Organising A Meeting, Part 2

In Part 1 of this article, we wrote about our role in organizing an international conference on evolution. As the conference got under way, it seemed quite phenomenal that we should have needed a whole year to prepare for the event. Of course, a number of things were unforeseen. Allowing 1 hour to register 150 participants was a little over-optimistic, but the minor chaos that ensued certainly worked better magic than a coffee would have at 8 a.m. on a Friday (sleep certainly wasn?t much of an issue over those couple of days). Despite rating high on our list of anxieties, technical problems were few and far between. Thanks to excellent support staff, audiovisual problems were limited to timers beeping at the wrong moment or microphones being upside down. One of the speakers not recognising some of his own overheads fortunately had more to do with his handwriting than the projectors.

Despite all the reshufflings, the programme flowed pretty smoothly. Robotic evolution nestled comfortably between social bacteria and the game theorist?s view of cooperation, and the speakers did a nice job of cross-referencing each other (albeit with a wicked dash of sarcasm at times). Although the closing panel discussion raised more questions than answers, it was clear that the study of evolution lies a long way from the dusty corners of the library and grimy specimen jars of natural history museums.

Combining the experience of evolutionary biologists with the vast quantities of bioinformatic data and the elegant techniques of developmental biology makes for vibrant discussions and keeps evolution an extremely active subject.

Four months after the symposium, the book balancing and report writing are still not over. If you are one of those participants still waiting for your travel reimbursement, your cheque is in the post. Honestly. In the meantime, here is some advice if you?re thinking of organising a meeting yourself:

  • The size of your organising committee should be about six to 12. Any more than that and you?ll have a lot of trouble coming to decisions; any fewer and you?ll find yourselves with a lot of work to do.

  • Start planning at least 12 to 15 months before the event is to take place. The date and location for your meeting are the first things to decide on. Get the venue booked as early as possible, and be sure it is suitable, particularly in terms of accessibility, size, catering facilities, and audiovisual equipment.

  • Before you start contacting speakers, put together an outline of the programme including the number of sessions and length of the talks. Don?t underestimate the importance of coffee breaks, meals, and social events--participants and speakers appreciate the time to mix and discuss the talks, as well as to take a break. Keep your budget in mind when you choose your speakers; transatlantic flights are expensive and you won?t be paying for the cheap student fares that most of us are used to. Speakers should be invited about a year in advance--some of the scientists we wrote to 10 months before the symposium were already too busy to participate. Don?t forget to keep potential replacement speakers in mind should any of your speakers cancel.

  • It?s unlikely that the registration fee will cover all of your costs. The fee of ?50 for our meeting barely covered the price of the participants? meals. If you want commercial sponsorship, contact companies that might be interested in targeting people who?ll attend the meeting. Personal contact will certainly work better than a letter addressed to the finance department. An eye-catching flyer describing your carefully thought-out programme outline should help too. Don?t forget other potential sources of sponsorship--the European Commission for example--and try science foundations. Keep good contact with your own finance department to be sure you keep track of the money coming in and going out.

  • It really is worthwhile organising your committee properly! Allocate specific responsibilities and consider splitting into subgroups for handling finances, contact with speakers, publicity and registration, and practical arrangements (such as transport and meals). Be sure to communicate well amongst yourselves and with your speakers, sponsors, and participants.

  • However you decide to publicise your meeting, be sure to have a Web page up and running as soon as the posters or announcements are out. Set up an online registration system if possible, and set a deadline for payment. When you have to give numbers to your caterers, only count registrants who have actually paid; about a quarter of people who register may never turn up.

  • Seek advice from people at your department or institute who have organised meetings or seminars before. They?ll have practical hints and should know about all the support services you?ll need, including catering, transport for speakers and participants, accommodation, staff for the registration desk, and technical support.

  • Consider having a social event for the speakers and organisers the evening before the meeting starts so everyone can get to know each other. The success of the meeting depends very much on the speakers, so it?s important to make them feel welcome and comfortable.

  • If there is a problem you can foresee, no matter how small, deal with it before the meeting. You don?t want to be running to the supermarket because someone forgot to order sugar for the coffee. You will have worked hard for the meeting and should be able to relax and enjoy it!

The EMBL Ph.D. Student Symposium on Evolution took place 9-10 November 2001 at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. It was supported by the European Commission, High-Level Scientific Conferences. A review of the meeting is due to appear soon in EMBO Reports. This year?s EMBL Ph.D. student symposium, "Life Within Boundaries: Membranes and Compartments in Biology", will take place 14 to 16 November 2002 at EMBL in Heidelberg.

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