In my role as the 2015 co-chair of the BIO International’s educational planning committee, I am privy to what goes into creating one of our industry’s largest annual events. As many of you are involved in organizing your own customer educational programs (e.g., The Emerson Exchange) or have been asked to serve on an event planning committee, I thought a behind the scenes look into how BIO goes about the process would be helpful to your efforts. Here are some of the best business practices I have witnessed thus far.
Tic, Toc, Don’t Waste Your Time Planning Clock
Though the BIO International conference is eight months away, the folks at BIO are not wasting any time in preparing. In fact, preparation for 2015 began long before the 2014 program even took place. For example, I was asked about serving as co-chair back in 2013. BIO’s approach to creating attendee centric content begins with evaluating data from the 165 sessions held last year and comparing it to years previous. The BIO team evaluates how many people attended each session and the titles of attendees. The team also reviews speaker/presentation ratings, as well as many other important pieces of data to better plan for this year. In 2014, the 4,782 registrants attended an average of 2.9 educational sessions. The folks at BIO realize the value you place on your most precious, limited and non-renewable resource — time. So prior to sending out a request for session submissions from life science key opinion leaders, the folks at BIO put together a planning committee of your peers to review and grade sessions — a responsibility they don’t take lightly. So best practice number one if planning your own event is to start early. Best practice number two, seek input from previous attendees. Putting on an event for the first time doesn’t alleviate you of the responsibility to seek input. Though you can’t poll your attendees until after the fact, you can at least reach out to key organizations in your space for insights on what people attending their event might want. I am sure the folks of conferences like BIO, CPhI, DIA, ISPE and others would gladly help you with insights on what attendees like, mistakes to avoid, as well as best practices for collecting data from your guests. Best practice number three of planning an educational event is putting together a committee. Here are some insights on how BIO does it.
Best Practices Of Building A Program Planning Committee
Even if you are planning a small event, you should still have a planning committee of experts to help. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking you know what your audience wants or needs to hear. However, taking this approach can be disastrous. Always keep in mind that you are not the target audience. Remember the 2001 Pontiac Aztek automobile? Market researchers warned GM leadership not to build the notoriously ungainly vehicle. However, executives at GM thought they knew better. Today the Pontiac Aztek is best remembered as one of the 50 worst vehicles of all time. Is this a similar legacy you would want for your event?
In putting together a committee, seek to create one that is diverse. For example, this year’s BIO educational planning committee has 42 members, which include people from academia (e.g., University of Pennsylvania), biotech (e.g., Celgene), consultants and law firms (e.g., Cooley LLP), economic development offices, investment (e.g., BioAdvance), pharma (e.g., AstraZeneca), press (e.g., The Pink Sheet), regulatory (e.g., FDA) and vendors (e.g., Quintiles). As one-third of BIO’s attendees are international, BIO planners were sure to also include people based internationally on the committee. So the best practice is not only to create a committee that can help you plan, but to be sure it is diverse and representative of your audience. Another benefit of having a committee is it helps to share the work load. BIO conducted 165 sessions last year. But how many were submitted for consideration? Though the sessions are divided into five broad tracks, if you conservatively estimate that there were 250 submissions, this means your committee members will be reviewing and grading 50 proposals each on a volunteer basis. Having many hands makes lighter the work.
How To Get Your Committee To Engage
I got to meet approximately two-thirds of the 2015 planning committee in person at our first planning meeting in Philadelphia. This is another best practice — bringing your committee together for at least one in-person meeting. You can learn a lot from meeting face to face. For example, during the introductions at our first planning meeting we eschewed the traditional approach of conducting a thorough review of everyone’s qualifications. Instead, we introduced ourselves by name, title and company, and concluded with a quick personal fun fact. While you might think it silly knowing someone’s a musician, a twin, or a do it yourselfer, this approach appeared to open the door for a very interactive meeting. I am told by the folks at BIO that this was the most interactive planning meeting they had ever experienced. Perhaps we just happen to have a group of highly committed people. But I like to think BIO’s approach of creating an atmosphere where people learned something interesting about their committee colleagues beyond where they went to school succeeded in setting the stage for folks to feel free to share and engage.
We captured some great ideas at this year’s planning meeting beyond those which will benefit the BIO 2015 conference. For example, Spiro Rombotis, president and CEO of Cyclacel Pharmaceuticals asked, “What happens to session proposals that aren’t accepted?” Rather than simply reject, he proposed referring these to the state and regional BIO organizations to help with their local educational planning events. You may be thinking, if it isn’t good enough for BIO, then why bother. But consider this: BIO has a goal of only accepting proposals which rate a “5” on their 1 to 5 grading scale. Just because a session rates a 4.5 and doesn’t make the cut, doesn’t mean it might not be highly valuable and should be repurposed.
Don’t Discount The Value Of Meeting Face-To-Face
Though nearly one-third of this year’s program planning committee had to attend our first meeting via webinar/conference call, I imagine attendance at our second planning meeting will be much higher. I am sure folks listening on the phone gained a sense of the high level of engagement taking place at the in-person meeting. When people are excited and engaged, it’s contagious and people want to be a part of it. This is best achieved with face-to-face interactions. Though in-person meetings come at a cost, here are a few suggestions to reduce your expenses. Book your program planning committee meeting either immediately before or better yet, after your event. If your event moves around, try to get thought leaders from the surrounding geography to participate. It is much easier for time constrained folks to commit their time to helping when it is within a reasonable driving distance. A benefit of having an in-person meeting is it provides an opportunity for innovative thinking and the green housing of ideas. It also gives you the opportunity to create excitement among your committee who is volunteering their valuable time to help. Finally, it gives you the opportunity to clearly communicate their role and responsibilities, timeliness and deadlines, as well as the tools to be used for them to be able to successfully fulfill their commitment.
If you have not yet committed to submitting your session idea you still have time. BIO recently announced extending the deadline for you to submit your proposal to October 8, 2014 at 5 pm EST, which you can do here. In addition, if you want some other insight on best practices for planning a conference, here are some additional resources.