How to Put on a Conference

OKHR_Blog_15Conferences are a great way to promote your field of professional expertise. By joining professionals and exploring new ideas together, everyone benefits. Not to mention, they’re a lot of fun!

OKHR is proud to host the Oklahoma state HR conference each year (register or volunteer at Our volunteers have become pros at putting on a great event, including registration, venue, food, the exhibitor hall, sponsorships, keynote speakers, after-hours networking events, and more.

As part of OKHR’s Resource Center, our hardworking conference volunteers offer solid advice on how to create a successful conference.

For easy reference, click on the links of your choice below to go straight to the question:

What is the most important aspect of putting on a successful conference?

Strong, organized, enthusiastic leader and conference committee. – Lindsey Nichols, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Client Services Manager at Nextep and 2015-2016 OKHR Director

Getting the right mix of committee members and volunteers.  They are the ones that make the conference successful. A mixture of people with past experience in the conference or with other conferences as well as people who have not been part of the event to help bring in new ideas – Stephanie McCarty, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, MHR, Vice President of Human Resources at Mustang Fuel Corporation and 2015 OKHR Conference Chair

How do you get the word out?

Every means possible! E-mail lists, consistent conference website URL from year to year, communication through local chapters, social media, etc. – Lindsey Nichols

It is critical to market in many different forms. For example take advantage of those vehicles that have no or little cost (ie. email blasts through SHRM and the State Council) and build partnerships with other parallel organizations including groups like ASTD and the local SHRM Chapters. Enlist your sponsors to help market through their mail lists and contacts and of course use traditional methods like the conference websites, OKHR blog and twitter. – Stephanie McCarty

A combination multi-media and in-person approach works best. Your attendees will run the gamut from old to new, tech-savvy to not, and you’ll want to use a variety of means to make sure you reach all of them. Some things we did that were successful included regular social media updates on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter combined with blog posts from speakers, vendors, and others involved in the conference. Paper flyers were made and distributed at local chapter meetings leading up to the conference. We even had liaisons who made a point to visit every local chapter in the state, shake hands, seek volunteers, answer questions, and encourage people to register. An easy, straightforward, and searchable URL for the conference that stays the same from year to year is important (such as, as well as having a mobile-responsive website so people can check it out and register on their mobile devices.  Plus, don’t forget your exhibitors and sponsors! Leading up to the conference and during the event, they are a fabulous source of social media and blog cross-promotion. If they Tweet about your conference, for example, you’ve now reached not only your own audience, but theirs as well. – Beth Dean, FPC, PHR, Digital and Content Marketer at Nextep and 2014-2015 OKHR PR and Social Media Director

How do you keep everything organized?

Project management tools like Basecamp are helpful. Cloud-based document storage such as DropBox keeps everything centrally available for all conference committee members. – Lindsey Nichols

Enlist the help of others to organize their areas and keep you updated. Use Basecamp to aide in communication and shared documents. – Stephanie McCarty

I use an excel spreadsheet and color code vendors as to who has registered and who hadn’t. I had ongoing email file folders for invitations, responses back to vendors, and dialogue for OKHR board. I ALWAYS tried to respond to everyone within 12 hours of their email or call so that they felt we cared. – Michelle Lehman, Managing Partner of Staff2000, CEO of Organizing Solutions, OKHR Conference Vendor Chair, and TAHRA 2015 President

HootSuite and Buffer are both great tools for scheduling and mass updating social media sites.  Most conference committee members are volunteers, so cloud-based storage such as Google Drive allows them to access conference materials from both work and home. – Beth Dean

How do you handle choosing a location? Food? Evening events? Theme?

Start well in advance. First, the venue should be able to accommodate the capacity of the event. Next, it should be generally easily accessible. The decisions about food have to do with what is the best dish we can serve that will satisfy the majority of attendees within a reasonable budget. Evening events are generally driven by the primary location of the event; something nearby and easily accessible. Theme selection takes creative minds. – Lindsey Nichols

For all areas, the assigned committee chair is charged with gathering options and ideas and sharing them with the conference committee.  The Conference Chair and State Director will be charged with aligning the budget and overall plan to the recommendations. – Stephanie McCarty

How do you set the budget?

Start with the estimated number of attendees, average attendance cost plus revenue from projected exhibitors and sponsors, and work down from there. Using historical information from previous conferences is imperative. – Lindsey Nichols

The budget should be set based on previous attendance, expected revenue and expenses to build a pro forma around needed or expected return (profits). – Stephanie McCarty

What should you consider regarding sponsors and exhibitors?

The main thing I would consider when recruiting either would be how they fit into the theme and mission of the event and the HR community. Obviously both are looking for a return on their investments, however that should be in balance with the mission your group is trying to achieve with the conference itself. Understanding the expectations of the sponsors and exhibitors is important for all parties to ensure success. – Stephanie McCarty

When working with sponsors and exhibitors remember to honor sponsorship commitments or promises.  Recently, when I met with some of the returning sponsors for the OKHR 2016 conference, I took notes so I could confirm what was discussed and provide what was promised. When designing a floor plan for exhibitors, keep in mind the exhibitor’s competitors so the company is not placed next to each other. This way, they may openly discuss their business with those who stop by their booth. – Diana Wall, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Director of Business Development at Accel Financial Staffing and OKHR Board Member

They pay for the conference so that all of HR folks are able to receive such great programs and keynote speakers. – Michelle Lehman

Give them as much love as possible! They are a significant source of funding for the conference, so every chance you get to promote them and drive traffic their way is valuable. We made a point, for example, to feature every vendor booth on our Facebook photo album, Tweet announcements of prizes, and include them in social media fun such as the OKHR hunt and the Show us your selfie contests. – Beth Dean

What are some things you’ve run into at conferences that took you by surprise?

Attendees being rude or getting upset about the littlest things. Example – not having ranch dressing with a salad. Not opening the doors soon enough for the general session. Give me a break! 🙂 The overall cost of putting on an event of our size is also surprising at first. – Lindsey Nichols

Many things…it being my first year to work in any capacity on a campaign I had no previous experience to fall back on. I was tremendously fortunate to have a very experienced committee. – Stephanie McCarty

The most difficult thing is keeping vendors away from competitors and making sure everyone is happy. Sometime I don’t think the HR attendees or vendors/sponsors realize we donate our time, we are not getting paid for this and we do have real jobs 🙂 – Michelle Lehman

Conferences are a lot of work. If you’re on the social media team, I’d recommend bringing a charging cable – your mobile device will be practically smoking by lunchtime. 🙂 It was also more convenient for me to use my iPad with bluetooth-attached keyboard to make quick updates during the conference. For volunteers, the conference can be a busy, fast-paced, exhilarating blur, but sooo much fun and it’s incredibly rewarding to see the attendees enjoying it. – Beth Dean

 What attendee feedback have you gotten that either delighted you or caused you to change course?

We read every single line of feedback and take it seriously when planning for the future. The conference committee puts their blood, sweat and tears into the event and we really value the feedback provided. – Lindsey Nichols

The feedback on the speakers was very satisfying and a result of much hard work by Kyle Killingsworth and his committee. – Stephanie McCarty

When receiving feedback, remember it’s hard to please everyone but hearing and adjusting for future conferences is important to review and discuss with committee members. Some suggestions provide great insight and perhaps a better way to handle a situation in the future. – Diana Wall

I think the vendors I worked with knew how hard I tried to keep everyone happy. From ordering pizzas one conference from two different pizza places because the hotel forgot to send food to the vendor hall to walking up and down the aisles all the time so that they had a point of contact. – Michelle Lehman

What is the biggest benefit to volunteering/organizing a conference?

The people we meet on the conference committee. Relationships forged and experience gained. There is an expense to us as volunteers in our time. The reward we receive in return is completely worth it. – Lindsey Nichols

Being able to give back to a discipline that has awarded me with so much. – Stephanie McCarty

Volunteering for conferences is a great way to meet other HR professionals in a different format. It’s a way to create new relationships and strengthen current ones. Life can be more rewarding and fulfilling with a service attitude by volunteering. – Diana Wall

The people you meet and the friends you make. It’s like a family reunion every year! I had an absolute blast chairing the vendor hall the past few years! – Michelle Lehman

It’s a wonderful experience to build the friendships with other volunteers in your group. I genuinely look forward to seeing them, and as a bonus I get to closely network with other professionals and build my stable of pros in the know who I can turn to (and vice versa). At the conference itself, it’s great to see attendees laughing, learning, and getting excited about their professions all over again. To know that we ignited that spark makes me so proud and honored to volunteer with this great group of people. – Beth Dean

We’d love to hear from you! Have you volunteered or attended a conference? Add your feedback in the comments below!

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