The ultimate conference planning checklist

The ultimate conference planning checklist

by Sarah McCunnPublished on Jun 23, 2024
The ultimate conference planning checklist

Are you ready to take the plunge and organize a conference? This guide will support you to create an event that fosters learning, ignites connections, and leaves a lasting impact on your audience. This guide is particularly valuable for:

  • First-time conference organizers: Gaining a comprehensive understanding of the planning process, from the initial spark of an idea to post-conference evaluation.
  • Organizers of small-scale conferences: Learning how to scale your existing event while maintaining a high-quality experience for attendees.

We’ll also show you how easy it is to use Checkout Page as a budget friendly, customizable option for taking conference registrations and payments and integrating with a host of tools to help manage the planning process!

Silhouette of a raised hand in the audience, facing 2 people on stage.

Why organize a conference?

Conferences offer unique opportunities to bring people together, share knowledge, network and foster innovation. There are a multitude of benefits associated with hosting a conference, including opportunities to:

💭 Establish thought leadership & reputation
🌱 Grow brand awareness
🧱 Build network and community
🎓 Educate and engage
🤝 Facilitate collaboration
🧑‍💻 Engage and train employees

By organizing a successful conference you’ll be fostering learning and facilitating collaboration—creating a ripple effect that can positively impact your audience, organization and reputation during the event and into the future.

Shot of an audience in an auditorium with many raised hands, facing the stage.

The ultimate conference planning checklist

If you are feeling like there is a lot to factor in—from schedules and name badges to budgets and insurance—don’t worry, we have your back!

We’ve created a conference planning checklist which guides you through all of the stages of conference planning, helping you to stay organized and ensuring nothing essential slips through the cracks.

👀Looking for more detail? Don’t worry, we are going to dive in below—examining the components of successful conference planning through five key stages.

Screenshot of the Checkout Page conference planning checklist

Conference planning in 5 steps

Step 1: Setting the stage

This section delves into the crucial initial stages of conference planning, where you'll establish the framework and foundation for your event—from defining your goals and gathering your team to crafting budget, timeline and logistics plans.

Shot of a stage lit up with purple and spotlights

Conference goals

Conference goals can be quite varied depending on the field and purpose of the event. Here's a breakdown of some common goals:

🎯 Learning & development
🎯 Networking & relationship building
🎯 Brand awareness & lead generation
🎯 Problem-solving & collaboration
🎯 Motivation & inspiration

Pro tip: ⚡The most effective conferences will have a visible and clear set of goals that are consistently revisited by the team. It can be easy to lose your way as the pressure builds. Maintaining a keen eye on how everything you are doing aligns with your goals will keep you on a path to success.

A target with arrows in it, some in the bullseye, and 2 just outside.

Assembling a team

Planning a conference is no small task! Assembling a skilled and motivated team is crucial for a successful event. Here's why having a great team is important:

  • Expertise pool: A team brings together a diverse range of skills and experience, ensuring details don’t get missed.
  • Shared workload: Dividing tasks across a team distributes the workload, preventing burnout and ensuring deadlines are met.
  • Brainstorming power: Multiple perspectives lead to innovative ideas and creative solutions for challenges that may arise.
  • Morale & motivation: Working collaboratively fosters a sense of shared purpose and keeps everyone motivated throughout the planning process.
Birds eye view down on a desk with a number of laptops, pads, teas and other gadgets, with some hands in view on the devices.

The ideal team composition will vary depending on the size and focus of your conference. However, some key roles to consider include:

  • Project Manager
  • Marketing & Promotions Manager
  • Logistics Coordinator
  • Content & Speaker Coordinator
  • Finance Manager

Pro tip: ⚡Remember, your team doesn't have to be limited to employees. Consider enlisting volunteers or interns to contribute fresh ideas and support with day-to-day tasks in the lead up to and during the conference.

Conference format

The world of conferences has been transformed by technology—opening up a wider range of formats to suit your needs and budget. The three main conference types are:

In-person conferencesThe classic conference experience, bringing attendees together in a physical location for presentations, workshops, networking events, and face-to-face interaction.


✅ Pros:
Fosters stronger connections, facilitates dynamic discussions, and allows for interactive elements like exhibits and demonstrations.

😞 Cons: Higher logistical costs, limited reach due to location dependence, and potential travel barriers for attendees.

A room with people facing a speaker at the front who is showing the audience something on a screen.

Online conferences
Conducted entirely in the virtual realm, utilizing video conferencing platforms, live streaming, and online collaboration tools.

✅ Pros: Cost-effective, wider geographic reach, and eliminates travel barriers for attendees and speakers.

😞 Cons: Lacks the personal touch of in-person interaction, can be challenging to maintain attendee engagement, and relies heavily on a strong internet connection.

A lady sits at a desk, talking to the screen and a camera that is recording her is in shot

Hybrid conferences A blend of in-person and online elements, allowing attendees to participate either physically at the venue or virtually from their remote locations.

✅ Pros: Combines the benefits of both worlds, wider audience reach, and caters to attendees with varying preferences or travel constraints.

😞 Cons: Logistically complex to manage, requires additional equipment and technical support for the virtual component, and maintaining a seamless experience for both in-person and online audiences can be challenging.


Choosing the right format:

Consider these four factors when deciding on your conference format:

  1. Target audience: Where is your ideal attendee located? Are they comfortable with a virtual format, or is in-person interaction crucial for networking and the sharing of complex ideas?
  2. Budget: In-person conferences typically have higher costs due to venue rental, travel, and logistics.
  3. Conference objectives: What kind of interactions are essential for achieving your goals? Do presentations and networking require a physical space?
  4. Technical expertise: Do you have the team and resources to manage the technical aspects of a hybrid conference?
A film camera is in the foreground and on the display screen. you can see it's filming someone giving a talk on a laptop

Pro tip: ⚡Even if you decide not to go full hybrid, consider capturing some of the talks and discussions in audio format to share as podcasts. Having some key material to share with those who could not make it in person will widen your reach and bring in more attendees in the future!

Defining your audience

A well-defined conference audience ensures your content, format, and marketing efforts resonate with the right people, maximizing attendance and engagement. Consider the following:

  • Industry and niche: Focus on a specific industry or niche within an industry. This allows you to tailor the conference content to the targeted group.
  • Job titles and roles: Identify the specific job titles and professional roles most likely to benefit from attending your conference.
  • Experience level: Determine the experience level of your ideal attendee (beginner, intermediate, advanced)
  • Geographic location: Will your conference be regional, national, or international? Understanding your geographic target helps you determine the logistics of the event.
A hand holds up a small globe with mountains in the distance.

Conducting audience research:

  • Market research reports: Utilize industry reports and market research data to gain insights into your target audience's demographics, interests, and trends within the industry.
  • Social media listening: Monitor relevant industry hashtags and online communities to understand the conversations your target audience is having. This can reveal pain points, areas of interest, and the language they use to discuss relevant topics.
A group of people sit at a desk together discussing what's on screen. A whiteboard with post-it notes is in the background.

Pro tip: ⚡Take time to really understand what are the key challenges and pain points faced by your target audience and address them head on. Being passionate about solving problems or providing something they haven’t found elsewhere will position your event as an unmissable opportunity!

Budget & timeline

Establishing a realistic budget and crafting a detailed timeline are the cornerstones of successful conference planning. Let’s take a look at how to navigate these crucial steps:

1. Costing it out
Create a comprehensive list of all anticipated expenses.
Consider:

  • Venue rental
  • Catering
  • Marketing materials
  • Speaker fees,
  • A/V equipment rentals
  • Staffing costs
  • Permits and insurance
  • Contingency for miscellaneous expenses

2. Examine your revenue streams
Identify all potential sources of income for your conference. This might include:

  • Registration fees
  • Sponsorships
  • Exhibitor fees
  • Grants

3. Prioritize ruthlessly

✂️
Not everything on your initial wish list will make the cut. Analyze each expense and identify areas where you can optimize spending.

🆓 Free resource: Work planning platform Smartsheet offers a handy free conference budget template for those that are ready to dive into the details!

A woman's hands type into a calculator. She holds a pencil and there is a folder on the desk with her.

Timeline: Your roadmap to success

  • Work backwards: Start by pinpointing your desired conference date. Consider factors like industry event schedules, holidays, and potential venue availability. Once your date is set, work backwards on your timeline to ensure tasks are completed on time.
  • Set milestones: Break down your conference planning into manageable phases, each with its own set of deadlines.
  • Embrace flexibility: The unexpected is bound to happen. Build in buffer periods throughout your timeline to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.
A woman's hand holds a pen as she reviews a calendar printed onto paper.

🆓 Free resource: For the project manager on your team, Smartsheet offers a detailed Gantt chart conference project plan to take you through the detailed tasks in the immediate lead up to the conference, through to the days after.

Location, travel & technology

Venue selection

The venue you choose sets the tone for your entire conference experience, so choose wisely! Here's how to make sure it aligns with your overall vision and caters to your target audience:

  • Location, location, location: Prioritize convenience for attendees. Consider proximity to airports, public transportation options, and availability of nearby hotels.
An empty conference venue with sofa, tables and a stage with screen.
  • Space and Functionality: Ensure the venue can comfortably accommodate your expected number of attendees. The layout should be adaptable to your program needs, offering dedicated spaces for the items on your agenda.
  • Budget and Services: Some venues might offer all-inclusive packages with catering, staffing, and A/V equipment included, while others may require additional rentals.

Accommodation and travel

While the conference itself is the centerpiece, a smooth travel and accommodation experience significantly enhances the overall attendee satisfaction.

  • Partner with local accommodations: Negotiate discounted hotel room blocks with hotels near the conference venue.
A hotel swimming pool sits in front of a backdrop of high rise hotels at dusk
  • Transportation options: Compile and share comprehensive information about travel logistics on your conference website or mobile app.
  • Accessibility Considerations: Ensure your chosen venue and partner accommodations are accessible for attendees with disabilities.
A woman sits in a wheelchair doing work on a laptop in the window of a working space.

By offering clear guidance and facilitating a smooth travel and accommodation experience, you demonstrate your commitment to attendee well-being.

Technology & equipment
Technology plays a crucial role in creating a seamless and engaging conference experience. Here's what you need to consider to ensure your event runs smoothly:

  • Flawless audio and visuals Prioritize high-quality audio-visual equipment to ensure clear communication and impactful presentations.
    ❗Test all equipment thoroughly beforehand to avoid technical glitches during the conference.
A close up of a microphone with blurred stage lights in the background.
  • Reliable internet connectivity Modern conferences hinge on a strong and stable internet connection. Ensure the venue offers sufficient bandwidth to accommodate all attendees' devices and activities like live streaming, online registration, and social media engagement.

Pro tip: ⚡We hate to say it, but no matter how riveting your schedule, without fully engaging your audience their attention may drift. 💤Utilize live polling and interactive Q&A platforms to transform your conference from a passive experience into an engaging and interactive learning environment.

Step 2: Building the program

Scheduling, content & speakers

Building a conference program goes beyond just listing sessions. It's about creating a curated journey that maximizes attendee learning, engagement, and networking.

Content balance & flow

  • Balance information density: Intersperse heavy information sessions with shorter, interactive activities or breaks.
  • Theme & flow: Organize sessions around the conference theme and potentially sub-themes to create a clear path of knowledge progression. Guide attendees through a logical flow of topics.
  • Consider parallel sessions: If your budget and venue space allow, offering parallel sessions catering to different interests or experience levels can provide attendees with more choices.

Pro tip:⚡If you do go the route of parallel sessions, ensure there's no major scheduling conflict between highly anticipated presentations. Having to make frustrating choices can lead to disappointed attendees!

Speaker selection

Speaker selection can make or break a conference and has a huge impact on audience numbers. Choose speakers who are knowledgeable, engaging, and relevant to the conference topics. Inviting industry experts, thought leaders, and engaging presenters can captivate the audience and provide valuable insights.

A woman in black speaks to a crowd (out of view) with 2 laptops on stage with her.


Pro tip:⚡Far too often, conferences offer up a predictable, stale line-up. Inviting less experienced speakers keeps things fresh but is also a gamble, so try incorporating video submissions into your speaker vetting process to gain a richer understanding of their potential.

Optimizing attendee content engagement

  • Recorded options: Explore offering pre-recorded sessions for attendees who might face scheduling conflicts or want to revisit specific content later.
  • Live Q&A and polling: Incorporate live Q&A sessions and interactive polling to encourage audience participation and keep attendees engaged.
A panel host takes questions from the audience with two men sitting on stage behind him
  • Promote networking breaks: Schedule dedicated networking breaks throughout the conference. Consider incorporating icebreaker activities or facilitated networking sessions to encourage meaningful connections.

By thoughtfully crafting your conference program with these considerations in mind, you can create a stimulating and engaging experience that keeps your attendees fully engaged.

Abstracts and proposals

A successful conference hinges on captivating content. Here's how to cultivate a compelling speaker line-up through a well-managed call for speakers and a rigorous selection process:

  • Craft a clear call to action: Develop a detailed Call for Speakers (CFP) outlining the conference theme, desired presentation topics, submission guidelines, and important deadlines.
  • Streamline the submission process: Utilize online submission platforms to simplify the application process for speakers. This allows for efficient collection and organization of proposals.
  • Assemble a review team: Establish a qualified review committee composed of subject matter experts aligned with your conference theme.
A group of young professionals huddle around laptop together, looking engaged.
  • Prioritize audience needs: While speaker credentials are important, prioritize selecting content that directly addresses the needs and interests of your target audience.

By following these steps you can curate a conference program with high-quality content that informs, inspires, and engages your audience.

Sponsors & Exhibitors

Building a roster of sponsors and exhibitors is key to elevating your conference and bringing in funds. Target companies that align with your audience's interests. Reach out with creative proposals highlighting sponsorship benefits and exhibitor booth traffic.

Think win-win: showcase their brand while providing value to your attendees. Social media, targeted emails, and leveraging existing connections can all be part of your sponsor and exhibitor prospecting toolbox.

Two hands high five

Marketing and promotion

A stellar conference deserves a stellar audience. Here's how to craft a dynamic marketing and promotion strategy to get the word out and attract attendees eager to participate:

  • Tailored messaging: Develop targeted messaging that resonates with your specific audience.
  • Multi-channel marketing: Utilize a diverse marketing mix across various channels.
  • Lean on social proof: Showcase the value of your conference by highlighting confirmed speakers, past attendee testimonials, and sponsorship partnerships.
  • Build pre-conference hype: Build excitement leading up to the conference. Utilize social media to share sneak peeks of the program.
  • Offer early bird incentives: Encourage early registration by offering discounted tickets for a limited period. This creates a sense of urgency and can significantly boost attendance.
A woman shouts into a megaphone outside on the street.

By implementing a strategic marketing and promotion plan, you can spread the word about your conference effectively and set the stage for a successful and engaging event.

Step 3: Attendee experience

This explores essential tools, communication strategies, and pro tips to ensure your attendees have a positive and enriching experience.

Conference platform

A well-chosen conference platform or suite of tools acts as your virtual HQ — facilitating communication, engagement, and information sharing before, during, and after your event.

Types of conference platforms:

There are three main categories to consider:

  • Single event registration & payment pages: Platforms like Checkout Page offer easeful creation of event pages that can exhibit different ticket options, take attendee registration information and facilitate secure payments.
  • General-purpose website builders: These platforms, such as Squarespace offer flexibility for creating a basic conference website, but may lack features specifically designed for event management.
  • All-in-one event management platforms: These platforms, such as EventLeaf, are designed specifically for conferences and events, offering a comprehensive suite of tools for registration, communication, scheduling, and content delivery.

Pro tip: ⚡Checkout our in depth guide to The best event registration platforms [2024] to get a detailed breakdown of options, pros and cons.

Registration made easy

A smooth registration process is the first step towards a positive attendee experience. Here's how to design a user-friendly system that encourages sign-ups and minimizes friction:

  • Simple and clear platform: Utilize a user-friendly online registration platform with a clear and intuitive interface.
  • Focus on efficiency: Keep the registration form concise and request only essential information. Pre-populate fields where possible to minimize data entry and streamline the process.
Two women sit outdoors with coffee looking at a laptop together and smiling.
  • Multiple payment options: Offer a variety of secure payment options including credit cards, debit cards, and online payment platforms like PayPal to cater to different preferences.
  • Clear communication: Provide clear instructions and FAQs throughout the registration process. Keep attendees informed with confirmation emails containing important details.

Pro tip: ⚡A conference registration experience can make or break you in terms of making those all important first impressions. Nail it first time by checking out our guide, How to create a conference registration form & using our Conference registration and payment template which can be adapted to fit your needs.

Pre-conference communication

The communication doesn't stop after registration. Here's how to keep your audience informed and excited:

  • Welcome aboard: Send a personalized welcome email to registered attendees, providing essential information.
  • Fuel anticipation: Share engaging content related to the conference theme through email newsletters and social media posts.
  • Spark connections: Facilitate attendee networking before the conference by creating an online forum or dedicated social media group.
A woman sits facing a laptop and waving at whoever she is speaking to via conference call.
  • Logistics and reminders: As the conference date approaches, send reminder emails with important logistical details like venue location, parking instructions, and the conference agenda.
  • Address concerns: Establish a clear communication channel to address any questions or concerns attendees may have leading up to the conference.

By maintaining open communication and providing valuable information throughout the pre-conference phase, you can ensure attendees arrive informed and prepared.

Step 4: Conference logistics

On the big day/s, a seamless on-site experience is paramount to attendee satisfaction! Here's how to ensure your conference runs like clockwork:

  • Streamlined registration: Prioritize a swift and efficient registration process. Have enough staff on hand to handle attendee influx and minimize wait times.
  • Clear signage: Implement a clear and comprehensive signage system throughout the venue- directing attendees to registration areas, session rooms, exhibit halls, restrooms, and networking spaces.
  • Dedicated staff: Enlist a team of friendly and knowledgeable staff members to assist attendees throughout the conference. Staff should be well-versed in the program schedule, venue layout, and able to answer questions efficiently.
Two people stand with lanyards and clipboards at the entrance to a conference room.
  • Welcome amenities: Provide welcome amenities like lanyards with name tags, conference programs, and swag bags upon registration.
  • Exhibitor support: Offer dedicated support to exhibitors during set-up, breakdown, and throughout the conference.
  • Real-time communication: Utilize a conference app or social media platform to provide real-time updates on the schedule, room changes, and any last-minute announcements.

Step 5: Post conference

Evaluation & feedback

A successful conference isn't just about the event itself — it's about gathering valuable insights to improve future iterations. Here's how to effectively evaluate your conference and translate feedback into actionable steps:

  • Multiple feedback channels: Utilize a variety of methods to collect feedback from attendees, speakers, sponsors, and exhibitors.
  • Focus on metrics: Track key metrics beyond just attendance numbers. Analyze session popularity, engagement during presentations, networking activity, and overall attendee satisfaction.
  • Analyze the data: Once collected, carefully analyze the feedback data. Identify common themes and areas for improvement. Pay close attention to both positive feedback and constructive criticism.
Charts on paper sit next to a laptop, alongside colored pencils.
  • Implement improvements: Utilize the feedback you've gathered to shape your next conference. Refine the program, enhance logistics, and incorporate new ideas based on attendee suggestions.

Pro tip: ⚡Don't keep valuable insights locked away. Share key takeaways and actionable changes with your team, speakers, and sponsors. This transparency demonstrates your commitment to continuous improvement.

Speaker follow-up

Showing appreciation to your speakers goes beyond a simple thank you at the end of the conference. Here's how to cultivate lasting relationships with your speakers and build a thriving speaker community:

  • Personalized thank you: Send a personalized thank you email shortly after the conference.
  • Speaker recognition: Showcase your speakers' expertise beyond the conference. Share their presentations (with permission) on your website or social media platforms.
  • Invitation to future events: Extend an invitation to participate in future conferences as a speaker or advisor.
  • Speaker community building: Create a dedicated online forum or social media group for speakers to connect and share ideas.
A speaker stands on stage with blue lit curtains behind him.

Pro tip: ⚡Don’t forget to request feedback from your speakers on their experience at the conference. Many of them will have an insider perspective on other conferences in your field. Taking on their feedback will help you gain you a great reputation.

Sharing resources

Sharing valuable resources with attendees after the conference allows them to revisit key takeaways and continue their learning journey. Here's how to effectively distribute materials:

  • Post-conference thank you email with resources: This email should reiterate key takeaways, express gratitude for their participation, and include a clear call to action directing them to the platform where they can access conference resources.
  • Dedicated platform: Establish a central online platform accessible to registered attendees where they can easily download presentations, speaker handouts, and other conference materials.
  • Record and share sessions: Consider making conference recordings available to attendees post-event. This is valuable for those who might have missed sessions or who want to revisit specific content.

Pro tip: ⚡Why not consider sharing some of your conference material beyond your attendee list? Some conferences choose to host all or a subset of their talks on platforms like YouTube in order to widen reach and entice potential future attendees.

Reviewing financial performance

Last but definitely not least, analyzing the financial health of your conference and assessing the impact of your sponsorships are crucial steps to ensure future success.

A woman's hands with red nails work at a laptop. A spreadsheet is on screen and a calculator is next to her.

Financial performance breakdown

Start by gathering all your financial records, including registration fees collected, sponsorship payments received, exhibitor booth sales, and any funding secured.

Juxtapose these figures against your pre-conference budget, recording all expenses incurred. This will provide a clear picture of your profit margin and highlight areas where you may have overshot or underspent.

Pro tip: ⚡Analyze registration trends across pricing tiers to identify the most successful options and inform future pricing strategies.

Sponsor impact assessment

Evaluate how effectively your sponsors leveraged the conference platform. Review sponsor booth traffic, engagement with attendees during presentations or demonstrations, and social media mentions generated by sponsors throughout the event.

Lastly, be sure to reach out to sponsors for their feedback to understand their perspective on the overall value of their investment.

How to use Checkout Page to sell your conference

With its dedicated event page features such as ticket tier options and attendee registration form functionality, Checkout Page is a great option for those who want a seamless, intuitive no-code solution to take registrations and secure payments for their conference.

Let’s take a look at how simple it is to create an impactful event page that will create a slick, professional impression.

Step 1. Create your event checkout page

Select an event page type, give your event a title, add a date range, location, and set your event capacity:

Checkout Page form enabling you to select an event page and add key details such as title, dates and event capacity

Step 2. Add your ticket types

Checkout Page allows you to add as many ticket types as your conference requires, assigning them a price and quantity to ensure you don’t over book your venues capacity:

Checkout Page form enabling you to add ticket types for your event

Step 3. Choose your page type

Select different page layouts, as well as either a hosted page option or embed code for a website:

Checkout Page form enabling you to select from hosted or embedded page with layout options

Step 4. Add a description to your page

Add a description for your event that will grab peoples attention and give them a flavor of what to expect.

Checkout Page form enabling you to add a description of your event.

Step 5. Add images to your page

Add an image that represents your branding and conference theme.

Checkout Page form enabling you to add one or more images to your event page.

Step 6. Add custom registration fields to your event form

Customize elements of your form, enabling you to create a streamlined and effective registration process for you and your attendees.

Checkout Page form enabling you to add custom registration fields for your event

Step 7. Adjust colors to suit your branding

Checkout Page allows you to customize various elements of your page, so that you can tailor it to your brand and set the right tone for your event!

Checkout Page form enabling you to adjust the colors of your page to match your branding.

Step 8. Preview your page

Checkout Page shows a preview panel the whole way through the creation process. When you are happy with the feel and setup of your event page, you are ready to share it with your audience!

Checkout Page preview function

Step 9. Share your event page

Finally, when you are ready to share your event with the world, you can select from a hosted payment link, embed code for your website and a QR code option too for posters, flyers and more.

Checkout Page popup enabling you to share your event as a page link & QR code

Conclusion

Each step you take in your conference planning journey builds momentum towards an exceptional event. From defining clear goals and assembling a dream team to crafting an engaging program and attracting sponsors, your decisions will help shape an inspiring experience for your attendees.

To delve deeper into conference registration, don’t forget to check out our resources: How to create a conference registration form & Best event registration platforms [2024]

With effective planning and attention to your goals, your conference can be a catalyst for learning, collaboration, and lasting impact.

We’d love to be a part of your journey, so why not sign-up for our 7-day free trial and get a page setup in minutes with our conference event template.

Good luck!

Ready to start selling? Start your free Checkout Page trial—no credit card required.

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Sarah McCunn

Sarah McCunn

Sarah is a content writer with a passion for helping businesses grow. She enjoys creating content that helps businesses succeed and grow.


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