Feel confident in handling a large-scale meeting with Marie Herman’s guidance
You can probably organize a small-scale meeting in your sleep. You know that you need to reserve the conference room, send out meeting invites, order catering, set up audio visual, print the handouts, and so on. You might have a checklist to follow for meetings that you routinely organize.
However, a large-scale meeting, one that lasts multiple days with multiple tracks or that has thousands of attendees can definitely give you a moment of pause when you are faced with the task of organizing it.
How do you ensure you are thinking of all the myriad details you need to cover to be successful? It can be overwhelming to think about just one of the details (like finding parking for 5,000 vehicles) much less imagining the entire event from scratch. How do you determine what is needed and make sure nothing slips through the cracks during the execution?
One of the larger events that I helped to organize was a corporate open house with 20,000 individuals signed up to attend. As you can imagine, I was hyperventilating a little trying to think of everything that needed to be done to prepare. Thank goodness we had the notes from an earlier open house (albeit smaller in size and 20 years earlier) and that we had a fantastic team of dedicated co-workers to help with all the tasks that needed to happen.
Let’s see if we can break down this type of meeting into some manageable strategies so you will feel confident in handling it.
Strategy One: Flesh out your concept and define the scope
It is critical to take the time to flesh out what the overall plan is for the event that you are organizing. Here are some common questions that should be answered before proceeding:
- What is the purpose of the event?
- How much time do you have to plan it?
- How many hours/days will it be?
- What is our budget?
- What format (online, in person, hybrid)?
- How many attendees do you anticipate if you are open to going outside your existing space or how many could you accommodate if you needed to stay within space you have available?
- Will you be holding the event locally (onsite at your company, offsite?) or traveling for it?
- Will it be all one meeting in one room or will you be breaking out into subgroups?
- Will all the subgroups meet for identical time lengths or will you mix it up with some half day sessions and hour-long sessions for instance?
- Will there be food at this event, or will people be on their own for meals?
- Will you need to have overnight accommodations factored in?
- Will you need to factor in transportation?
- Do we want to choose a theme for the event? (very helpful for determining future decisions)
You may not have all the answers at this early juncture, but you should at least be able to determine the general overall purpose and structure of the meeting (i.e. a two-day training conference or a one-day open house for the public or an annual meeting of an association).
Getting the who/what/where/when/why identified up front will help you to better determine what checklists you need to create and how many people you need to involve in the planning and implementation.
Strategy Two: Identify the right team members to organize and execute the event flawlessly
It’s all too easy to try to take on meeting planning with a lone wolf mentality, but involving other people lightens the load tremendously. Give some serious thought to how many people you are going to need to organize this event and break out that list by when you will actually need people.
You might need several people to do the organizing, but double (or more, possibly many more!) that amount for the day of the event to help with setup, execution, and cleanup of the event. It’s better to have too many helpers than not enough when the need is critical.
Putting together a comprehensive checklist of all the roles needed (see strategy four for ideas on building this list) will help you to determine the number of people needed throughout the process. Be sure to consider things like how many people at any one time, how long are the shifts those people are working, what extra “floater” roles might you need (delivering things, relieving people for restroom breaks, etc.).
Strategy Three: Conduct visualization exercises to plan out the process and program
Part of the planning process should include putting together detailed written instructions for each role, so that the volunteers have a lower learning curve on the day of the event to step into their roles. Conducting visualization exercises ahead of time helps you to clarify what those instructions need to include. Try to literally get as step by step as you possibly can. Asking questions helps the process along. Here’s an example of a few such steps. Obviously, it would be much more extensive than what is shown here, but this shows you the process you would go through in thinking things through.
In putting together these exercises, envision being in each role (volunteer/attendees/speaker/vendor/etc.).
- Where do you go?
- Who do you check in with?
- What are you given when you check in?
- Where are you directed to next after you check in?
Doing this ahead of time also forces you to clearly think through some of the details you might have overlooked (where will people park? through which door will they enter the building? how will they know where to go? will they need to check-in? who will check them in? how can we shorten the check-in line?), and so on, asking questions every step of the way.
Strategy Four: Put together detailed checklists to keep you on track
These visualization exercises will provide the base for creating detailed checklists for the various areas that need to be organized.
Preliminary areas to consider for creating checklists include:
- Overall Event Summary (Dates, Times, Venue, etc.)
- Program (Timeline, Agenda, Speaking Program, etc.)
- Registration (name tags, checkin sheets, swag bags with contents, raffle tickets)
- Floorplans / Traffic Flow
- Vendors/Vendor Expo (including special requests like electrical hookups, internet access)
- Printed Materials
- Budget (including paying for rentals, cutting checks for speakers or expenses, reimbursements)
- Logistics (transportation, accessibility, coordinating speakers and their transportation, storage of swag bags prior to the event)
- Support (sanitation/janitorial, nursing rooms, medical/first aid, restrooms, hand washing stations, coat check)
- Venue Walkthrough
- Technology (audiovisual needs, projectors (including rentals), wireless mice, microphones, speakers, electronic signage, etc.)
- Food and Beverage (ordering, coordinating caterer, setting up tables, cleanup)
- Follow up (surveying attendees, returning rented items, ensuring all expenses are reimbursed or paid, capturing details of what went well and what could be improved during the debriefing, verifying the checklists and volunteer instructions are revised based on volunteer feedback)
Your checklists should include specific action items and who is responsible for them and when they are due.
Strategy Five: Make sure you are thinking of the “unseen” side of events and ensuring you are planning for the unexpected
There are many “hidden” elements in large-scale meeting planning. Much like the jobs of administrative professionals, when these areas are handled well, nobody notices them, but if something goes wrong everyone notices.
Examples include things like sanitation – ensuring you have sufficient trash cans and a plan for emptying them as needed – and janitorial: having someone check the restrooms throughout the day to ensure they are in order and fully stocked, etc.
It’s also critical to plan ahead for any support functions that should be considered when dealing with larger crowds of people. This includes first aid and medical needs, nursing moms, accessibility issues (and consider different types of things like any stairs that would impede walkers or wheelchairs, etc.), communications and more.
Your strategy also needs to include contingency planning for things that don’t go well, such as speakers who cancel at the last minute or don’t show up, a venue issue, a transportation strike, construction, and other unexpected happenings.
Finally, you must consider unusual things that don’t commonly happen, but that would have a huge impact on your meeting if they happened to occur during it. This would include items like security issues and severe weather.
For our large-scale event, our committee considered ahead of time how we would handle a situation of a severe weather outbreak, including identifying how we would cancel the event if necessary and notify the attendees/public.
When I realized close to the actual event that the weather was going to be sunny with record-breaking heat for that time of year, I immediately began considering the impact of that heat on my volunteers and attendees. I arranged for multiple cases of bottled water to be available, had an extra volunteer recruited to go around and spray sunscreen on the outdoor volunteers (repeating throughout the day), reviewed the site for areas of shade available and adjusted the various stops to include those shaded areas plus encouraged the volunteers to bring umbrellas for portable shade, and ensured that we checked in with the volunteers often to see if they needed to go inside or work elsewhere.
I also made sure they were all familiar with the symptoms of heat stress and heat stroke and asked them to watch out for each other. All of this happened because I thought through the scenario of what could happen in advance of the event and made the arrangements ahead of time.
Strategy Six: Ensuring the day of the event goes flawlessly (even if you end up using Plans B, C, and D)
Proper training in advance of your event helps everyone feel more comfortable with their role. Volunteers should be given talking points for the most common questions they are likely to encounter, plus be notified who they should refer visitors to if additional information is needed.
We discussed what to do if the media came in, if there were a medical emergency, how we would communicate with the volunteers ahead of time, where they should park on the day of their shift, where they should check in, how meal arrangements were made and other details they would need. Volunteers received t-shirts and hats and water bottles ahead of time along with a copy of the map we would be giving attendees.
One critical area that will help the event go smoothly is ensuring that you include sufficient time for set-up activities prior to the event and cleanup activities after. It’s not uncommon to need to get in the night before and to have a place to work on things like assembling swag bags and then having a secure place to store those swag bags overnight. You don’t want to be rushed and it’s very comforting to know that time has been built in to handle last-minute emergencies that arise.
Be prepared to modify plans as circumstances arise during your event. Having thought through contingency plans ahead of time will help you be better prepared if you need to change gears quickly.
Stage Seven: Debriefing and laying the groundwork for the next meeting
Ensuring that you are debriefing your event and capturing all follow up notes will not only ensure that the event closes out smoothly with all vendors paid, volunteers reimbursed for expenses, equipment returned, facilities restored to rights, and so on, but that future events following the same type of program are much easier to organize when they are next held. Surveying people and capturing their feedback on the checklists, volunteer instructions, and overall event comments will help to improve that event every single time it is held.
For additional tips on the debriefing process, check out my article in the January 2017 issue of Executive Secretary Magazine.
These seven strategies ensure you are thinking through all the various areas you need to plan with your larger scale events. While there are many details to coordinate, they can be planned for. Involving your committee in brainstorming and visualization exercises increases the odds of being prepared for more scenarios. Working together ensures that the event goes off without a hitch!