Dec 06 2017

How to Run a Conference at a Small School Without an Initial Budget

The Netherlands Inter-community School (NIS) is a small international school in Jakarta, and roughly 150 students were in attendance when I worked there. We didn’t have an allotted budget to run a conference; however, as the Language Coordinator, I thought that a conference would be a fantastic opportunity for staff to share and gain knowledge on all topics relating to language – Modern Foreign Languages (MFL), English as an Additional Language (EAL), Language in the mainstream classroom, Mother Tongue etc... The Special Needs (SEN) coordinator at the school felt it would be great to add special needs topics as well, so the Inspired Education Conference ended up being a mixture of both. Despite not having an initial budget, I decided to attempt to run an education conference anyways, not an easy task, but in the end, it was well worth it. 


For any other small school out there, organizing a first time conference without an initial budget can be done. Here are the lessons I learned, some relating to budget and others associated with organizing a conference:

A)  Start up expenses only need to include a website hosting fee for the conference and a small number of posters: The website hosting fee is a necessary but minimal expense, and the posters are great to display around the school and community, but there is no need to print out more than 20 or so – we printed out 50, and it was unnecessary. People found out about the conference through social media and word of mouth. Had the conference not worked out, these two expenses would have been the only ones the school incurred.

B)  As an organizer at a small school, be prepared to learn how to manage a website: Our school had only two IT staff, so learning how to manage the conference website myself once it was set up was essential. Our IT staff would not have had the time to help with all the information that needed to be uploaded – the guest speaker biographies, conference schedule etc...

C)  Research entrance fee price points by looking at what other schools in the area are charging: My research led me to charge 600,000 IDR (approx. 45 USD) per person, which included snacks and lunch for the day, and this price point ended up being correct.

D)  Recruit speakers from within your staff first: I realized early on that in order to generate even the slightest buzz about the conference, people needed to see some of the speakers that would be presenting, and on what topics. This was a first-time conference at a school that was relatively unknown, so people needed to know what they were signing up for. By recruiting from within our own staff first, I was able to get the ball rolling.

E)  Recruit speakers through word of mouth: We sent out online conference flyers to administrators at other schools to pass along to their staff. On the flyer we included a request for speakers, but I found this was not a very effective way to recruit speakers when we had a negligible response. The majority of speakers came through staff at NIS directly asking colleagues from other schools to present. The reason behind our initial difficulty recruiting presenters could have been that this was a first-time conference at a relatively unknown school.

F)  Offer incentives: Our speakers’ incentive was that they entered the conference free of charge with snacks and meals included in their attendance. We also offered a discount of 10% to any school registering 3 or more teachers – this was a big seller.

G)  Spreading the word through email: Although I had difficulty recruiting speakers this way, the majority of guests attending found out through our email blitzes. Myself and two other colleagues scoured the Internet for all schools in Jakarta and surrounding areas and collected email addresses. On a bi-weekly basis in the months leading up to the Inspired Education Conference, we would send out online flyers to school administrators with registration date reminders and lists of additional speakers who would be presenting. The great thing about emails is that they are free, and we didn’t have the budget to place ads in magazines or newspapers.

H)  Use social media, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter: In addition to our email blitzes, online flyers advertising the conference were placed on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc... by staff at NIS. This was also another free and great way to spread the word.

I)  Offer educational resource vendors free attendance to the conference: I was able to easily recruit vendors to our conference because we didn’t charge a fee for a table. The only condition was that we wouldn’t provide meals for the vendors at the conference, but this was no concern for them. Had I run the conference again the following year, I would have charged a table fee, but for a first time conference, I felt it was more important for vendors to get to know the conference and experience its’ success so they would return the next year.

J)  Organization is key!! – Create tables and charts to keep yourself organized. You will need:

a)  A form for keeping track of fees – this kept track of invoices sent out and money received.

b)  A guest name form for the security guards – this form was for security to allow cars through the gates – guests needed to provide ID before entering our campus. Security needed a list of guest educators and their schools.

c)  Sign in/Sign out sheets – guests needed to sign in upon entering the conference at the meet & greet table. Here they collected name tags, giveaways and maps. At the end guests were required to sign out and collect their certificates. These sheets ensured we didn’t miss anyone.

d)  Charts for the facilities team and IT department – I provided tables to the facilities team and IT department outlining session times, chair needs, number of participants, room numbers, IT needs, and material needs (pens, paper, etc...). This ensured presenters’ needs were met in a timely manner.

e)  A budget sheet where you plan how to allocate the money you have collected for the conference.

f)  A form to keep track of presenters and another one for attendees – we provided two certificates to presenters – one for attending and one for presenting. Attendees only received one. The forms were a good way to keep track of who was who, and to double check our certificate & name tag counts.

K)  Schedule time slots of differing lengths: I had originally mapped out 30-minute time slots for each speaker; my strategy was to load the conference with as many speakers as I could, on as many topics as I could fit in. When the speaker forms came back, I had quite a few requests for longer slots – ranging from 1 to 2 hours. So I had to re-strategize, and the conference ended up having time slots of 30 minutes, 1 hour and 1 hour 30 minutes. If I run a conference again, this is how I would design the schedule from the beginning – with multiple options.

L)  Schedule speakers according to topics: We had a mix of educators attending the conference: early years, primary years, SEN coordinators, librarians… It was important that each time slot had a speaker that appealed to attendees’ various interests, which is what I was able to do. Throughout the day, during each time slot, people were able to find topics that related to their area of interest.

M)  Speaker Forms: Have speakers fill out forms that indicate their technological, materials (pens, paper, markers…) and room requirements. Some speakers preferred to have participants sitting in desks or at tables, while others preferred participants in chairs in rows, or in a semi-circle. This information was vital to ensure a smooth day for all.

N)  The most important piece of advice – spend your budget after you have collected it: I can’t count the number of times someone would ask me what the budget for the conference could I predict the number of attendees? Had I started to spend on food, chair rentals etc..., before I knew how many people were in attendance, I would have been way off. My thinking was 100 outside guests, and we had 60. I would have spent money on 40 extra people I didn’t have. I waited until the last month before ordering chairs, finding a catering company, ordering giveaways, and so on. By waiting until a month before the conference, I had the majority of the money collected, and I spent according to my budget. People registering at the last minute provided money for items on my wish list. The fees collected were included in my budget, which ended up being roughly 24,000,000 IDR (approx 1800 USD). For 60 outside guests and 40 of our own staff (100 educators total) I was able to provide morning snacks, lunch, afternoon snacks, certificates, pens and notepads, maps and schedules.

O)  Plan for last minute attendees registering, even though they are past the registration deadline: The last week before the conference, I had people registering, even though they were way past the deadline. I let them attend, but only because I had a very flexible catering company that allowed for last minute changes to the numbers. If you plan to do the same, make sure you have a similar arrangement and factor in extra chairs. It’s also a good idea to print extra copies of blank attendance certificates and order extra giveaway items, such as pens and notepads.

P)  Have attendees let you know which sessions they will be attending in advance: When allotting chairs and rooms for speakers, this information is vital. We did this the old fashion way – a PDF form to be filled out and emailed back. It worked, although there are programs that you could use to do online surveys, but we just didn’t know how to set any of these up with our website.

Q)  Pre-plan movement of rental chairs: I could only afford rental chairs for the Keynote Speaker sessions taking place in the large gym, none for the classrooms where the other sessions would take place. If this is your situation, not to worry; by working with the facilities team, grounds staff can help move chairs between sessions. This requires careful planning, and mapping out the rooms and number of attendees in each one. It is also necessary to allow enough break time between each session so that chairs can be moved from room to room.

R)  Recruit staff to decorate for the conference: Based on fees collected, I had a minimal budget for decorating – teachers and teacher assistants are amazing at coming up with ways to decorate a school with only a few hundred dollars. Recruit your staff and their expertise!

S)  Security and parking space: These were two expenses I hadn’t originally thought of, but they are important to include in your budget. Plan for extra security on the day of the conference to check IDs and cars entering your school campus. Also, we needed extra parking space and were lucky to be able to rent land close to the school for the day.

T)  Quadruple check certificates & name tags and have blank extras available: The last thing I wanted to do was miss someone or misspell a name. I recruited a colleague, and the two of us went over the lists again and again, even checking the day before the conference to make sure everything was accurate. It was a good thing, because even the day before the event we realized we had missed a few attendees and were able to correct the situation.

U)  Meet & Greet/Information table: Have a station manned by office staff set up all day at the front entrance of your school, where people can collect maps, conference schedules, name tags and giveaways, such as conference pens and notepads. People show up late, people have questions – having a meet & greet/information table was very helpful to all.

V)  Mentally prepare for speakers not attending or being delayed: My worst nightmare occurred the day of the conference: one speaker was ill and couldn’t attend, and two others booked for the first morning sessions were delayed in traffic. Be prepared to make on the fly switches to your schedule! In hindsight, I should have scheduled our school staff to run the first morning sessions, and that way speakers travelling from outside Jakarta could have made it on time for their sessions. In any case, on the fly changes were made, and the day ended up running smoothly.

W)  Touches that made the day stand out, aside from outstanding presentations given by all:

a)  Colour coded attendee name tags by school. It made it easy to see which schools people came from, and our NIS staff was identifiable for those who had questions about where to find things.

b)  An outdoor buffet - weather permitting: People enjoyed sitting outside for meals and snacks. It gave them a nice space to relax, mingle and enjoy the day.

c) Reflection forms – We offered reflection forms so attendees could provide feedback about sessions attended and the day in general.

d)  Pens and notepads – The pens and notepads had the Inspired Education logo on them. People appreciated receiving pens and paper for notes throughout the day.

e)  Vendors – people enjoyed browsing the resources during the breaks.

f)  Snacks & water offered at a central area during each break – people appreciated refueling their energy during the breaks. The central outdoor point offered a chance for people to mingle and network.

The Inspired Education Conference was a great success – 30 sessions took place over the course of the day, with visitors attending from Jakarta, Bogor and Bandung. The collaboration and learning that took place on that day was truly inspiring!

Have you recently organized a conference at your school? Are there any tips you would like to share?


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