Author: Marjana Skubic
Let’s say you would like to organize a virtual conference next year that would last 3 consecutive days and provide an unforgettable experience for the attendees. How many resources do you think you would need for organization, what would your project budget be, and when would you kick-off the project to finish preparations on time? My first guess would be forming a team of at least 3 volunteers as generalists, to arrange financing for the event by raising sponsorship money and starting no later than 1 month before the event. Being a part of the team that organized the conference TIE 2021, I can describe the behind-the-scenes experience why this thinking was a shot in the dark. By reading this article you will find out how the ideal team size of 3 grew to 10 team members, how all the sponsorship money was spent, and how the organization of the event took 4 months instead of ideally just 1.
Many readers of this article are already familiar with the annual Together in excellence conference (TIE), organized by two non-profit organizations PMI Slovenia, Ljubljana Chapter and itSMF Slovenia, IT Services Association, with the aim of propagating knowledge on the most current project management and IT service management practices. TIE conference exhibits quality multi-discipline content, presented by worldwide recognized foreign and national experts. The emphasis of this year’s conference (2021) was on the new COVID-19 reality we live in, initially driven by digital transformation and accelerated by the pandemic situation. Conference days were thematically oriented around strategy, well-established basic concepts, and good practices. The greatest takeaway from the conference was being able to answer two important questions: how to address the challenges we are facing now and in near future, and how to make the right moves and gain positive results in these kinds of difficult and unforeseen situations. Experts also provided concrete tips and practical solutions.
Due to the pandemic situation, the TIE conference was held virtually for the second year in a row. And hosting a virtual conference can be more challenging than hosting an in-person event in several respects. Virtual events might save a lot of time and factor out most of the presenter’s costs like travel and accommodation, and other conference costs like venue, catering, additional staff, printing branded elements, etc. But this new reality brought up new concerns about how to stand out in the flood of other free virtual events, and how to make networking even better than if it were in-person. With that in mind, there were some key questions to be answered before the work started: What is the best on-line event hosting platform currently available on the market that meets our needs, and is the price of that service a deal-breaking expense? Is technical support available? What is the expected number of attendees, will tickets be free or paid, how will it be paid, how will attendees receive notifications, and conference links? There were other questions too, but one was already answered. We could not do the conference without including sponsors. By doing that, the conference is not just about the conference's program or attendee experience, but also the best possible virtual promotion of sponsors.
Why start with organization early, 4 months before the event, and not only 1? When the event goes live, the conference program and timing must be followed, and technical interruptions and other risks associated with this must be considered, in addition to the time needed to raise as much sponsorship funding and sell as many tickets as possible. Managing these risks means forming a cross-functional team with expertise in project management, marketing, IT support, graphic design, finance, research, etc. in a way that at least two team members would take care of key operations in case something goes wrong. To wrap up the answer, adding members to a team, adding new technical and marketing tools in operations, having less control over the agile work done and dealing with ad hoc responses to risk all adds up to the complexity of work. As much as it may seem, no two conferences are the same, and there are processes that you just can't speed up. Furthermore, the team mainly consisted of volunteers, so it is quite important that team members enjoy working with each other, to receive the maximum great working experience, make new professional connections, to share positive orientation, and are proud of work done for all stakeholders involved.
How can you size up a team from starting 3 to 10 members at the time of event? You can say, »Having such great working experience, many would like to join? « Answering this question is not easy. As mentioned before, the organization of the conference required many cross-functional experts, and some were narrowly oriented. Because PMI Slovenia and itSMF Slovenia gained supporters and lessons learned from previous TIE conferences, it was not hard to get the required resources on a necessity basis. Some good examples of that practice were tasks of preparing the contracts for sponsors, moderating speakers at the event, communicating with world known keynote speakers and lecturers like Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez, Dr. Don Page, Charles Aruajo, David Cannon, Priya Patra and many more. The marketing and IT support team covered most of the operational work with a self-organizing, overall transparent, and collaborative approach. After initiation and planning processes, some roles were transformed when needed, in principle “if you are free, you can at least do the testing part”. On operational meetings the project manager was not needed but appeared during test exercises, the graphic designer joined the meetings at the end, just to receive further instructions, and the contracted video production specialist joined just two weeks before the event for pre-production. As the conference date was approaching, meetings were daily and fully present. The last team member was added for IT support on the event not long before the start. On D Day the team saw very little of the conference. The team had to support the on-line event platform, communicate with speakers and moderator behind the stage, support latecomers, engage with the attendees to fire up chat discussion and provide schedule orientation, make sure everything runs smoothly and end with a virtual after party.
In terms of the cost of an in-person event, the presenter and conferences costs were lower, but the ticket price for a virtual event was also not as high, which was made very affordable with a special discount for members of PMI and itSMF and a free pass for students. Although income was lower, the conference program was excellent as always, with appealing presentations and even sponsors did not miss the opportunity to stand out. The conference was sponsored by 1 golden sponsor, 5 silver sponsors, 4 bronze sponsors, 1 partner, 2 PMI collaborating chapters, 1 media partner, and conference's organizers. Direct costs included the on-line event hosting platform service, the ticketing system, speakers, video production contract services, marketing contract services, and moderator fees. The total expenditure came very close to budget, but the money was spent.
It was an exciting and fun event and participants were very satisfied with the presenters and the experience shared. The sponsors should be out as key supporters. The conference survey responses were unanimous - everyone wants an event in 2022, so see you at the next Together In Excellence conference! Please join as PMI volunteers to discover the behind the scene activities and gain a greater perspective on project management. You can read more about the past conferences here: https://togetherinexcellence.si/