A tale of two conferences

This week, I was involved in two conferences, TEALfest and ucisa Spotlight on Digital Capabilities. This post is a reflection, therapy, warning and advice for anyone considering organising their own conference.

Don’t do two conferences at the same time

This ought to be obvious but it bears repeating. Do not schedule two conferences at the same time.

The dates for my conferences were not up to me. TEALfest had already been decided and Spotlight was based on a number of factors beyond my availability.

Get as much support as possible

Sian Thomas was an absolute godsend. Sian and the team at ucisa did all the work for our Spotlight conference. We put forward some names and suggestions but they did all the heavy lifting. Contacted speakers, arranged the programme, setting up the Teams space, sending out invitations and reminders, holding speaker pre-event run throughs and tech support on the day. For Spotlight, there was also the rest of the committee to support it.

For TEALfest, at times, it was just Jessica Humphreys and me. I don’t recommend it. Website, forms, emails, programme, Teams, appointments etc. we did it all.

Thankfully, during the week we had the support of Dr Robert O’Toole, Jim Judges and Sara Hattersley to chair sessions. Without them, it would have been hell!

The committee has to contribute

Be careful about who you work with on a conference. People love the idea of running a conference but not the hard work it requires. So, surround yourself with good people. Be clear about responsibilities, actions and deadlines. If someone isn’t contributing, they don’t deserve the recognition. Kick ’em out.

The platform makes a huge difference

Teams has been a royal pain in the arse. I have loved using Teams this year, I actually prefer it to Zoom, but ******* hell this week has been testing.

Teams is fine if you’re internal to Warwick. For externals, it’s been a nightmare. Ironically, existing teams users have had the worst time of it. The tenancy not showing in their list, missing chat despite being a team member etc.

Microsoft know about these problems but haven’t done anything about them.

Teams is also a nightmare as the way you set up a meeting will permit different things and work differently depending on the context. It’s incredibly frustrating.

We went back and forth about how to do it. We didn’t get it right.

Unless Teams makes some significant improvements, we won’t be using it again. I can see why so many look to Zoom. I really can.

Navigation is key

As it is in ‘real-life’, moving around a conference and finding the next session is key. We didn’t get that right. We tried a Word document in the team with direct links, channel meetings and channel calendars but it was still painful. Sometimes Teams will send a calendar invite, other times not.

An online programme, accessible only to those who registered, would be my suggestion. However, Teams isn’t great with direct links so we couldn’t do that.

Leave time for wees and teas

Make sure you leave time between sessions for people to ‘move’ and for comfort breaks. You might have to limit the number of sessions, but it’s for the best.

Your opening session will set the tone

Usually, conferences open with a big keynote speaker. We didn’t do that for TEALfest. We opened instead with a welcome session. We introduced the conference and had some games planned. In the end, we split people in to breakout rooms and we just had a nice chat. We got to know one another.

That really set the tone for the rest of the week. Attendeees joined in discussions, were open, shared and supported on another.

Create time and space for networking and discussion

Although there is time in each session for questions and discussion, try to provide as much time as possible. More than you think necessary.

We tried to create discussion sessions and there was plenty of it, but the after session conversation as you move sessions and the evening pub debriefs were sorely missed.

Have fun

Make time for fun. Jim Judges and Sara Hattersley did two sessions that were fun. You learned something but it was done in a fun and creative way. These fun sessions were a much needed break in a serious programme.

Speakers and attendees will make or break it

If sessions are bad, and there’s nothing you can do to predict that, then that will be reflected in the feedback.

It used to be the quality of lunch, but not so online.

If your attendees are open, willing to share and participate, then you’re golden.

Don’t be hard on yourself

You will wish, multiple times, that you’d never had the idea in the first place.

But remember, things will go wrong and you will never please everyone.

Try not to beat yourself up.

Do it anyway

It is likely to be one of the most stressful things you’ll ever do but despite that, do it anyway.

The satisfaction you will get for completing it is second to none.

Seriously. Do it.

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