- Reception/Conference dinner
- Expenses for speakers
- Administrative costs
- Grants (optional)
- Registration fees
Expenses for speakers
On the day, you'll be glad of assistants who can do things like shepherding people into sessions, taking messages, etc. You can offer free registration to local students in return for them acting in this role.
What can go wrong?
- Acts of God. I still remember a meeting at the Royal Society years ago where a hurricane swept across Britain overnight and around 50% of those attending couldn't make it. Other things like strikes, riots, etc. can happen, but I recommend you just accept these are risks not under your control.
- Clash of dates. This is under your control to some extent. Before you settle on a date, ask around to check there isn't a clash with other meetings or with religious holidays.
- Speaker pulls out. I have organised meetings where a speaker pulled out at the last minute – there will usually be a good reason for this such as illness. So long as it is one person, this can be managed, and may indeed provide an opportunity to do something useful with the time, such as holding a mini-Hackathon to brainstorm ideas about a specific problem..
- You make a loss. This is a scary prospect but should not happen with adequate planning, as noted above. Main thing is to make sure you confirm what your speaker expenses will be so you don't get any nasty surprises at the last minute.
- Difficult people. This is a minor one, but I remember wise words of Betty Byers Brown, a collaborator from those old Manchester days, who told me that 95% of the work of a conference organiser is caused by 5% of those attending. Just knowing that is the case makes it easier to deal with.
- Unhappy people. People coming from far away who know nobody can have a miserable time at a conference, but with planning, you can help them integrate in a group. Rather than formal entertainment, consider having social activities that ensure everyone is included. Also, have an explicit anti-harassment policy – there are plenty of examples on the web.
- Criticism. Whatever you do there will be people who complain – why didn't you do X rather than Y? This can be demoralising if you have put a lot of work into organising something. Nevertheless, make sure you do ask people for feedback after the meeting: if there are things that could be done better next time, you need to know about them. For what it's worth, the most common complaints I hear after meetings are that speakers go on too long and there is not enough time for questions and discussion. It's important to have firm chairing, and to set up the schedule to encourage interaction.
What can go right?
- Running a conference carries an element of risk and stress, but it's an opportunity to develop organisational skills, and this can be a great thing to put on your CV. The skills you need to plan a conference are not so different from those to budget for a grant: you have to work out how to optimise the use of funds, anticipating expenses and risks.
- Bonding with co-organisers. If you pick your co-organisers wisely, you may find that the experience of working together to solve problems is enjoyable and you learn a lot.
- You can choose the topics for your meeting and get to invite the speakers you most want to hear. As a young researcher organising a small meeting, I got to know people I'd invited as speakers in a way that would not be possible if I was just attending a big meeting organised by a major society.
- You can do it your way. You can decide if you want to lower costs for specific groups. You can make sure that the speakers are diverse, and can experiment with different approaches to get away from the traditional format of speakers delivering a lecture to an audience. For examples see this post and comments below it.
- The main thing is that if you are in control, you can devise your meeting to ensure it achieves what scientific meetings are supposed to achieve: scholarly communication and interaction to spark ideas and collaborations. My memories of meetings I have organised as an early-career academic have been high points in my career, which is why I am so keen to encourage others to do this.