In 1982, my husband and I began working for Findhorn Foundation, a non-profit education center in Scotland, founded in the early 1970s. During the years when I worked there, in the 1980s and 1990s, the organization employed more than 100 staff and catered to several thousand visitors per year. Typically, during the period May – September the center was fully booked with 150 – 200 residential visitors, most of them staying one or two weeks.
During the 1970s and 1980s Findhorn Foundation gained its reputation within the UK and beyond as a place of innovative thinking and experimental activities in the realm of ecology, alternative economics, organic farming, new scientific discoveries, social change and spiritually oriented exploration. By the 1990s annual visitors numbering several thousands came from Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, Japan and many other countries.
In addition to working as a workshop leader, I loved being part of teams that organized conferences. Here I will describe how we organized and led these events. I speak in past tense because I no longer work there; however, Findhorn Foundation continues today to organize exceptional gatherings. Go ahead and read this article and taste the thrills we experienced when we led these events. You may be inspired to use these ideas in your own activities. Enjoy sampling:
- The overall skills involved in organizing a conference
- Insight into initial development of purpose and content of a conference
- The task of engaging speakers
- How to build a conference organizing team
- How to manage conference logistics
- The art of registration of delegates
Conferences and courses were advertised in brochures that were regularly sent out to an increasing address list of previous and prospective visitors. Promoting conferences was thus a fairly straightforward activity and happened mainly via the brochures and through word of mouth. Additionally, magazines, television and radio programs across Europe regularly carried reports on the center’s organic farming practices, at the time seen as part of the spearheading of the movement to grow food naturally.
The media interest amounted to a great deal of free publicity, building expectations among the public, especially around Europe. The education management of Findhorn Foundation listened to feedback from visitors and responded by creating programs that fulfilled the expectations of the times.
Thus, my experience is that organizing an international conference is a feasible task for an organization with an established purpose and field of interest. The organization needs to have a following that is large enough to support the planned event.
The first conference I helped organize, in 1984, was titled “The New Economic Agenda.” “From Organization to Organism” followed a couple of years later, and “Intuitive Leadership” in 1990. The New Economic Agenda engaged around 20 speakers, mostly from within the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States and Canada. It attracted around 350 participants, which means it was fully booked, as this was the maximum number our meeting venue, The Universal Hall, could accommodate. The participants came from many countries around the world, mainly countries representing western culture. My role on the organizing team of around ten people was to assist the main organizers with overall logistics work and internal communication.
At my second project, the conference “From Organization to Organism,” I served in a similar capacity on the organizing team. This time I also assisted with hosting speakers and detailed workshop logistics. The conference attracted a huge interest and was fully booked well in advance.
What I learned from these two conference projects came to use when I became the main logistics organizer of the third project, the conference “Intuitive Leadership” held in October 1990.
Conference organization – the conception
A Swedish management consultant, Jan Backelin, advisor to major Swedish banks and Sweden’s state-owned telephone company, attended our conference “From Organization to Organism.” A friend of his, advisor to agriculture and forestry associations in Sweden, also participated in the event. The conference inspired these two consultants to return to Stockholm, Sweden, and found a business association promoting the benefits of infusing daily business work with love, joy and cooperation. Within a few years, the association grew to include more than a thousand business people.
One of the two founders, Jan Backelin, proposed the idea that Findhorn Foundation should host a one week conference on the theme of intuitive leadership. The plan was approved by the Findhorn Foundation management. Jan was invited to serve as convener and plan the content together with Roger Benson, at the time member of the management team at Findhorn Foundation. I accepted the invite to serve as the main logistics organizer. A team usually begins at least one year in advance to organize a conference, since a wide range of activities are involved in making a conference a success.
I began working on the conference titled Intuitive Leadership in September 1989, just over one year before the event was to be held. I reported to the director of the Findhorn Foundation Education committee, Eric Franciscus.
The development of the purpose and content of the conference
What does it take to put together a conference with hundred or more people? The hard work over many months includes scheduling of speakers’ presentations, discussions and workshops, registration of delegates, sorting out catering, accommodation, transport between venues and much more. However, the most crucial effort is in the initial phase, where the core purpose and aim of the gathering is conceived. At the earliest stage, organizers need to ask themselves the deepest questions: Why? Why should we organize this conference? What do we want to accomplish by organizing it? Before any other details are discussed, these questions need to be pondered in depth. We may call it a feasibility study. The people who have the initial idea to arrange a conference should take time to probe the proposed topic from every aspect.
Questions to ask may include:
- Is this idea new, or have other organizations already exhausted the topic?
- Does this topic relate to the latest discoveries in this field?
- Who wants or needs this discussion and this information?
- What exactly do we want to accomplish by creating this event?
In regards to the topic Intuitive Leadership, Jan Backelin and Roger Benson, and to some extent myself, began by reaching out to some people with solid background in the field of leadership, to examine whether the interest was really there and how we should pitch the content and the invitation to participate. We contacted management and leadership consultants. We talked to scientists who had delved into research of the capacity of the human brain and mind. We sought the advice of people who worked with intuition development. Our research told us that there was at the time a growing interest in the use of intuition in management and leadership, which related to the fact that society, businesses and financial institutions were subject to an increasing pace of change; a pace that made it less safe to rely on past experience and proven traditional methods when solving problems and expanding a business or some other collective activity.
It was clear to us that a conference on the theme of intuitive leadership would have to contain the latest “cutting edge” thinking, plus a range of transformative activities, in order to attract participants. We began developing the plan by naming key speakers and contacting them. These included Peter Russell, a UK professor of physics and author of popular science books, and other similar authorities on the latest scientific discoveries; Willis Harman, long term director of the international Institute of Noetic Sciences; Caroline Myss, well-known medical intuitive; and Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, co-founders of The World Café. We also contacted various professional associations in the field of management and leadership. The Institute of Noetic Sciences was a perfect contact, as it was established to carry out research and discussion on new scientific discoveries and how science informs the kind of spiritual search that is not bound by or restricted to theories of organized religions.
Securing key speakers
Once a handful of key speakers had been secured, and the dates had been set, these speakers assisted with proposing additional topics and speakers, gradually building the plan for a week’s content and presentations. To secure a few well-known, well-respected public figures such as published authors and speakers needs to take place approximately a year in advance, because these kinds of people usually have a tight schedule, set far in advance. Without their solid commitment a conference might not attract any further relevant speakers. The value of securing the support and whole-hearted enthusiasm from a few well-known speakers in the initial phase cannot be over-emphasized. These key people need to get fired up with excitement and agree to put their whole-hearted energy into developing the event. Naturally, a symbiotic relationship builds. The speakers realize that this is a chance for them to create a great platform where they can present their ideas and increase support for these ideas; and share their dreams and hopes publicly, with an increasing chance for them to get their ideas published and promoted to even larger audiences. If they have published books, the conference offers an opportunity for them to make their books more known and to sell copies.
The key speakers need to be at a stage where they are sufficiently well established to be a draw, an attraction, and at the same time, they need to still be on their way to the top, so to speak. They need to be still hungry for attention and publicity for their work and ideas, so that they are motivated to put time and energy into promoting the event.
Once the main content and speakers have been secured, the team needs to get busy booking the other speakers, in order to create a package that is highly attractive for participants. We, the organizers, knew that once we had the famous names secured, the other speakers would be more easily persuaded to join. Getting these commitments was an energy-consuming task, requiring the talent to explain the vision and ignite the prospective speakers’ enthusiasm and excitement.
Within a couple of months, we had contacted around 20 speakers who agreed to be part of our conference.
Development of speaker presentations
Our policy was to encourage a lively discussion and exploration of topics, with an invitation to speakers and participants to collaborate to deepen the understanding of the topics, and endeavor to reach new conclusions and insights. We wanted to invite both speakers and participants to bring their own ideas, letting them know there would be ample opportunity to discuss and question existing, established notions and understandings; and expand on topics with the aim to make new discoveries and cover new ground. We actively discouraged our speakers to arrive with ready-made academic papers, with fixed conclusions or outcomes. Instead, we suggested they come to present their findings and ideas with an open-ended approach that would encourage fellow speakers and participants to pick up on a thread and examine the issues further. This approach was an essential part of our organization’s philosophy and practice.
Connecting with speakers about their presentations included examining their plans to ensure their presentations would not overlap, but complement each other and add content; also carefully orchestrating the order of presentations, to build the content in a logical manner during the one-week event. Speakers were encouraged to give a presentation, then follow up with a workshop either the same day or the next day. The workshop would examine the speaker’s topic more in depth. We scheduled several panel discussions during the week, where a selection of speakers, or all speakers, would be available for questions and answers, engaging all speakers and the entire audience. These gatherings became important moments where everyone was able to get a sense of the whole group and its pulse, as it were; and they enabled speakers and participants to explore the topic beyond the point where presentations had ended. Thus, our endeavor was to facilitate new discoveries.
Publicity and promotion
The conference needs to be enthusiastically and consistently promoted. A year in advance, we published a heads-up invitation in the general Findhorn Foundation fall brochure. The invitation quoted a couple of the major speakers and presented the purpose of the conference. The next general brochure contained an insert – the full color conference brochure, plus a shorter invitation in the brochure itself.
A conference brochure needs to be carefully designed and authored. We – Jan, Roger and I – assigned the task to a staff member, Lee Oldershaw, who had a background as a professional graphic designer, working with publicity. The brochure should contain the major intent of the gathering, names of main speakers and a couple of paragraphs outlining the hopes and expectations of the gathering. Prospective participants should get the sense that they can play a role in the outcome and conclusions of the conference, through discussions and workshops. Upon Lee’s suggestion, our conference team chose an image of the Olympic flame as a logo, an idea that proved successful. A number of conference participants later commented on how that image had inspired them to read the brochure and eventually decide to register for the event.
The brochure must contain thorough information about place and dates for the event and details for registration. To contact the organization for information and to register must be made as easy as possible for prospective participants. To make it easy, the brochure invited prospective participants to register by phone, by email and by mail, and payment could be made in more than one way – by credit card over the phone, or by sending a check in the mail. Options included paying a deposit or paying the full fee at registration.
The full-color conference brochure was sent out along with the general Findhorn Foundation brochure, almost a year in advance and then again half a year prior to the event.
We were lucky that a British management consultant became enthusiastic about the event and publicized the conference to a large network of British management consultants. We also contacted management and leadership associations in other countries and some of these publicized the event through their networks.
Furthermore, each speaker was personally contacted and asked to distribute the conference brochure to their particular audience, students or followers. Thus, twenty speakers engaged in spreading the word. Some of them were university professors. They sent out information about the conference and their own upcoming presentation to their networks of professors and students at various universities within their country and beyond. Some speakers belonged to professional associations and sent out information to all those members. In each case, our team actively supported the speakers with information, printed materials and assistance in putting together the promotional material. All these activities take time. Even though Jan and Roger came up with many ideas and strategies, it fell upon me to carry out the tasks. I soon realized that my work as organizer was a full-time job already six months before the event.
Establishing a budget
A conference budget needs to contain a list of major expenses and calculate with an estimated number of speakers and participants, in our case, 20 speakers and 350 participants.
Expenses would generally include:
- Designing and printing a conference brochure
- Distribution of conference brochure and other promotional material
- Air fares and fees for speakers
- Catering for speakers and participants
- Accommodation for speakers and participants
- Costs of main meeting venue and additional workshop venues
- Transportation of participants between accommodation, catering and session venues
- Expenses for entertainment such as music, art, dancing
- Office and administration overheads – heating, telephone, printer, paperwork etc.
Needless to say, it is the organizer’s job to monitor costs and plan so that the costs stay within the limits. I found that having a budget made it easier for me to say no to suggestions. I simply said, that is not within our budget.
On one occasion, I went beyond my budget constraints. About a month before the event, the team that were supposed to provide music during the week, pulled out. That team had been composed of Findhorn Foundation staff members, thus a low cost solution. Through asking around both within our organization and outside, locally, I got hold of three local musicians, not affiliated with Findhorn Foundation, who had a band and were skilled at managing music systems – loudspeakers, microphones, amplifiers and so on. I had a discussion with them and concluded that they would do a great job for us. I hired them for the week. The cost was well above our budget for music and entertainment. Hiring an outside team meant paying a commercial level price. By this time, the conference was fully booked with a long waiting list, so I knew we would have plenty of income that would make the additional cost a negligible increase. When my superior, Eric, found out, he complained at me for going over budget. I just bluntly told him that, with only one month left, he should be extremely thankful that I had resolved the situation quickly and averted a disaster – a week without quality music! Eric got the message and realized I had done a good job.
Building a conference team
In our organization, for the first 7-8 months, I was the only person who worked full-time on organizing the event. The other team members were basically Jan Backelin, who flew over from Sweden to our organization in Scotland for three meetings before the event; and Roger Benson, who was a full time manager at Findhorn Foundation, busy with other work and only devoting a few hours per week to issues pertaining to the conference. Around 3-4 months before the event, I began drawing together a team. The team included staff members who had other responsibilities which they would gradually hand over to others, as they became more intensely involved in conference preparations closer to the event.
Team members would include:
- A person to manage the budget
- A person to design and develop the information package for participants
- A person to plan and supervise catering
- A person to plan and oversee transportation
- A person to manage registration of participants
- A person to oversee all workshop logistics during the week
- A person to organize the “small group” meetings during the week
- A person to organize and oversee accommodation
- A person to organize speakers’ hosts – one host for each speaker
- Speakers’ hosts
- A stage manager
- A liaison between organizers and main meeting venue
- A person to plan and oversee evening entertainment
- A “panic person” to deal with unexpected logistics challenges
- Back up staff
The ups and downs of leading a volunteer team
Building the team went well. Findhorn Foundation had over 100 staff members of different professional backgrounds, a good pool to draw from. The reward for team members both from inside and outside Findhorn Foundation was that they could attend conference talks for free, as much as their jobs allowed. Several members on the team were people from outside. All positions were temporary, lasting only a few months, plus, on a volunteer basis, which makes it easier for people to drop out if they are not having fun. I knew in my heart that the only way to secure a consistent work team was to keep the team inspired. I had no money to wave at them to make them stay on task. An Irishman, John Brierley, living locally, with background as business manager wanted to join the team. On volunteer basis he took on the task to plan, print and compile all materials for the information package to be handed to participants upon their arrival. A local hotel owner, Judith Meynell, who had vast networking experience volunteered to help with promotion. She also compiled a conference report a few months after the event.
Dealing with a leadership crisis
However, there were some snags and unexpected crises. Two members of the team, I will call them Annette and Linda, came to me to propose that Linda should take over my job as overall organizer. As the number of registered participants rose fast, they thought the event would be too much for me to handle. They said they did not believe I had what it takes to manage the event. I was shocked. We had a talk. I said I was perfectly confident that I could do a good job and had a good working relationship with Jan Backelin who was the convener and director. But they insisted. I said we could take the matter to Eric, our supervisor.
We did. Eric interviewed Linda about her reasons for proposing herself as overall organizer and listened to her concerns about me. Then he interviewed me. I said to Eric that I was less concerned about my own position, I only had one aim: To make sure the event would be a great success.
Eric decided the best course forward was for me to continue as the main organizer. I was relieved, but shaken. Linda, Annette and I asked a fellow staff member to facilitate a meeting where we cleared up some misconceptions between us and paved the way for continuing to work together.
When I looked back at what happened, I saw the symbolic synchronicity: A group organizing a conference on the topic of leadership had a leadership conflict. Quite funny, actually!
Team work problems
Next, another team work problem arose. One team member, let us call her Anne, had fallen in love with a fellow Findhorn Foundation staff member, let us call him Carl. At an early stage, Anne had suggested for me to bring Carl on board. I interviewed Carl and brought him on board our team, engaged him in some logistics tasks. He turned out to be an excellent team member and I thanked Anne for suggesting him. About a month later, Anne and Carl broke up. Anne came to me and said she wanted me to drop Carl from our team, because she did not want to be confronted with him in our – now daily – team meetings. Since her job was crucial to the success of the conference, she thought Carl should leave the team. This, in my mind, was manipulation. I refused, saying Carl was doing a great job and there was no reason to dismiss him from the team. It would be unethical on my part to do so. I could see no other way to deal with the situation, although it was true that Anne’s contribution was crucial to our success. I had to take the risk of having to find a replacement, if she decided to quit. Anne was steaming with anger. I said everyone needs to focus on doing a good job, we have huge responsibilities here; and asked her to stay on track with the job she had committed herself to doing. After some huffing and puffing, Anne agreed to continue working on the team and I give it to her that she functioned surprisingly well in spite of the upheaval.
My learning from this incident was that it serves to not get tempted to take unethical shortcuts – dismiss Carl, in spite of his good contribution, in order to keep the skilled, seemingly indispensable Anne – but act with integrity and trust that the outcome will be positive.
From earlier work on conferences, I knew that a crucial element in organizing the event was to build support for the event within our own organization. Why? I knew that unless our own staff members became excited about the upcoming event, they would not be there for me in times of need. Just like the speakers, the people who would do the hard work to keep the event functioning – the cooks, cleaners, bus drivers and custodians – must develop a feel for the topic and be fired up.
One of my talents is to write newsletters. I began writing regular internal news briefs. Already a year in advance, I began publishing brief notes in our staff journal “The Rainbow Bridge.” The note could be just a few sentences, for example:
Guess what! We are excited to announce that world-renowned speaker and author Peter Russell has agreed to be a key speaker at our upcoming event, the conference on Intuitive Leadership. Roger Benson spoke to Peter on the phone a few days ago and Peter said he is looking forward to spending a week here with all of us.
The following week, I would put in another note in The Rainbow Bridge, this time about another speaker. Sometimes I would quote the speaker, or tell our staff something funny or extraordinary about the speaker. I would make clear, that during the event, staff would have the opportunity to attend as many of the talks as possible. One of the rewards of working at Findhorn Foundation was indeed to be able to attend public talks that would cost a small fortune when held at a high end venue in London, Paris, Toronto, orNew York. I made sure staff members were made aware of this and encouraged them to sign up for jobs that would bring them closer to the unfolding events of the conference.
Many of our staff members were volunteers who had opted to spend one year or a couple of years at Findhorn Foundation, and then would leave us and return to their hometowns. These people needed to be fully informed of the opportunity to attend talks and workshops at our conferences, and be encouraged to sign up for such an opportunity. For example, for the speaker from Brazil, we looked for a person from Brazil, or familiar with Brazil, to act as the speaker’s host.
Findhorn Foundation is located in a rural area where local people are less likely to be drawn to these kinds of international gatherings. Yet, I sent out press releases to local newspapers and relevant magazines, ensuring that local people would have information about our activities. Maintaining good relationships with the local area was in my view important.
Registering participants for a conference is a specialized function. When a person makes an initial inquiry, the registrar makes a computer record of all details including the nature of conversation and the type of inquiries made. The inquirer may have asked questions regarding accommodation in a single room, accommodation on ground floor due to disability, whether payment can be made in installments, whether vegetarian meals will be available, and so on. All details go on the record, so that the participant’s particular needs may be met. The registrar needs to check back with previous records to find out if the inquirer has visited the center before, and if so, what is on the record. Perhaps, during the previous visit, there was a delay in payment. Then the registrar will ask the person to pay in full when registering. Perhaps the record shows that the person was offered a single room because he/she snores loudly. In rare circumstances, people who visited may have had a mental-emotional problem and should be discouraged to attend a large conference with hundreds of people gathered. That person may be encouraged to register for a small, more intimate event instead, a workshop on a similar topic.
Sometimes people ask about carpooling from a particular city. We had a specific procedure for handling carpooling communication between prospective participants. Sometimes people want to register for another workshop as well, to take place immediately before or after the conference week. Especially, visitors coming from overseas like to combine two events, making their visit worth the long journey. Thus, the registrar needs to be familiar with what is available in the weeks before and after the conference and make good suggestions to inquirers.
The registrar needs to be familiar with all options for accommodation – rooms within walking distance of the meeting venue, rooms in the local village with access to shops, rooms with bath and so on, and delicately balance participants’ needs with what is available.
For a fully booked conference, we usually ended up accommodating those who registered at a later date in Bed & Breakfast accommodation in the local area. Using B&B accommodation boosted our relationships with local people. We maintained a list of local B&B accommodation, with notes about the quality of breakfast, heating, bathroom facilities and so on, to ensure we provided good service to our visitors.
Several months before the event, we reached our limit. The event was fully booked. Applications kept coming in, and we built up a long waiting list. It happened that people wanted to jump the queue. A man from Norway telephoned me personally and argued that his professional background made it important for him to be part of our conference, and that he should be given preference. Jan and I had agreed to make no exceptions. If one person could jump the queue, it could cause an outrage among others who were not favored. Who is most important? As it happened, the Norwegian applicant was fuming with anger for being placed at the bottom of the waiting list. Eventually, our waiting list numbered over a hundred people. After the event, we wrote a small newsletter to each one, letting them know we regretted that we had not been able to accommodate them, sharing a few conclusions from the conference and encouraging them to register early for the next event that caught their attention.
Opening the week
Eric had said to me: “If you are a good conference organizer, on the morning of the first day of the conference, you should have nothing to do.” I stuck to his advice and made sure I delegated all tasks. The wisdom of this is of course that I would be available to answer questions from logistics staff and deal with any unexpected problems. On the Saturday morning – the day of arrival – I had nothing to do. I had time to stand around in the arrival lounge and welcome the arriving speakers, chat with them and ensure they were well taken care of. Speakers’ individual hosts had been trained to be on track with every need of every speaker. A large team took care of welcoming the several hundred participants who arrived in floods into our arrival lounge, where they went through a line of registering, paying, getting their information folder and having hosts show them how to find their rooms.
That evening Jan and I proudly opened the conference and gave a short welcome speech to all. After over a year of planning, this was a sweet moment for us. The meeting venue, The Universal Hall, was filled to the brim with participants and also staff members lined up against the back walls, all listening to speakers giving their brief introduction speeches, and then enjoying the music and dance performances.
Facilitating the week
Each day, the conference had two or three major presentations in the morning. Jan and I had lined up, well in advance, a person to introduce each speaker. Each afternoon participants attended a variety of workshops, facilitated by the speakers. Furthermore, each conference participant was assigned to a “small group” of around 20 people. The small groups formed on the second day and stayed together during the week. They met regularly, and this was the forum for participants to share their individual insights and voice their agreement or disagreement with the content of a speech.
As I said earlier, I had delegated absolutely every task, and therefore my job was only to deal with unexpected snags or problems. I am glad to say, these were very few and easy to resolve, because, thanks to my regular internal news updates, staff members by and large were very excited about the conference and willing to go out of their way to make things work. The meals were great. Public areas, rooms and bathrooms were kept clean and looked beautiful with fresh flower arrangements. Speakers were well taken care of. The topic of intuition and its use in management and leadership was a topic that attracted the interest of many of our staff, which helped motivate everyone to do their best.
My companion Jan seemed to enjoy every moment. Jan would frequently initiate a conference session and used to address the audience at night, summing up the day’s events and insights. I ended up leading many of the openings of each day, upon request. Each day we began with “a moment of silence” that had been practiced successfully over many years in Findhorn Foundation at events and work sessions. Using the microphone, I would step forward and wait until the murmur of 350 people conversing with one another had ceased. Then I would say a few words, something along these lines: “Let us take a moment in silence. Let’s take a deep breath and tune in to the presence of ourselves as a group… and be aware of spirit, within our own hearts. We recognize our interconnectedness with everything, in silence, as we begin this day together.”
As the days unfolded, Jan, Roger and I kept an awareness of the unfolding discussions. We would meet each day and talk about how the themes were developing, and Jan and Roger would talk with the day’s presenter and bring to his or her awareness any insights to be taken into consideration, any collective aha-moments that should be recognized in the next session’s presentations. Thus, we helped build a sense of progress from one day to the next. Each day, we allowed time for the entire group to share insights from their small group meetings. These built into the progress and informed speakers, helping them pitch their presentation accordingly.
On Friday, the last day of the conference, we ended the week with an open-forum style session where speakers and participants could stand up and share what the week meant for them, and what insights they would take with them as they returned to their jobs and organizations. People shared new ideas they wanted to implement in their work, sometimes with tears and laughter. The week had definitely made a deep impact on participants as well as speakers.
I am glad to say that the week was a great success, and that scores of participants offered glowing appreciations in the final session.
My advice to anyone who plans a conference is: The initial steps in planning are especially important to ensure success. Do all your homework early on. It is better to change course in the initial phase, than having to change things halfway through preparations. Take time to consult with others, ask for opinions and advice from relevant people and groups. Care to do necessary research and do not take anything for granted. Prepare well. Prepare for all possibilities. It is better to over-prepare than under-prepare. And remember, with humor all things get easier and people have a happier time.
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Brita Adkinson March 2012