The Devil is in the Details: Principles for Running Large Events

Every once in a while, I get an email, DM, or meeting that starts with the question: How did/do you run _____ (fill in event name)? A few weeks ago, I spent a hour consulting with a team of people who are getting ready to begin planning an international conference on digital humanities/digital media. They rang me up because for two years, I ran the conference they are now planning along with a colleague. Basically, I ran through the event planning process from beginning to end, shared with them copies of all the conference documents (planning docs, budgets, schedules, letters, contracts, etc), and agreed to advise them as they go through their execution of the next conference.

Just a couple of days ago, during a review meeting for the upcoming Humanities Intensive Learning & Teaching Institute, a colleague remarked that the details often make the difference between a ho-hum event and a great experience. I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “the devil is in the details” as a result and thought I’d share a bit of details work that goes into running large (e.g. more than 100 people) events. I’m also writing this up because in line with co-presentation with Trevor Muñoz at DH2014, I’m trying to make the work of being a digital humanist more public. For me, a significant component of my work comprises the intellectual and logistical work of planning and running large digital humanities (or even humanities) events. So here are some simple principles to follow when planning a large event. If I have time later on this month, I’ll try to elaborate the individual details that went into HILT but this should serve as a good guiding document to anyone looking to get started.

Principle 1: Decide What Type of Experience You Want Attendees to Have

Hosting a large academic event is, for me, like planning a wedding. There are elaborate weddings with doves and horse-drawn carriages; Simple weddings with just the bride and groom and the officiant; And every type of wedding in between. So, I like to start by thinking about what type of experience I want an attendee to have and assigning percentages in my head:

How much time should go into providing attendees with content/information? For conferences, this might be the number of presentations or panels. For a training institute or workshop, it is the number of contact hours.

And how much time should go into socializing/networking? Usually this comes in the form of social events (lunches, dinners, happy hours, dine arounds).

Also, what is unique about your location/experience? For the last three years, I’ve been here in Washington DC with all that it has to offer. HILT this year reflects that location. We have set up a number of behind the scenes to DC cultural heritage organizations that do double duty. Attendees will socialize and learn something new at the same time. But at previous events, we’ve used unique venues or even unusual natural geographical features that will impress attendees and give them something to talk about later.

Generally, my rule of thumb is that any event should be 60% learning, 20% socializing, and 20% unique events.

Principle 2: Determine How Much Space You Have

One of the biggest issues you run into when planning large events is space. You should determine at the outset how much space you have available for your event and assign it into groupings. Space is determined by three criteria: 1) Is it free? 2) Is it flexible space (e.g. are there use limits like no food or furniture that can’t be moved); 3) If I have to pay for it, how much is it going to cost and what are the contract terms? I group available spaces according to type and list it in order of quality. Importantly, I reserve all of the spaces possible as early as possible so long as there are no penalties for cancellation. I’d rather have to cancel spaces then do a last minute hunt for space.

Using the University of Maryland as our example, it is really hard to get computer labs that can accommodate more than 25 people…and dual boot labs are almost impossible to reserve. So, we cap both class size (20 students maximum) and the number of classes (10) in part because we have a limit to the number of computer labs and the number of quality rooms.  I reserve those spaces 12 months prior. Before we’ve finished this year’s event, I pull spaces for next yet. Note the issue of quality—there are tons of classrooms available on campus, but most of those aren’t classrooms that I’d want to teach in or lecture from. Free can sometimes mean low-quality.

Principle 3: Limit Decision Making

Large events can be a time-sink for organizers. One of the first questions to ask yourself is what your own strengths are as an organizer? Do you have a large network of people you can rely on? Are you a details person? Do you like big ideas and can help guide teams of people? These may sound like stupid questions but the reality is that a large event lives and dies on having both great ideas and polished execution of details. And the more people to discuss decision making with, the more time planning an event can take.

For this reason, I rarely ever run a large event without a co-director who can balance out my skills and who is committed to the event. I love details, organizing them, checking them off my to-list, tracking their status, etc. I find it psychologically satisfying to get things done. But sometimes because I’m detail-focused, I can forget the big picture of the type of experience I want attendees to have. So, hence, I usually like to partner with someone who is big-picture oriented. That person works details at a more abstract level and can become the voice of reason regarding things like special events or problems that crop up along the way.

Interestingly, though, one principle I stick to is to limit the number of people on the immediate organizing/planning team. For HILT this year, we’ve got an immediate planning team of two (my co-director and myself) that is supported internally by two other people. Our business director Michelle Pridmore handles all the university paperwork (honorarium processing, contractual agreements, and balancing our books). Our graphic designer Kirsten Keister handles all the graphics and swag work. She did our logo, our initial website, and designs all the t-shirts and other goodies we give away. They are both super reliable and are really good at executing their duties. I assign them what I need them to do with a due date and get it back done completely and perfectly.

Outside of MITH, we tap contractors to help us out. This year, we’ve got two housing people (one for campus dorms and one for our hotel block), one tech person (for our computer labs in McKeldin Library), one transportation guy (for our shuttle bus) and a handful of vendors we are using for meals. Generally, I send them requests, they execute, and we iterate as needed. But by and large, they care nothing about the event and don’t know anything about any other planning details other than their own.

Trevor and I get advice from others (former and current instructors, UMD folks, etc) but all decisions are made by the two of us. If we disagree, we debate it, set a deadline for a decision, and (if needed) rotate whose turn it is to “win”. We also try to make decisions as early as possible…even if it means we may need to revisit them later on. Usually those decisions will hold up over time. If they don’t, we at least have a fall back if need.

Principle 4: Create Teams with Specific Tasks

Even though I’ve just told you I prefer very small planning teams, the reality is large events usually also have large organizing teams. So, as principle four, create teams with a clear reporting line. Once you’ve decided on the type of experience you want people to have you should create teams. Often they are: programming, housing, publicity/promotions, business, space, etc.

No matter what teams you create, one person should be in charge of organizing the team and reporting on their efforts back to the primary organizer(s). Importantly, the primary organizer should create a rules of the road for each team that spells out their specific tasks and due dates for those tasks. For HILT, we use a combination of basecamp and google docs…as well as my brain since we are such a small group. But for other large events, asking teams to do their work inside something like basecamp is useful for monitoring purposes. You need the teams to talk to one another but you don’t want to be the one doing that talking for everyone. So, use technology to your benefit. This way, if someone has an issue everyone can weigh in as needed.

Principle 5: Have An Ultimate Authority

Just like a wedding where the mother of the bride and the mother of groom can each want their say, so too can large events turn into political nightmares where everyone wants things done their way. In my time, I’ve seen some major politicking around even the tiniest of decisions—like what types of coffee will be served and when. That kind of nitpicking might be important but it can also cause major problems.

For this reason, every large event needs an ultimate authority who can operate with the largest measure of autonomy. Sometimes, that ultimate authority is one of the primary organizers but it can also be someone outside the planning process who serves as mediator/ombudsman. Everyone on the planning team needs to agree when they join that the ultimate authority is just that—ultimate. You might not like the decision but you’ve gotta move on.

Principle 6: Have a Budget and Stick to It

I’m always amazed at the number of people who start planning a large event by talking about how to raise money. I start planning a large event by figuring out what the cost is for the bare minimum of an event AND how to cover that cost only through registration fees or gratis services. That bare minimum is usually the 60% content portion of the event. How much will it cost to bring X number of speakers, use X number of spaces, pay for X number of name badges etc.

Once I figure out that bare minimum, I then have to figure out how many attendees I would need to cover the costs of the 60%. For conferences, you can usually count on 60% of attendees from the previous year attending an event. That figure can go up or down based on location, travel costs, and time of year, but for planning purposes, if last year’s event brought in 200 people, you can figure this one will bring in 120 or so.

If you are just running an event for the first time, I generally ask others who have run events of the same type what they’ve had in terms of attendance figures. Another good way to ballpark attendance is to just ask your social network informally whether they’d attend an event at the time and location you are planning for.

Once I’ve got an attendee estimate, I then add on the 20% budget for socializing and the 20% budget for special events. At that point, I’ve got a break even cost that I need to meet with the number of attendees and the income per attendee. At that point, I then start seeking donations to drop costs for the attendees. This can be in whatever increments work best for you. Don’t forget though that you can ask for non-monetary support.

Space can be very expensive. Every dollar that I have to use to pay for space is a dollar that I have to charge an attendee. And spaces you have to pay for often come with hidden costs. For example, last year, we had to pay for our banquet space, plus the A/V, plus use the required campus caterer (who charged us a premium compared to other local caterers). We also had to pay for staffing to manage the space even though all they did was stand along the wall and stare at us. Was the banquet good? Yes, it was. But was it worth the costs and hassle…I don’t believe so. So this year, we’ll use a free space offered by our library instead of a paid space on campus.

If you are lucky enough to bring in tons of donations or revenue, fold it back into the event by covering additional things (more meals, coffee, housing, swag, etc) or by creating opportunities for new attendees (scholarships and awards).

Principle 7: Keep Good Records

When planning a large event, you should keep a record of everything…and by everything I mean every instance of contact, response, etc. between anyone involved in the event. For example, for speakers, I keep a copy of the invite, but I also note in a spreadsheet when that invite went out, when the decision was reached, what the decision was, and then I itemize every piece of logistics that I have related to that person. I keep all the emails and a digital copy of every piece of paperwork they fill out (in case something gets lost—which happens more than I’d like). It all goes into a folder on my hard drive by person. I do the same thing with every contractor, agreement, etc.

Part of the reason why you should keep good records is because it allows you—often months later—to remember when you did something or what someone else said about it. This is key if you need to dispute a contract or if there is disagreement about what your event is going to do. One of my favorite ways good records can save you is that sponsors sometime forget they committed to giving you money or resources. This is particularly true of University departments that might have change-over in leadership and staff. Written commitments can smooth the way so you don’t have to have an awkward follow up with some new person in a department.

Principle 8: Fix the Things that You Hate about Other’s Events

One of the principles I always stick to is that getting to plan a large event is an opportunity for me to fix the things that I hate about other academic events. For example, it drives me nuts that many events don’t put twitter handles on name badges; yet we use twitter as a primary method of communication in our field. Another one is I really truly prefer practical swag. I’ve got so many special cups, bags, stickers, etc. with no place to put them. So, when I plan a large event, I try to come up with at least one seriously practical thing that I’d use every day. HILT this year has two: the cocoon grid-it and the post-it notebook. You can never have too many post-its and I’m always trying to wrangle cords in my various bags.

One final thing about this principle—just because you hate something doesn’t mean other attendees will. If I had my way, we’d start everything at 10 am local time. I’m not a morning person. I’d also never have parallel talks…I hate parallel talks because unfortunately, I usually pick the wrong one to attend. But the reality is that parallel talks are a necessity and you’ve only got so many hours in the day. So, I admit I won’t win these two and don’t even try to organize around these ideas.

Principle 9: It is all about how you make people feel

Despite everything I’ve written thus far, principle 9 is the make or break one. There are three things that large events make their reputation on: 1) clear communication and easily navigable information (you better have a good website that is clearly organized and up to date); 2) reliable wifi; 3) plentiful food and drink.

The quote is that armies march on their stomachs. The reality is academics march on their stomachs while tweeting about it. You can never have enough food or coffee or enough wifi logins or instructions.

Principle 10: You’ll never make everyone happy

The final principle is the most painful one. You and your team can put thousands of hours into planning an event and cross-check a thousand details and there will still be people who won’t be happy. At previous events, I’ve had people complain about the weather (which I don’t control), the traffic (which I had nothing to do with), and even that there wasn’t any event staff available to take them to the local eye doctor’s (I kid you not).

There are things you can control and you should do your best…but you should also remember that there are things outside your control. Do your best, apologize where needed, and breathe through it. I try to remember that some people don’t handle large events well or have anxiety about _____ (fill in the blank) and I can only apologize and move on. I try to learn something from every event but also be realistic about what I can do with the budget and constraints of the event.

If I had my way, every event would be free and we’d cover housing and travel as well. But I’m not independently wealthy nor does my institution support Conferences and Large Events. I’ve done completely free events where we covered all that and people still weren’t happy. The soda wasn’t cold enough; the coffee was too hot; the chairs too uncomfortable. Whatever. Do what you can and move through.



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