A Complete Guide to Planning a Successful Conference or Convention

Conference planning can be an exciting endeavor as you look forward to crafting a fulfilling event for everyone who attends. There are typically plenty of tasks to juggle, with careful planning helping to make the entire process more seamless and, therefore, more enjoyable for everyone involved in the planning.

plan successful conference

Choose the Best Conference Center for Your Type of Event

There are a wide variety of conferences and conventions, ranging from ones targeted for a specific company or industry to those open to a broader audience. There are conventions that are held privately as well as open to the public, in a spectrum of sizes—although these types of events, in general, are larger than a typical corporate get-together.

No matter what the specifics of your conference or convention may be, what’s most important is to create an event that meets or exceeds your goals for the corporate event and satisfies conference attendees.

Conference Planning Checklist

Planning for this type of event often starts at least a year in advance with the following items typically found near the beginning of the process:

  • Overall purpose: Is this, for example, an educational convention for people in your industry? Do you hope to use this event to create publicity for your company? Is the goal to generate revenue or to break even? What else should be clarified about the conference’s purpose from the beginning? Throughout the planning process, as you make decisions, keep this purpose front of mind.
  • Budget: How much money do you have to invest in the conference up-front? Will you seek sponsors? What percentage of the expenses do you hope to cover through fees paid by attendees? How much might you need to adjust plans if ticket sales are lower than anticipated? How much wiggle room is there in your budget? How much can you set aside for unexpected expenses?
  • Overall structure: Will you, for example, have an event that’s jam-packed with industry-specific speakers? Will there be breakout discussion groups held in separate conference meeting rooms? Will attendees receive certifications or continuing education credits after attending your event?
  • Event date(s) and times: Will this be a one-day conference? One that lasts the whole weekend, or perhaps even an entire week? Are there specific dates when this needs to take place? If not, what are a few preferred dates? Will this be a 9-to-5 event or are evenings involved? Do you need to help attendees book hotel rooms in the area?
  • Conference center: For an event of significant size, as many conferences and conventions are, it may not be easy to find a venue that satisfies all your needs. How many people do you anticipate will be in attendance? Do you have a specific venue already in mind? How many conference rooms are needed? Are the dates you need available? What do you need to do to secure that venue?

Another key element of conference planning is the food your attendees will eat. What meals will you be providing, if any? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Will meals be served or is buffet style your preference? Buffets can move the meal along more quickly and give people a chance to get up and stretch, while sit-down meals give people an opportunity to relax and chat with table-mates.

Perhaps during your conference or expo it would make more sense to bring in food vendors for your attendees to eat at their convenience around scheduled events and activities throughout the day.

For more details, check out our complete conference planning checklist.


How Conference Planners Stay Organized

The best method will depend upon the structure of your planning committee, although there are common factors among these committees. In general, you’ll draw up a plan that contains clearly-defined tasks that are assigned to individuals or groups with specific deadlines attached to them. Each task would need to come with a budget range to accomplish what’s needed. Collaboration tools can be as simple as Google Docs and Google Sheets or something more high-tech, perhaps using your company’s enterprise software.

Be sure to break large tasks down into sub-tasks, and assign due dates for each of the components. The goal is to keep the process moving along in a steady way so that there isn’t a last-minute panic or rush when the conference date nears, and to help ensure that you don’t miss anything important.

In addition to planning the event itself, it can make sense to also create a marketing plan that’s rolled out in stages throughout the process. Will you, for example:

  • Publish press releases or other information on your website and other relevant publications?
  • Use email marketing to provide messaging to likely audiences for your conference?
  • Leverage the power of social media to attract new attendees?

Also, designate times throughout the process where you do budgetary checks. Are expenses to date in alignment with revenue? If not, why not? It could be that one team is further along the planning process than anticipated and has used funds ahead of schedule. Or, it could mean that marketing expenses have been higher than expected. In some cases, these may be fairly minor discrepancies from the plan. Other times, you may need to take another look at the budget and make decisions to bring it back into balance.

If your committee consists of people employed by the same company or belonging to the same organization, you could have in-person meetings to check in with one another. Or, if your committee is more geographically spread out, you could use cloud-based systems to share documents and use technology such as Zoom or Skype to have calls.

How to Increase Conference Attendance

It isn’t unusual for some attendees to wait until the last minute to sign up for a conference. That can create challenges for the planners, though, including uncertainty about available revenue and about how much food and other materials would be needed. And, if you have limited space in your conference meeting rooms, evolving attendance numbers can mean you’ll either have to turn people down (which you don’t want to do) or do a last-minute scramble to adjust your conference layout.

Ideally, of course, attendees would sign up earlier in the process—and the question can become how to encourage sign-ups to bring your attendance to optimal levels.

First, it can help to weigh the pros and cons of offering a discount for people who sign up and pay early for the conference. Benefits of early-pay discounts include how this can:

  • Provide your committee with an early infusion of cash, which can help to fund items you need to pay for before the conference
  • Create buzz as attendance figures increase, which can help to boost attendance further
  • Thank the people who sign up and pay early

Downsides include how this can reduce your overall revenue, which can have a negative impact on your budget and ability to create a premier experience. Plus, it can create the unwanted perception that your event may not be worth the full price—and can sometimes lead to the awkward situation where attendees who didn’t sign up early will request to pay the lower price.

Besides deciding upon your pricing tiers, your ability to increase conference attendance can largely be tied to the depth and effectiveness of your marketing and public relations campaigns. Start early with your marketing, including both broader strategies, such as press releases, to niche techniques, such as the cultivation of specific groups and individuals.

How to Work With Event Planners

Planning a conference can take significant time and attention. So, if you’re working on conference planning while also managing your regular workload, this can become pretty challenging. That’s often the reason why people who choose to work with an event planner make this decision—and they often experience additional benefits.

Besides freeing up your time, event planners can help your committee to prioritize your spending to maximize your conference budget. In addition, experienced planners know what pitfalls to avoid, protecting you from unwanted surprises, while taking care of planning details that aren’t always obvious. These can range from verifying WiFi specifics to handling special dietary requests.

Plus, your event planner can help you to source vendors that fit your conference or convention needs within your budget, negotiating better deals that you might be able to on your own. With all of these issues being handled by a planner, you can focus on enjoying the conference and benefiting from the networking, knowledge being shared, and more.

If you decide to hire an event planner, here are a few tips to streamline the process:

  • Clearly communicate what you want and need and, when you aren’t sure about options, ask. Your planner may come up with creative ideas you hadn’t considered before, whether that’s in connection with the room setup, how meals are served, or something else entirely.
  • Listen to ideas presented by your planner and weigh them carefully. Ultimately, it’s your conference, so you get the final say among available options—but you might as well take full advantage of the person’s invaluable professional advice when analyzing the pros and cons of choices.
  • Flexibility is crucial. There are certain things that may be already fixed. For example, you may have chosen the conference date a year ago and have widely promoted that date. But, any time there is some room to consider options, remaining open to possibilities can help you to have a convention that will be remembered for years to come.

Note that, when you choose Thrasher-Horne Conference Center, our Rental Coordinator will be on-hand to offer you support, including working with your event planner, if you choose to hire one. If you decide not to hire a professional to plan your conference, we would be happy to help you create a unique experience for your speakers and attendees.

Types of Expo & Conference Room Venues

Conference centers can include, for example, hotels, colleges, and business centers. They often have spaces dedicated for meetings, with tables and chairs, WiFi capabilities, and more. When choosing a hotel, guests can also stay there overnight, as needed. Challenges may include having enough conference meeting rooms if you’re holding multiple sessions at one time or want to have breakout spaces. You may need to use their designated caterer, as well.

To create an event to remember, you can also consider a location with unique attractions. Thrasher-Horne Center, for example, has gallery space that’s available for rental events—and artistic displays in our galleries can make your conference truly stand out.

Choosing Thrasher-Horne Conference Center
At Thrasher-Horne, you’ll receive five-star service at our affordable modern venue. Our five customizable rooms can accommodate the layout you need to bring your conference vision to life. More specifically, we have more than 6,135 square feet, which includes a grand room for large events, along with multipurpose rooms with movable wall partitions for the ultimate in flexibility.

Additional benefits of choosing our conference center include:

  • Seating option flexibility, with custom setups and breakdowns
  • Your choice of table sizes and shapes and comfortably cushioned chairs
  • Significant FREE parking
  • Independently controlled lights and temperatures in each room
  • On-site security availability

You can rent a wide variety of equipment, eliminating the need to transport it from a rental facility to your conference meeting rooms. This includes white linens, microphones, A/V carts, podiums and much more. We can provide recommendations for vendors, including food and alcohol providers, and our experienced on-staff event coordinators will be at your disposal.

You can find more information about our beautiful facility located on the scenic campus of St. Johns River State College in Orange Park. The venue is conveniently located by numerous Northeast Florida cities and communities, including being:

  • 35 minutes from downtown Jacksonville
  • 48 minutes from Jacksonville’s beaches
  • 58 minutes from St. Augustine
  • less than 90 minutes from Fernandina Beach
  • near popular Fleming Island restaurants and hotels for guests who need overnight lodging

We invite you to contact us at 904-276-6815, extension 2, to schedule a tour and discuss how we can help you with your upcoming conference or convention.



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Located at St. Johns River State College
283 College Drive
Orange Park, FL 32065

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Appointments are available if you prefer to come in person.

Email us at boxoffice@sjrstate.edu