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Conference Organization for the Masses

By Jason Hamman

In an information age emphasizing instant, yet impersonal communications, it is sometimes easy to forget how important conferences can be to student professional development. Conferences provide a venue for meaningful personal interactions between students and professionals, face to face sharing of ideas, and a way to build lasting relationships. Also, many researchers get their best job leads at conferences. As a student, how can you organize a conference at your home university and make it a success?

Luckily, many SPIE student chapter leaders are experts in the fine art of science conference organization. Two recent examples of conferences designed by students, for students, are the SPO Young Scientists Conference "Problems of Optics and High Technology Materials" and the student events of the International Congress on Optics (ICO). These student development events followed sound organizing principles while providing experience valuable to attendees and organizers. They also serve as a reminder of the amount of effort involved in putting together quality events.

Creating the Foundation:
Attendees of the Young Opticians MeetingConference planning begins with a few basic but essential pieces of information: topic focus, goals, and venue. Topics should be applicable to a broad range of attendees: consult chapter members and advisors for suggestions, and select one or two topics to focus on. Conference goals will govern how you organize daily events; if your goal is to encourage personal interaction and networking, coffee breaks and similar 'unstructured' time should help accomplish this.

Expected attendance largely dictates venue requirements; on-campus resources or co-locating venues with a larger conference are likely your most convenient and cheapest options; however, they may limit scheduling flexibility. Hotels are typically more flexible but also more expensive. Depending on the venue and its policies, a contract may be required for a reservation. Fortunately, student chapters are recognized campus clubs and therefore entitled to campus resources, including staff that are willing to read over contracts and provide constructive feedback.

After the conference foundations have been established, choose a group of dedicated chapter members to be the event coordinators. This group will be responsible for fulfilling conference goals, planning events, and corresponding with any collaborating chapters. When working with other chapters, it may be useful to have a written agreement outlining specific responsibilities and obligations-this helps build a healthy working relationship that is up front and well-defined. Customer correspondence is best delegated to a group separate from the organizing committee. This group should determine a fair policy for dealing with any late/special requests, helping to provide a consistent level of customer service with consistent answers to similar questions.

Generating Interest:
Without actively working to generate interest in your conference, attendance will be low. The first step to attract conference goers should be to develop a marketing strategy. Brainstorm ideas, pool professional contacts and resources, and then determine which would be the most useful (professors, advisors, and colleagues are great people to start with). One or two noteworthy speakers also help draw interest in events. Look for someone who will attract the interest of students and additional speakers in related fields, then have the most senior chapter member (preferably a PhD student) contact them-this may yield better results than if an undergraduate were to do the same, says Viktor Lysiuk, an organizing member of the SPO Young Scientists Conference.

Student event participants at the ICO Topical Meeting in St. Petersburg.

Speakers may ask for compensation for their time and/or travel. Funding for technical speaker travel may be available through the Visiting Lecturer Program (VLP). However, because non-technical speakers (such as professional development specialists) are often not SPIE members, they would be ineligible for VLP funding. Travel of non-SPIE speakers and any speaker fees (honoraria) should be funded through alternate methods.

Solid conference marketability depends on securing a respected speaker and having a broad marketing campaign. Advertising via websites, print media, and word of mouth are frequently used methods for generating interest and marketing a conference. Many chapters use their own websites to advertise and post important conference information, and also approach inexpensive (or free) outlets such as SPIE, OSA, ICO, etc., for additional coverage. Print media including personalized invitations for participants to well-known scientists or directors of scientific institutions, along with conference information, is another viable way to spread awareness of your events.

After learning about a conference, cost is one of the most important factors in determining whether students will attend a conference. Low registration fees, good location (ease of travel to/from), and available student funding (travel grants and fee waivers) are frequently used incentives to attract conference interest. Offering travel assistance to students may be a good way to encourage participation, although depending on the circumstances, the funding may be better spent elsewhere.

Regardless of conference size, you should always apply for additional funding-it never hurts to have too much. Universities normally have grants available for campus organizations wishing to plan large events, and if not, private sponsorship is an alternative. For the SPO conference, sponsors have included: Carl Zeiss, Real Estate and Service (for hotel accommodations), the Science and Technology Center of Ukraine (STCU), and the National Academy of Sciences Ukraine (NASU). Newport Spectra-Physics has sponsored a number of student activities in the United States, and your chapter contacts may be able to identify other potential sponsors. Enticing sponsors is a complex process. Research companies need to see how their goals match with the conference and if their purchasing audience will be in attendance. Remember that they are spending advertising dollars, not engaging in philanthropy. Preliminary company research is essential for all sales pitches, but having an existing working relationship with the company increases the odds greatly.

If adequate funding is not available to even meet basic conference needs, it may be necessary to borrow money up front which will later be repaid from registration fees collected onsite. This strategy should only be used as a last resort and is not recommended; it leaves the organizing chapters without seed money for future conferences and could result in chapter debt if event participation does not meet expectations. A good strategy to ensure attendance and revenue is to set a deadline for interested participants to RSVP and include a pre-registration deposit or proof of travel arrangements (visa or plane/train tickets); this method is currently used by the SPO with much success and is recommended for student chapters.

Deadlines are an inevitability when planning conferences of any size. Their purpose is to provide a date that is manageable for event organizers and allows enough time for attendees to prepare any necessary materials, including travel visas. A balance must be found between setting deadlines too far in advance (convenient for conference organizers) or too close to the conference (convenient for conference attendees). Choose a date that is suitable for the majority of people and don't be afraid to set deadlines that are 6-8 months (or more) before the conference, particularly if you will be reviewing paper abstracts. Event details should be finalized 1-2 months before the conference. Then, in the weeks leading up to the conference, committees should be double-checking details such as catering, room assignments, AV needs, printed signs (and placement), and conference programs to ensure a smooth opening day.

Discussion of career choices in optics at workshops organized by the Univ. of Dayton Student Chapter.Discussion of career choices in optics at workshops organized by the Univ. of Dayton Student Chapter.

The first few hours of the conference will be busy as attendees arrive, register, and make their way to event locations. Ensuring that all staff understand their roles and responsibilities onsite is important for conference operation. Planning an early morning breakfast or coffee meeting is a great way to accomplish this. Throughout the conference, small glitches should be expected. As you deal with them, know that they may be inconvenient but will help you develop skills useful for future endeavors.

Planning Ahead:
A conference's reputation and success can be attributed to many things, including the quality of activities, marketing, and annual improvements. In the weeks after a conference, take time to reflect on the events and determine what worked well and what could be changed. Making improvements each year helps increase event quality and broaden audience appeal. Large scale conferences take time to build and become successful.

Conferences offer an important opportunity to flex your creative and organizational muscle while developing skills sought by employers-critical thinking, problem solving, organization, and teamwork. Make the most of your planned events by doing research on what types of events may best fit your needs. Student chapter websites and bi-annual reports are excellent sources for programming ideas-particularly chapters involved with technical conferences and/or student professional development workshops. This would include the SPO Young Scientist Conference "Problems of Optics and High Technology Materials," the Young Opticians Meeting, student events at the International Congress on Optics (ICO), and student workshops at the Great Lakes Symposia.

Supplemental Guide to Conference Organization
"The Keynote Guide to Organizing a Successful Conference" (courtesy of Keynote Conference Management)
Download the PDF

Professional Development Workshops:
University of Dayton Student Chapter sponsored events at the Great Lakes Symposium
Kent State SPIE Student Chapter Bi-Annual Report PDF
Kent State University SPIE Student Chapter News

Technical Workshops/Conferences:
SPO Young Scientists Conference "Problems of Optics and High Technology Materials"

Young Opticians Meeting (main organizer is the Bauman State University Chapter)

ICO Student Events (St. Petersburg ITMO Chapter)

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