The Life Scientists’ Guide to Organizing Events & Conferences
Meetings, conferences and symposia are key dates in most scientist’s calendars, offering the chance not only to share findings and learn about the latest cutting-edge research, but also providing vital opportunities for networking with fellow researchers in specialist fields.
Attending as a delegate can be incredibly rewarding for your career, as well as a lot of fun. Being part of the organizing team however, can be quite the challenge! If the event is a success, it’s a huge amount of experience gained, soft skills developed, and a great boost to your CV.
This year we organized The Hello Bio LabLife Conference - our very first online conference to support early career life scientists, so we know exactly how much work goes into making events like these a success! Whether you’re planning a half-day virtual event like ours, or a week-long in-person series of talks and workshops, there’s a lot to think about. That’s why we’ve gathered some great advice from professional conference planners, science event experts and our own Hello Bio team to help make the whole experience a little less stressful!
1. Establish your objectives & choose the right theme
If you’re involved in planning from the earliest stages, make sure you are clear on the objectives of your event and what you are hoping to achieve. Perhaps you hoping to raise awareness of a topic amongst your peers, stimulate discussion and promote research in a particular area or help to train a particular group of scientists with a certain technique. Once you've established your objectives, you’ll need to decide on a name and theme for your science conference. If it’s an annual event that’s already established this will be predetermined, but it might be that your institute or department is looking to create something new and fresh to attract scientists from around the world, or to celebrate and communicate particular achievements.
Know your audience
When choosing your theme, think about the type of attendees you’re hoping to attract and be sure to select the right topics that will spark their interest and entice them to register.
It could be an area of specialism or a particular field of research, eg. Alzheimer’s Disease. This type of event would appeal directly to experts and specialists in that area and would be easy to promote as any advertising would be very targeted. It could however be a much more broad topic such as scicomm, or an event for female scientists, which would attract attendees from much wider fields. Although this would open up your potential guestlist, you may find yourself competing with similar types of events already established in the STEM calendar. Do your research and check what’s already out there before making those early decisions.
2. Decide on a suitable format
Before you look at possible dates you’ll need to decide on the scale and format of your event. The scale will probably be determined by the budget and physical resources you have to work with. The costs of putting on a small online event for <100 people will obviously differ greatly to an in-person event with hundreds, or even thousands of tickets up for grabs, so be sure to consider the financial risks when it comes to thinking big.
In-person, virtual or hybrid
Of course the COVID-19 pandemic put a temporary stop to in-person events in 2020. Virtual conferences became the norm for some time, and although restrictions on indoor gatherings are (hopefully) a thing of the past, many science events have permanently adopted virtual or hybrid event options.
Some pros and cons to consider when planning different types of science events:
Allison Coffin is the co-founder and president of Science Talk, the association of science communicators which organizes the annual Science Talk conferences, bringing together scicomm experts from around the world to discuss the latest issues, practices and trends. She told us about the unexpected benefits of switching to virtual events during COVID-19, and the challenges their now hybrid format poses: “In switching to virtual events we greatly expanded our audience, with many more attendees from around the world. We were also able to support the community when it was most needed – as science communicators suffered exhaustion and personal attacks from their work on hot-button issues such as climate change and the pandemic. This year, we have the added challenge of running our first hybrid conference, which is twice as much work. Science Talk is an all-volunteer organisation, so our biggest challenge now is offering a professional high-quality experience without overtaxing our amazing volunteers.”
3. Build an events team
If your conference is going to be on the larger end of the events scale, you simply won’t be able to do it alone. You’ll need to put together a reliable team who can help you with planning, budgeting, marketing, online resources, registrations, and hands-on help at the event.
Volunteering at events such as these will look great on any scientist’s CV and will help to develop communication, teamwork and time management skills. Students and early career scientists will often be keen to get involved as they will benefit from free access to the events, as well as the chance to do some ‘behind the scenes’ networking as they’ll get to work closely with the guest speakers and experts involved.
Elodie Chabrol is an International Director for the Pint of Science festivals who first got involved with outreach events after starting out as a volunteer. She told us how her initial involvement ignited her passion for science communication: “I received an email from Pint of Science UK who were looking for volunteers. I replied, and my timing was amazing because the person in charge of coordinating the UCL London team had just quit – so I took on the role and was lucky enough to be part of the central team that created Pint of Science. Before Pint of Science I didn’t do any science communication, at least not about my own research. I’d organized events and conferences, but I’d never communicated to the public about my work. After founding Pint of Science France, I realised that I’d never talked about my work – so I started doing it and loved it.”
Emre Yavuz is a volunteer with the Pint of Science team at Imperial College London. He told us what his role involves and the skills he has developed through event volunteering: “Having the desire to educate the wider community about the latest research at the frontiers of neuroscience, I got in touch with the manager of the Pint of Science team at Imperial College London, where I had recently completed my MSc in Translational Neuroscience. As part of my role on the volunteer team I have been involved with contacting potential guest speakers from a variety of different research backgrounds, finalising the timetable for the talks, as well as generating ideas for how to structure, advertise and host the events.”
Read more about the Pint of Science festival from some of the other scientists who volunteer their time to help make the events happen: Event Preview: Pint of Science 2022.
4. Find some funding
In order to put on a science event of any scale, you’ll need funding. For science conferences, this can come from a number of different sources:
Sponsors & exhibitors
The most common way to fund a science event is to invite relevant companies or organisations to become sponsors. In return for their financial investment, they will expect to receive advertising opportunities, either in-person at the event with promotional stands or exhibits, on the event website, through shared social media posts or in associated printed material such as posters or flyers. Most events will offer different levels of sponsorship packages, so that the potential sponsor can choose how little or how much they want to put into the event and what they expect in return.
When approaching potential sponsors, be careful to choose companies that are aligned with your values and that are relevant to the topic of the event. It’s important to work with companies whose products will be of interest to your attendees, and who are considered reputable and trustworthy. Having a controversial name attached to your event may have a negative impact on registrations.
Funding bodies and organisations such as EMBO and The Company of Biologists offer grants and funding to help support the creation of scientific meetings, workshops and conferences. Take some time to search for similar opportunities, some of which may even be very specific to the theme of your conference. The more specialised the grant application, the greater chance you’ll have of success.
Registration fees & ticket sales
Don’t forget you’ll almost certainly be charging people to attend your conference, so will receive revenue from registration fees and ticket sales. Be sure to factor this into your budget early on, and be realistic about what to charge and how many registrants you could expect. Take a look at similar-sized events to see what prices their organizers are charging, and remember that there are a huge number of grants available to help delegates cover their attendance, travel and accommodation costs (for example, Hello Bio's Early Career Scientist Grants!).
5. Technology matters
It’s important to think about the technology you’ll need to employ, both in advance and on the day. During the planning stages you’ll need either a standalone website or a dedicated page on your existing institute’s site to promote the event and to display all the key pieces of information that potential attendees will need. You’ll also need a way of selling tickets online, as well as thinking about the technical aspects of your physical set-up on the day including microphones, sound systems and providing free wifi for delegates.
Sound, lighting and visuals
If you’re organising an in-person event you’ll need to consider what facilities your chosen venue has when it comes to holding talks and workshops. Many guest speakers will prepare slides or some sort of visual display to accompany their talks, so it’s a good idea to factor this in when choosing an appropriate venue, and be sure to discuss your needs with their in-house team. A common complaint among science event attendees is that the visual or sound quality was not good enough, and this is especially important if your speakers are hoping to display visual data with fine detail.
For virtual events you’ll need to choose an online platform to host your event. There are many specialist conferencing packages online such as Zoom, VFairs, Livestorm and Hopin. Take some time to research what each of these platforms offers and the costs involved. It’s important that the platform you choose is not only reliable, but is easy to use by both the organizer and virtual attendees. Read online reviews and ask for recommendations from other event organizers who can tell you about the pros and cons of their preferred platforms.
Managing registrations and selling tickets
As with online platforms there are lots of options available when it comes to managing registrations and selling tickets online. If you’re using an ‘all-in-one’ event platform it’s likely that the ticket sale function will be included in the package, but if it’s something you need to arrange separately there are numerous sites you can do this through such as WeGotTickets or EventBrite. Most will charge a small fee for their services, but usually this will be in the form of a booking fee added on to the customer’s ticket price, so it may not be an expense you’ll need to factor into your budget.
6. Curate your event carefully
Perhaps the most important (and most exciting!) part of organising a conference is curating the content, choosing guest speakers, and building a programme of talks, activities and workshops to excite and inspire your delegates. Your event content is what will encourage attendees to register, and hopefully keep them talking about the event long after it’s over!
Think about including the following in your event schedule:
- Keynote speakers
- Q&A sessions with guest panellists
- Poster and abstract presentations
- Demonstrations by exhibitors
- Networking sessions
- Separate social events, eg. welcome meetings or an ‘after party’
Choose the right speakers
The guest speakers you book for any science event need to be relevant, knowledgeable and engaging. It’s likely that the topic of your conference will determine the speakers that you invite because you’ll naturally want to include experts or leaders in that particular field of science. Use your networks of contacts to help you get in touch with people you may not already have a professional relationship with. Think about diversity when booking guest speakers and try to ensure you have a balanced mix of genders and ethnicities.
Including Q&A sessions with invited panellists is a nice way of adding an extra element of audience interaction to your event. Having a general discussion on a relevant topic and inviting questions from the audience can inspire great conversations and encourage further debate. These work equally well both in-person and online, as most virtual conference platforms will offer the option for viewers to submit live questions during a stream.
We included two panel discussions in our LabLife Conference schedule which each included a chair to lead the discussion, plus two or three expert panellists to share their thoughts and answer live questions submitted by audience members. Take a look at our panel discussion on Writing Successful Funding Applications:
Try to include the newest and most exciting areas of science research in your content. This is what delegates will be looking for and will want to hear about. Invite relevant institutes or companies to demonstrate the latest equipment or offer hands-on workshops where delegates can get a closer look and ask questions from the experts about the latest developments.
Most scientists will tell you that networking at a science conference is hugely important, so be sure to create time and space at your event to allow for these opportunities. Consider scheduling dedicated networking sessions away from the staged activities, and even think about hosting parties or similar social gatherings before or after the event in order for delegates to further establish those connections. If your event is virtual, be sure to have breakout rooms where delegates can interact in a separate space to the main event activities, be that through audio/video chat or a text chat function. Effective networking is much more of a challenge in a virtual space, so do what you can to encourage those interactions and ensure delegates feel they’ve had an opportunity to meet and chat with other researchers.
Where possible, appoint a Chair, host or compere to lead the event and who can monitor the schedule closely and keep an eye on timings. It’s not uncommon for talks to run over, especially when there is an element of audience interaction and your speakers are answering questions they have not prepared answers for. For the LabLife Conference, we were supported by Alice Reeves of The Joyful who took on the role of Event Manager. Alice told us: “Having a confident host at the helm of your life science conference is vital as it will help to keep things flowing naturally, put your attendees at ease and make the whole event feel more professional. Your host will need to be flexible and comfortable thinking on their feet in order to deal with any unexpected schedule changes such as sessions running over or technical glitches causing delays. When fielding audience questions for panel discussions, your host will need to know when to let the conversation flow, or if it’s better to jump in and change direction when the chat starts to dry up or you veer too far off topic.”
7. Communicate with attendees
When it comes to promoting and marketing your science conference, there’s lots you can do to help spread the word and generate some excitement in advance of your event. Social media is probably the best (and cheapest!) way of sharing information, so be sure that you’ve made the relevant connections on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. and think about dedicating a hashtag to your event to help people find information quickly and easily. Once your tickets are selling well and excitement is growing for your event, and at this point it’s important to keep your delegates updated with news and information before the big day. Use your ticket selling platform to communicate with those who have already registered, and share important logistical information such as travel and accommodation details, information on parking, things to bring (and not to bring), even weather updates if bad weather is something that may affect the smooth running of your day.
For virtual events, reminder emails are particularly important as it's not uncommon for guests to register for online events and then forget to log-in on the day. For #LabLifeCon we found it useful to schedule ‘1 week’, ‘48 hours’ and ‘24 hours to go’ emails to remind attendees when they need to be online, and also to be absolutely certain they have the correct link and associated passwords to be able to access the livestream when they need to.
8. Make a plan of action for the day
As your event day approaches, be sure to create a plan of action by finalising your schedule and ensuring that everyone involved knows where they need to be and when. Make yourself a checklist to go through a few days before the event (to allow for any last-minute panics!) and a to-do list for the day itself.
Consider all eventualities and have back-up plans in case something should go wrong. For virtual events it’s a great idea to ask one or two guest speakers to join you online for a practice run a few days in advance to test the conferencing software, especially if you’ve not used it before.
9. Post-conference tasks
So everything went smoothly and your science conference was a great success, but that doesn’t mean the hard work’s all over! There’s plenty to do post-conference that can help to make your next event even more successful.
Consider carrying out the following tasks after your event:
- Sending thank you emails to all contributors, guest speakers, sponsors & volunteers
- Sending emails to all attendees with links to any follow-up information that may be useful
- Writing a review or round-up of the event highlights and share on your website
- Sharing photos/video clips (with permission) that you may have taken at event
- Creating a survey to send to attendees to ask for event feedback (good or bad!)
Start planning for next year!
Finally, you can use everything you’ve learned to start planning for next year’s event! Be sure to keep a record of the things that went well, the things you enjoyed the most, which events or activities were most popular and what your attendees wanted more of. Use all of this information to make your next science conference even more of a success!
More event resources
We have lots more resources on science conferences and events, plus tips on public speaking and poster presentations over on our blog. You’ll also find a guide to the best science conferences of 2022, plus more highlights from our own LabLife Conference:
- The Life Scientists’ Guide to Presenting at Conferences
- Tips for Oral Presentations at Scientific Meetings and Conferences
- Tips for Poster Presentations at Scientific Meetings and Conferences
- Ten Science Conferences to Attend in 2022
- Meet the Hello Bio LabLife Conference 2022 Guest Speakers
- Round-Up & Top Ten Q&A Highlights from #LabLifeCon22
If you enjoyed this article, why not check out the other resources available on our blog. We are passionate about supporting life scientists including early career life scientists and PhD students - with really low-priced reagents and biochemicals, early career scientist grants, and resources to help with both personal and professional development. We know how tough it is - so we hope you find these helpful!
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