As part of the big stream of ‘meeting’ based posts, it seemed worthwhile to talk about how to go about arranging a meeting or conference. This will be the last one the in current run (with a summary / review coming tomorrow after your normal dose of AABQOTW)so enjoy it while you can! The Wellnhofer meeting was in hindsight not too bad, but the sheer number of details, the lack of preparation time (11 months is *not* enough) and the fact that it was in Munich and basically I don’t speak German made it all the harder. I did get a considerable amount of help from my institution but I basically had to do everything on my own in terms of planning and basic execution. If you have a years run up, speak the language of the country you are in, and get some decent help it should be fine. However, a check list and a few dos and don’ts probably won’t go amiss:
Obviously don’t even start all of this if you don’t have the time to make the arrangements, or your employer is not prepared for you (and perhaps others) to devote significant amounts of time to organising a meeting. Ideally make sure there are financial backups or a seed fund available for you, and a guaranteed number of attendees. I e-mailed a whole bunch of pterosaur guys to make sure they would come and guarantee me a basic amount of income and attendees before the meeting was announced to the world. Obviously if this is part of a regular series of meetings then you probably have an inbuilt in audience and money available up front, but that is not always the case.
So first off, pick your subject matter. Make sure if is of sufficient breadth to get lots of people to come, but not so broad that people will be put off. ‘Mesozoic turtles’ is fine, ‘behavioural ecology of African Triassic turtles’ will be attended by three people because only they are interested, ‘reptiles’ will also be attended by three people because no-one wants to go all the way to a meeting that might not have much to do with their specialisation (the palaeo-croc people probably aren’t interested in talks on turtle genetics and vice versa).
Next arrange a time. Give yourself at least a year, both so that you have time to plan but more importantly so that people can arrange to come. The more notice they have the more opportunities there are for them to make sure they are not stuck in the field, or teaching when the meeting is on, they can rearrange schedules, combine the meeting with a research trip, or apply for funding to travel. Give them three months notice and no-one will arrive. Make sure it does not coincide with other major meetings, the field season, international holidays etc. This does not actually leave you much, but there are gaps – find one and use it. The Wellnhofer meeting has to miss SVP, SVPCA, the start of the teaching year in Europe and Oktoberfest in Munich which made things tricky.
Make sure you have the facilities in place to host the event. Do you have room for a large audience, AV equipment, space for posters, an area for people to sit and get coffee between talks, are there hotels or university accommodation nearby? Make sure everything is available and that you can cover any obvious costs (like hiring a room out). Keep things on the large scale – better a room for 100 and 50 people attend than the other way around (and don’t forget you will probably have a fair few students and researchers turn up from your own or neighbouring institutes, regardless of the subject).
Try and work out the rough costs at this stage (many of which are detailed below). You should have some idea of the number of people who are likely to come, so think about how many posters you can take, how many sessions of talks you will have over which days and so on. Will there be special seminars or open discussion? Will there be parallel sessions (don’t forget the extra rooms necessary)? What kind of abstracts will you have? Will there be a fieldtrip (if so, where and when will this be, how will you get there, how long will it take)? Do you have money for bursaries for students, or to pay for a special guest to attend?
You will need to have all of this planned out before you advertise the meeting, or you are likely to be making promises you can’t keep. If possible try and get a few big names on board that will encourage others in the field to attend, especially if it’s someone who rarely makes it to meetings. Use other meetings as a basis for your plans (i.e. the length of sessions, what time to start and break etc.) and think about good and bad meetings you have been to in the past.
Assuming you have all of this calculated (and it takes a while) you can then start to advertise. Contact as many people as you can directly (if the meeting is part of an organisation then you’ll have a ready-made mailing list, of if it’s a bunch of specialists you should be able to hunt most of them down quite easily) and then speared the word. Get a website up and running, advertise on mailing lists or on prominent blogs. Get a notice into society newsletters or in relevant journals etc. and basically make sure as many people as possible are aware of the event as soon as possible. If you can make a website, put all the information up on there. From experience I can tell you that most people will flat ignore it and ask you questions you already answered in the mailout, on the website and in every notification and blog post, but it might stop the odd one or two.
In your advert make sure you clearly state the time, place, theme, likely number of sessions, types of abstracts accepted, any additional sessions, number of places available, any arrangements you have made with hotels for guests, bursaries available etc., fieldtrips, and of course the cost. If you intend to produce a volume of papers from the meeting, then make sure people are aware of this too (and for more on that tricky subject, go here). LINK
Hopefully the abstracts will start coming in soon, though don’t be at all surprised if none come in until the last few days before the deadline, this is normal, though annoying and / or frightening. Either way, there is plenty to do in the meantime to keep you busy.
You will hopefully have a vague idea of how many people that are coming so you can start making formal arrangements for coaches for the fieldtrip, book restaurants for meals, arrange for there to be coffee between talks, make sure there are accurate directions for people to find their way to the institute and so on. Abstracts will have to be assessed and approved as they arrive and amended or edited as necessary to fit the necessary format. You’ll need to compile the abstracts volume, approve abstracts for talks or posters (or even reject some quite possibly) and let the authors know your decisions. You can start to arrange a plan for the sessions so that you can keep some themes running (all the biomechanics or genetics talks in one block for example) and perhaps even sort out which posters need to go where. Any arrangements with the fieldtrips can be confirmed and booked.
You can still go and look for additional sponsorship if it’s available. There are likely to be journals or publishers who might contribute a few hundred dollars to help out with expenses, major firms who deal with something related to your work might be interested (I got a couple of thousand pounds from a manufacturer of force plates who sponsored a meeting on biomechanics I helped arrange at Bristol off of an e-mail and two phone calls). This can of course be used to reduce your costs overall to lower the prices for attending the meeting, be used as a student bursary, or to support a guest speaker to attend, or be used to increase the overall quality of the meeting (e.g. hiring a larger space, printing better handbooks, making the fieldtrip free etc.).
By the time the meeting is inevitable, make sure you have handbooks ready, name badges made, bursaries arranged, sessions organised, rooms free, AV equipment set up, helpers ready and available, contact numbers available for any possible emergencies, you will need to find people willing to chair sessions, make sure that there is a way of actually getting the posters to stay up, receipts are available, you can store the cash or cheques as they come in, you have somewhere to register the guests, and on and on and on. I won’t insult your intelligence from here on out, suffice to say that once people arrive there are normally a ton of extra details to attend to as even with excellent planning and the supposed intelligence of the average researcher, there will be lots of problems. Speaking from experience both as an organiser or just going to meetings, someone will forget their presentation, or have it in the wrong format, someone will have forgotten to book a hotel, gets lost trying to get to the meeting venue, has lost their luggage, money, or sanity or all three. Since you organised the meeting, guess who gets to try and fix all of this?
Arranging a meeting takes a lot of time and effort, but it can be very rewarding. It is excellent experience and allows you to meet many more people in a specialist field than would normally be possible and can help make useful contacts as well as the obvious benefit of being able to attend and present at a major meeting. I learned an enormous amount about pterosaurs during the week of the Wellnhofer meeting, and got to meet many people in the field (especially students and young researchers) who I would otherwise not have known or even thought to contact. As a whole science is moving into ever greater specialisations, but meetings can at times be frustratingly general – there will always be something to take out of a meeting in terms of methodology or new approaches, but even so, the vast majority of talks might be of little or no interest for you and the same goes for the people attending. Small and specialist meetings therefore will, I suspect, become increasingly common and increasingly important in the future. It is up to interested parties to take the plunge and make the commitment: you might hate getting there, but it is well worth it. With a little luck, despite the doom and gloom of this post as to the difficulties and efforts required, this will provide a little inspiration for others and a guide for those who wish to try. Those who don’t wish to try can play spot the palaeontologist in the above image, courtesy of Georg Jansen).