The Complete Conference Planning Checklist (+5 Tips to Keep You Sane)

Lyndsey Hrabik
Lyndsey Hrabik  |  July 12, 2019

Marketing means conferences and conferences mean planning. All of this can lead to a big headache if you don't plan ahead. 

Imagine being faced with a binder of deadlines that feel overwhelming. You have to accomplish a huge feat of planning a conference when you never have before. 

What do you do? 

As you might have guessed, this happened to me when planning the Cause Camp National Conference. Fortunately, I was given a large binder chock full of information from past events with marketers' knowledge on vendors, sponsors, attendees, brand standards, and more.

In this article, we'll discuss the necessary steps to properly plan your next (or first!) conference. And at the very end you'll find a handy, downloadable checklist to print off as you're getting started!

5 tips to remember as you plan your conference 

In order to not overlook small details, it’s important to remember the following five tips as you begin planning for your conference.

1. Plan backward 

You know what makes planning a huge event less daunting? Smaller, incremental deadlines. Once you set your actual event date, think about how much time YOU’LL need to complete the tasks at hand. We’ll get into the month-by-month overview soon! 

2. Delegate tasks to others

If you’re in the nonprofit sector or planning a conference in general, you’re a superhero. But every superhero has a sidekick. That’s why you should appoint somebody to be in charge of each of these groups if possible: 

  • Attendees
  • Volunteers
  • Speakers
  • Vendors
  • Sponsors 

Not throwing a huge event? You won’t need somebody at the helm of each of these groups. Just remember: if you start to feel overwhelmed, it’s time to delegate. 

3. Visualize the end goal

Imagine yourself as an attendee. Now, as a sponsor. What would you expect as part of a conference? What information would you want to know and when? Make sure to incorporate all of the communication and touchpoints you would want if you were attending the event or sponsoring it. Keep lines of communication open by using 

4. Bring the fun to life 

Add innovative, social media friendly activities to your event, like a slo-mo video booth. Sometimes these fun additions have no purpose, but they definitely help increase your social media presence. Make sure your attendees not only learn a ton but also have a smile on their face the whole day!

If your attendees remember the amazing time they had, they’ll be more likely to come back in the future or recommend it to others. 

5. Roll with the punches

Things WILL go wrong. Your keynote speaker's flight might be delayed or cancelled. You might not be able to find an alternative way to get them to the conference in time. So what do you do? Improvise. 

In our scenario, we decided day-of to pull speakers who were interested in a panel discussion and let the attendees ask pressing questions. This gave our speakers more face time with the audience and made the audience involvement level match the worth of the conference entry fee. 

TIP: Want to make your life easier? Use resources like event planning software to help make these tasks a breeze! 

See the Highest-Rated Event Planning Software, Free →

What to include in your event planning checklist 

After reading the tips above, you might be wondering what you should be doing and when you should be doing it! From start to end, read the detailed version of the checklist below. 

ASAP (do this first)

Figure out your budget. Money matters when planning an event. Don’t have any? Sponsorships are often given by businesses looking to do their part (and to have a booth or their name featured at your event or on promotional materials).

Identify participation goals. Realistically, how many people would be ideal to attend? What is your main goal with the conference? If this is not an inaugural conference, how many people have attended previous years? Make sure to use those attendee lists and set a realistic goal based on them.

Pick a date. For some reason, this can be nerve-wracking. You’ll inevitably go through the “what if I overlooked some huge event already being held this day?!” Don’t overthink, but do your research! Look at other types of conferences that align with yours and make sure you’re not scheduling to compete for attendees. 

Scout a venue. Where would you ideally like to host? And now what’s your #2 pick? What about a worst-case scenario? Plan for absolutely everything. Also, make sure to find out the specs! Does the venue offer catering? What about A/V hookups? How will your presenters be able to get their message out there? Is the space accessible? The best option would cover the most ground with ease. 

Solidify branding. If this is a brand new conference, you’ll need to do a great deal of branding before anything else can get put into motion.

TIP: Read our full guide on corporate event planning for some themes, ideas, and examples!

10 months before conference

Secure speakers and sponsors. This is going to be a lot of picking up the phone, cold calling, and emailing back and forth. You’ll want to start early to make sure you have enough time to let everyone get back to you. 

Reserve venue space. When you’re competing with weddings, family reunions, and maybe even bigger conferences, you want to leave nothing to chance. Do this at LEAST 10 months in advance. You’ll need the space secured so you can start advertising and letting speakers know!

Open registration. The sooner the better! Need help? Check out event management platform software to help streamline the process! 

See the Easiest-to-Use Event Management Platforms → 6 months before conference

Solidify speaker bios and presentation topics. By this point, you should know relatively well the speakers, what they’ll be speaking about, and have their bios in hand. That way you can use the information to advertise for the event. 

Push registration. You should be in full swing at this point. Email marketing, social media marketing, shouting from the mountaintops…you get the idea. Utilize lists available of previous attendees, find new people to target with social media marketing, and anything else to up your numbers. 

3 months before conference

Solidify volunteers. Make a strong push for additional volunteers to staff the event. There’s a fine balance between asking too soon and not asking soon enough. Three months should give you enough time to lock in volunteers for the day. 

Order signage. Make sure to put in your orders for any signage you’ll want at the event. The earlier you can do this, the better! 

Budget check-in. See how you’re doing on your budget  (in case you need to cut that fancy smoke machine). 

1 month before conference

Send flash sale. Help push some last-minute participants over the edge. Don’t forget to exclude current attendees, or you may have people knocking on your door for the lower price. 

2 weeks until conference

Get conversation and buzz going. Ramp up with conversations online, articles outlining who will be there, and can’t-miss presentations! Consider creating a #hashtag for your event to share on social media platforms as well! 

Week of conference

Send reminders. Send texts, emails, carrier pigeons… whatever you can to remind every aspect of your conference, where they need to be, and when. 

Verify final numbers with venue and catering. They’ll need to know the final headcount for the event. This means registration should also be cut off.

Assemble materialsWhether it’s putting together packets or folding programs, try to get everything assembled and ready to take to the venue before the night before the event. This is where volunteers come in hand. 

Day before conference

Walk through or begin setting up in the venue. There may be an event in your space the night before, preventing you from setting up beforehand. OR, you may luck out! Either walk through to get as much set up as you can, or get completely set up so the next day is a breeze!

Day of conference 

Arrive early. This point is self-explanatory. Get there, set up, and fuel up with coffee to get off to a great start!

Check in with points of contact. If you’ve prepped each point of contact, this should run smoothly! It’s now your job to simply help where need be!

Post Conference (~1 week)

Send thank yous. Have a space set up at the event for attendees to leave personalized notes for the speakers. 

Send post-event surveys. Looking to make next year an even bigger success? Ask your attendees, speakers, sponsors, vendors, and volunteers what they liked, would like to be different, and so on.

Celebrate! You did it! Seriously, you should check this box. Whether it’s a formal party popping bubbles, or a bubble bath reading a book you’ve been putting off, celebrate in your own way, then consider this list complete! 

As a bonus, make sure to download the entire conference planning checklist for free and print it off to use as you go about planning your first of many conferences! 

FREE RESOURCE: The Complete Conference Planning Checklist Download Template Now →

Lyndsey Hrabik
Author

Lyndsey Hrabik

Lyndsey Hrabik is a contributor for Wild Apricot and former Managing Editor of Nonprofit Hub. She currently spends her time loving the music scene in Nashville, TN where she resides.