How to Organize an International Conference

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics, The Fletcher School

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts will be spending tomorrow at an all-day conference on the state of the U.S.-Russian relations. It’s a joint effort of The Fletcher School and MGIMO Univeristy, with the help of a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Here is a link to the program; all the panels will be webcasted in real time. I think it is a pretty interesting conference. Of course, I am biased: I am one of the organizers.

This is not my first go-around organizing a big conference. I managed a bunch of them in researching The Ideas Industry, and another one that led to Avoiding Triviaa book that R.C. Hammond wanted to throw in the trash can. I have learned a thing or two about how to do it properly. So for those of you considering running your own conference, here are a few useful tips I can offer from my own experience:

1. Start with the money. Before you invite anyone anywhere, make sure you know what your budget it, and make sure you have funding lined up. This sounds banal, but I have seen conferences fall apart because some showboat thought he could organize everything on the fly. Always, always start with the money.

2. Start early. The bigger the conference you intend to organize, the earlier you need to act to lock down your more high-profile participants. I started organizing almost all of my conferences six months in advance. This has the added advantage of securing people before their calendars start to fill up. Plan even more in advance in cases involving a geopolitical spat that causes the processing time for visas to magically double in length. Not that I have any experience with this, mind you.

3. It is okay to think about which friends can participate. Then, expand your thinking. If you have a friend who would be a perfect fit for a conference role, that is a beautiful thing! When you first sketch out a conference program, you might even be able to fill every spot with friends. At that exact moment, take a good hard look at your draft program and ask yourself the following questions: a) Is there a homogeneity of views in attendance?; b) Were any “manels” created?; and c) Is it monochromatic? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then maybe you need to rethink the conference roster.

4. Do not make the sessions too long or the coffee breaks too short. For international relations panels, I find the ideal time to be 75 minutes. Your mileage may vary, but do not extend the length of your panels for that much longer unless you want to see close colleagues nod off. And give plenty of time for breaks. One social utility of conferences is the conversations at the margins that allow for more informal exchanges.

5. Prepare for last-minute crises. Someone will cancel at the last minute for completely bogus reasons. Someone’s flight will be delayed, causing knock-on complications. Some staffer will forget to do the thing they said they were going to do. Someone will pull the prima donna card. Such is life. Plan for contingency scenarios, backup panelists, and remote presentations. Rest assured that every well-run conference faces a bevy of last-minute crises.

6. Give away the swag! Veteran conference-goers travel light. Do not give them paperweights that will simply add pounds to their carry-on luggage. Aim for something stylish and light.

And, finally:

7. Do not plan to do anything remotely significant the day after a conference ends. You will be exhausted, and your brain will be mush. Do not do anything, just let the exhaustion flow through you. Decompress in style.

This article was republished from The Washington Post.

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