. Know where all outlets are for equipment
  • Ask if there is a stage. If not, you may have to rent one.

6. Preparing Checklist, Templates and Guidelines for Your Conference

As event planning professionals we can tell you, it is impossible to keep everything in your head. That is why you will need to organize the conference with step-by-step guidelines using spreadsheets, and, even better, conference planning template checklists. Trust me! These checklists will save your sanity. Brainstorm first, write them down your needs/requirements then enter your amazing conference ideas into a checklist. Why is this important? Well…

  • Checklists will keep you focused and organized
  • Checklists will organize all of your contacts so they will be at hand when you need to reach them
  • Checklists will keep you on track with your budget
  • Checklists take the stress out of conference planning thus allowing you and your colleagues to actually enjoy the conference. Nothing will be left to chance.

Sample Checklist Spreadsheet

7. Book Your Speakers and Entertainers

Conference room speaker with attendees

Your team has already brainstormed and has identified what type of speakers and entertainers will add the best value to your conference. Now is the time to secure these professionals. There are many resources available to find the ideal candidate:

  • If you are going directly, google search for the topic that you are interested in. Look at the videos and also reviews
  • If you wish to book through an agency you will present your budget and the type of speaker and or entertainer (motivational, celebrity, singer etc) you are interested in.
  • Interview before booking to ensure that your speaker(s) and or entertainer(s) are a fit for your conference
  • Once the decision is made a contractual agreement should be signed by both parties.
  • This will include fees, travel expenses, accommodations etc.

8. Book Your Vendors


Your theme is set, your budget is prepared, and your venue is booked. Now is the time to book your vendors. These are the folks who will ensure the comfort and safety of all persons attending the conference. There are many ways to book your vendors, (caterers, AV providers, security, entertainment, etc.). In addition, there are many things to keep in mind once they have been booked.

  • Book your vendors through referrals, agencies or companies that you have previously used
  • Keep track of all vendors on your conference planning template checklist
  • Make sure each vendor has received and signed back on a contractual agreement outlining all deliverables. You don’t want surprises on the big day!
  • Insist on the vendors providing emergency cell numbers for the day(s) of the conference.

9. Offsetting Costs with Corporate Sponsorship

For those without a big budget, it is common practice to engage sponsors to support your conferences (see: non-profit organizations). Sponsorship is always a win-win situation. When hosting a conference it is imperative to reach out to sponsors who will fit the theme of your conference. Just remember that there must be an ROI for the sponsor. When researching, keep the following items in mind:

  • To attract sponsors, marketing packages should include numbers, various events planned and material available for them
  • Reach out to marketing firms, social media management companies etc.
  • Advertise your upcoming conference on social media platforms to attract sponsors
  • Don’t forget to contact local business bureaus and local government offices. They are quite willing to participate if the value is there for them.
  • Once you have secured your sponsor’s request logos for online and printed materials

Have a question? Ask an Event Planner

C) 2 to 4 Months Out

10. Promote, Promote, Promote

Media interviewing speaker

Excitement doesn’t just happen. You need to create some buzz about your conference. You have put all your conference planning ideas into play. Now it is time to start spreading the news! Below are examples of how you can promote your conference after following our conference step-by-step guidelines:

  • Digital marketing via email and social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are highly effective ways to reach your audience
  • Consider ads delivered through radio, TV and newspapers both national and local
  • Either develop a website or use your existing corporate website and include date and location, speakers and activities, tickets and registration portals and vendor and sponsorships.
  • Be diligent with posting to encourage attendees to register. The more people who come across your postings there will be more positive impact on attendance.
  • Marketing materials should be creative and make sure to use your conference theme and brand
  • All written materials should be proofread for grammar, spelling errors, punctuation and discrepancies

11. Preparing a Draft of the Schedule

Conference schedule

Regardless of the size of your conference, a schedule is of the utmost importance. The draft will continue to change as the conference date approaches. Ensure that your planning team has access to the schedule, electronically, and can view it at a glance or suggest changes if needed (ie Google Docs):

  • Fill in times for speaker and/or entertainment slots and include location.
  • Fill in breakout sessions and locations
  • Fill in breaks
  • Fill in social events
  • Make sure that the schedule is readable, particularly with large conferences with complex setups

D) One Week to go Before Hosting a Conference

The time is almost here! Your teams and volunteers and vendors all know what they need to do. Be patient as there will be last-minute changes and adjustments. But, don’t worry, everyone has all the information they need to make the conference a success. Below you will find the reasons why:

12. Sending Final Reminders

Your checklist for planning a conference will always include last-minute reminders to make sure all staff, vendors, sponsors, volunteers, and speakers are updated.

  • Assign a team member to send upbeat reminder emails to participants to keep the conference fresh in their minds
  • Share new information with all staff, vendors, speakers and volunteers
  • Confirm travel and accommodations for your guest speakers
  • The use of a conference planning template specifically created for reminders may be used.
  • If your conference is hybrid, send an email an hour before to log in on time.

13. Team Members and Volunteers Final Rundown

Employees place hands over hands

Your teams are all pumped and ready to roll. Reviewing schedules will be crucial to ensure that the conference will run smoothly with no glitches:

  • Go over safety regulations
  • Review roles and responsibilities
  • Download a conference planning checklist showing scheduling, shifts etc and distribute it to all staff
  • Communicate with the venue several times to make sure you are both on the same page. Don’t worry about being bothersome!

E. Post Conference & Feedback

iPad reading Feedback with a graph and a group in a circle

Sit back and take a deep breath. The conference is over. It was awesome! But there are still a few things that still need to be done. A post-conference checklist will make the review easy, and provide you with invaluable feedback:

  • Review all the positives with your staff
  • Discuss any issues that arose during the event
  • Brainstorm with your teams how to make improvements for next year
  • Send thank you letters to your speakers, vendors, sponsors and the venue for assisting in making your conference a success.
  • If you don’t ask, you won’t know! Send out an online survey a day or 2 after the event to get feedback from attendees. There are many templates available and you will be able to focus on specific topics.
  • Share video clips and resource information via email to all of the attendees shortly after the conference

Ask an Event Planner

Eventfully Yours,
Elayne Isenberg