Jan 29, 2015
Conference Call

What’s better than attending an educational seminar to stay current in the field? Hosting one yourself.

By Art Horne

Art Horne, MEd, ATC, CSCS, is Associate Head Athletic Trainer and Strength and Conditioning Coach for Men’s Basketball at Northeastern University. He can be reached at: [email protected]

At Northeastern University’s Sports Medicine Department, professional development and continuing education are key components of our mission. We believe that keeping up to date in the field is critical to serving our student-athletes. To back up these words with action, we decided to put on a one-day sports medicine conference this past June.

The primary goal was to stage an event that would provide healthcare and strength professionals with the most up-to-date innovations and information in their field. We also wanted to foster a community of collaboration among all healthcare providers regardless of affiliation or title, which can lead to a more patient-centered approach to treatment.

Another goal was to raise funds for future continuing education projects. Although this was never the focus of the conference, we did achieve it.

These days, most of us face large workloads, which leaves very little time to spend on extra projects. However, by using strategic planning and asking others for help, we were able to make the conference a go. It benefited our staff by providing ongoing education, a chance to network, and a boost of energy from being part of a successful endeavor.

FIRST STEPS

Along with putting on a great conference, we also wanted to ensure that we didn’t spend too much time on its planning. With just two of us (Team Physician Gian Corrado, MD, and myself) on the planning committee, our first step was to use as many campus resources as possible. Since neither of us had any experience in conference planning, our initial meeting was with the Conference and Event Planning Office on our campus.

This meeting helped streamline our ideas and showed us all the details we would need to take care of. It also made us aware of additional campus resources such as graphic designers, print and sign shops, facility coordinators, and information technology personnel. We had not considered these services, but they all helped contribute to a successful conference.

With some starting knowledge under our belts, we were ready to make our first big decision: when and where to hold the conference. I would suggest determining this at least eight months in advance. While these decisions may not seem complicated, a host of important details need to be considered before setting the time and place.

In September 2006, we chose the following June 1 as the event date and booked an on-campus facility as the site. The date is one of the most important elements when attracting attendees and we thought about these factors beforehand:

• attendee availability • speaker availability • site availability • conflicting conferences or other events of interest • available time for appropriate planning.

We needed a date after athletic trainers were done with their spring sports seasons, but before they headed off for a well-deserved summer break. That led us to early June. We then looked at how this might conflict with the NATA annual convention, which was being held in Anaheim, Calif., in late June. A brief survey of colleagues in our area revealed that many would not be attending the NATA conference due to the distance to the West Coast. Therefore, early June 2007 seemed to be a perfect time to hold our local conference.

We also considered the day of the week. After working a lot of weekends throughout the school year, many athletic trainers would not be interested in taking up another Saturday with a work-related function, so we planned the event for a Friday. This did pose the problem of finding speakers who could leave their jobs on a Friday to give a presentation. But that was a risk we were willing to take.

Booking a conference space might not seem as important as choosing a date, but we quickly found that it was just as crucial. Factors to consider include:

Number of attendees: The space you choose should be able to hold more attendees than the number you expect to attend. People like to spread out and feel comfortable, especially if they are sitting for long periods. And if you allow people to register the day of the event (which obviously brings in more attendees), your space must be able to accommodate this. On the other hand, having a room or hall that is too large will make it feel as though the event is poorly attended even though your numbers may prove otherwise.

Hall and lobby space: Think about how much room you need for registration tables. If attendees have to wait in a long line in a cramped space to get their materials, the day will start on a down note.

You must also decide if you will need space for sponsors. Will you allow booths in exchange for the revenue they bring? Sponsors are key financially, but you’ll need an easily accessible area for them to set up booths. If your sponsors’ booths are not in a room immediately adjacent to other activities, your attendees will not visit them and the sponsors will not be happy about their involvement.

There are other factors to consider as well with regards to hall and lobby space. Will you need an area to provide food or refreshments before, during, or afterward? Will restrooms and any other needed amenities be close by? How will the traffic flow between all these different areas?

Technology: You should figure out what equipment will be needed and whether the meeting space provides it. Might your speakers present with PowerPoint or another computer application? Will you need to incorporate a microphone for speakers or questions from attendees? Will they be wired or wireless? What other technological challenges do you foresee?

Small details: Don’t forget the small but important factors that are affected by the space. For example, if you plan on conducting your conference in the summer, air conditioning is an important detail. Will the room need accessibility for people with disabilities? Is it important that the location be near public transportation and available parking?

We ended up utilizing a newly built campus facility with seating for about 225 people. It was centrally located on campus and gave us an opportunity to showcase one of the newest university facilities to the alumni in attendance. The lecture hall was equipped with state-of-the-art audio and visual equipment along with offering spacious accommodations for registration in the facility’s entrance, several lounge areas for networking and sponsor booths, and additional room for food and beverage tables.

FINANCIAL PLANNING

Planning the logistics of the space is actually a great catalyst to get you thinking about the next detail: the money. It’s important to formulate a budget so you don’t end up spending money you don’t–or won’t–have.

Your budget and financial planning should include the following:

• speaker fees, including their transportation and possibly hotel and meals • room or lecture hall fees • advertising • printed materials for attendees • continuing education certification materials and fees • food and refreshments, if you choose to serve them.

Your main source of income will be registration fees. We set our fee at $50 for professionals, with groups of four or more from the same institution paying $30 per person. The student fee was $15. We kept the cost below other area conferences in an effort to ensure a good turnout our first year.

Sponsors bring another source of income. We asked vendors and health-related facilities in our area if they would be interested in being a sponsor and many were. Consider area businesses you already have a relationship with such as bracing and supply companies, physicians’ offices, and diagnostic imaging services.

Our sponsorship donation was set at $500. Sponsors were given the opportunity to display their products or post banner advertising within our facility the day of the conference. They also received additional advertising in print and on our Web site.

During our first year, we decided to keep costs low and avoid luxuries such as post-reception gatherings or elaborate folders and printed materials for attendees. However, if you feel these would appeal to your audience and they will pay more for it, they can make a great impression. We also kept our advertising budget low by using a lot of word-of-mouth and posting our announcements in free or low-cost sources.

We decided to not spend money on speaker fees, at least for the first year. We were fortunate to have a wonderful group of physicians who understood our financial limitations and donated their time without cost.

Involving your school’s Webmaster will help further decrease your initial project cost. Utilizing the Web for advertising, speakers’ biographies, sponsor information, and conference registration will keep costs low, especially if you can accept on-line credit card payments. It will also provide a central location for questions to be answered without infringing on your valuable free time.

ENSURING GREAT CONTENT

Consider whether your conference will have a theme. This could mean, for example, focusing on one specific type of injury, with speakers addressing different aspects and approaches to treating that injury.

When just starting out, financial and other restrictions often make it difficult to unify your topic. But we did want to present some type of theme for our conference. Eventually, we decided on the title of “Distinguished Lecture Series in Sports Medicine” with lectures by prominent physicians in the Boston area. Four presented on orthopedic issues with a fifth speaking on cardiac conditions.

Other ideas can keep your subject matter somewhat open ended but within a specific category, like “Sport Performance” or “Evaluation and Treatment of Orthopedic Conditions.” Keeping the content general can make the day attractive to a wider audience, allowing you to draw attendees and speakers from a variety of professions and regions.

Finding quality speakers the first year is often a difficult task. Due to our low operating budget, our goal was to find the very best speakers who would be willing to lecture for free. We composed a short list of all-star physicians who specialized in a variety of sports medicine subjects and then set out to schedule them.

Dr. Corrado was instrumental in approaching and confirming these professionals. We chose speakers with a longstanding relationship with either our team physician or Sports Medicine Department, and they ended up being more than happy to contribute to our conference.

There were times when someone we approached was enthusiastic, but had a scheduling conflict. It was tempting to think about changing the conference’s date to accommodate that speaker, but we knew it was important to stick to our original plan. Regardless of the date you choose, you will not be able to accommodate everyone’s schedule.

If you book your conference eight months in advance, you will have ample time to find the best available speakers. Be sure to not only book them personally, but also have them mark that day in their surgical, personal, and appointment calendars as well, even if this means contacting their administrative assistant.

Once your speaker lineup is set, take the time to provide each presenter with some direction. Let the speaker know who your target audience is, the objective of your conference, and how long you expect them to talk. It may also be helpful to ask them for an outline of their speech to ensure the conference stays on track.

Finally, offer all presenters your assistance for whatever needs may arise. For us, the toughest request was to help accommodate their tight operating schedules. Each orthopedic physician was scheduled for surgery either before or after their respective lecture, making transportation to and from our event crucial. In response, we provided a shuttle to and from the physicians’ offices along with lunch for each.

A PERFECT DAY

The best plan for making the day of the conference go smoothly is to assume it won’t. There are hundreds of details to putting on a conference, and the key is to try to anticipate every glitch that could occur.

The number one issue is timing. The more exactly you can time everything, the less chance there will be problems. We started by thinking about the time slots for speakers. A good rule of thumb is to plan for each major speaker to deliver a 35 to 40 minute presentation, followed by a 10 to 15 minute question and answer period and a five to 10 minute break. This break allows the audience to stretch their legs and gives the next speaker time to prepare their materials on stage. It also allows you some flexibility if speakers go over their allotted time or if an interesting discussion breaks out during the Q&A portion.

Volunteers’ time should also be precisely scheduled. We enlisted the help of each staff member available on the day of the conference, organizing tasks in 15 minute increments. We distributed a detailed list of specific tasks within this breakdown so each staff member knew their particular duties. This allowed every person to see where they should be and what they should be doing at all times. We also delegated a few “organizers” who kept the list with them and checked it periodically.

In assigning tasks, we matched each volunteer’s strengths with jobs that worked best for them or they were passionate about. Staff veterans may be best utilized at the registration table while your staff “techie” should help direct the audio/visual component of the event. However, within this structure we made sure each staff member had down time throughout the day to sit with colleagues and take part in the conference.

We also asked staff members to help us think through any other logistics of the day. For example, the week prior to our conference we asked them to come up with various worst-case scenarios leading up to or during the conference. We then set off to prepare for each “disaster” or at least have an action plan ready. This small exercise paid huge dividends as it gave us incredible insight into expecting the unexpected.

For example, one suggested “disaster” was problems with attendee parking. Although being located in the center of Boston does have its advantages, available parking certainly is not one of them. In response, we made sure to give out information about the best available places to park, including directions and any associated costs.

One problem we did not foresee, however, was separating our pre-registered attendees from those who were signing up that day. This greatly slowed the flow of attendees entering the building, and subsequently delayed our start time. Pre-registration packets should be ready for distribution or be generic in nature so attendees may quickly grab a folder upon their arrival.

Regardless of your situation, there is one thing that has the potential to make any conference a true disaster: technical failure. While hiring support may be costly, if technical failure hits and your conference gets thrown off course, you will not only lose the focus and patience of your audience and speakers, you may also lose their attendance the following year. Hire a trained technician or be sure to have one available at a moment’s notice in case of problems. Give this person an agenda and be sure they understand their role and responsibilities for the day.

POST-EVENT TASKS As with all major initiatives, it’s important to conduct an autopsy immediately following. This should be done while the day is still fresh in the minds of the participants and those involved in its execution.

If your conference went smoothly, congratulations. However, if it is your first time around, there are sure to be at least a few bumps that need to be smoothed over if you want to make your conference an annual event. Attendees may overlook problems the first year, but if they see these problems again you may lose them entirely–and their referrals as well.

When reviewing the day, be sure not to sugarcoat feedback. Be prepared to deal with the brutal facts. Regardless of how the day went, participants and organizers will often tell you that everything went well. Probe deeper to get realistic feedback.

A questionnaire or suggestion box often works well. Sample questions include:

• What topics would you like to see presented next year? • Of all the topics presented today, which would you have not included and why? • How can we make next year’s event more pleasant for you?

Your next conference will only be as good as the adjustments you make. Every conference needs attendees to make it successful, and there is no greater factor to consider than customer satisfaction. Listen to the people who are buying your product and cater to their needs.

Sidebar: Where It Began

The seeds of our conference were planted several years ago when our sports medicine staff decided to put more emphasis on continuing education. We began by implementing a monthly in-house “staff journal club.” Each staff member is responsible for developing and implementing one journal club meeting per year, which allows us to explore and discuss nine or 10 different areas of interest each year.

The staff member is responsible for finding at least three evidence-based articles relating to their topic and distributing them to all staff members. We have covered topics including the sacroiliac joint, the overhead athlete, and concussion management, to name a few. Staff members can then extend invitations to other area professionals who would either benefit from attending or could offer a unique perspective on the subject.

Each journal club meeting begins with a brief review of the articles, followed by the responsible staff member moderating a one- to two-hour discussion based on five to seven guiding questions. Our journal club presents each of us with the most up-to-date evidence-based information while promoting a shared problem-solving environment among staff members.

As we progressed, the club grew to include outside physicians, on-campus professors of various academic interests, as well as fellow athletic trainers and physical therapists from other area colleges and universities. Many people initially invited due to their expertise still continue to frequent our meetings.

Our club’s success gave us the idea and the confidence to put on a one-day conference. We saw the energy created by getting a group of people together to discuss their passion and knew it could turn into something more.


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