On 28 June 2012, the Infection Control Conference 2012 was held in Seremban. The conference was the fruit of 7 months of intensive and hard labour by a team of dedicated people whom I had the pleasure of working together with. Now that the conference is over, I reflected on what I have learned from the experience and I’d like to share the 12 rules one should observe when organizing a conference:
RULE 1. SAY ‘NO’ IF YOU CAN
When approached with the idea of organizing a conference, and if it is within your power, respectfully decline the idea. Alas! It wasn’t the case for me because I was almost (and always) ‘volunteered’ into organizing the conference. In the organization that I work in, there is a hierachy – some mysterious beings high up there would give a decree, which would be picked up by semi- and demi-gods who will then transmit the idea of the decree to lesser minions like me to execute! “No” was not an option.
Sometimes, I think the Executive Council exists merely to carry out executions.
And so, there I was, in December 2011, tasked with the enormous task of organizing a conference on infection control – with no team and no funding.
RULE 2. SAY A CONDITIONAL ‘YES’!
Since it was not within my power to decline the decree to organize the conference, I said “YES” but with certain conditions – namely I am given the freedom to do what I think is best and I can pick any staff member to be my team mates.
RULE 3. PICK AWESOME PEOPLE TO FORM AN AWESOME TEAM
Next, I proceeded to write or approach a few people whom I think would be ideal team mates. The selection criteria was simple: they had to be juniors, young, energetic, capable and efficient to a fault! And so I picked people who have just recently joined the organization (I have long given up on more senior people to be pro-active) and pitched my idea to them and much to my surprise, all of them agreed to climb on board!
RULE 4. SEEK ADVICE
Before embarking on the planning of the conference, and since none of us had any experience in planning an event of such magnitude, we made an appointment with a few people who DO have experiences with such things for a small brain-storming session. At the end of the session, we had a good idea on which angle we should use and who are the speakers we should invite to speak during the conference.
RULE 5. DELEGATE AND HAVE A LITTLE FAITH!
The next thing I did as the team leader was to make up a list of tasks that needs to be done and then delegated to each team members after assessing each of their talents and capabilities! And once again, my awesome team members accepted the tasks without so much as a whisper of complaint! While delegating is good, do not neglect to assign yourself some work too! And oh ya, I need to have a little more faith in my team members – because I found myself worrying too much unnecessarily because the team members performed their assigned tasks like poetry-in-motion! In short, they delivered!
RULE 6. GET THE MONEY!
Since funding was not provided we had to find ways to raise funds – and we did this by pitching the idea to several pharmaceutical companies to purchase ‘booth space’ at the conference venue to display their products as well as offering them ‘protected time’ such as the ‘Sponsored lunch symposium’ and ‘Mini Talks’. We were apprehensive of the response because we knew that not many pharma-companies would be willing to invest in a conference held in a small town. Location and exposure is everything in the dog-eat-dog world of business!
Yes, a few companies did turn us down but six companies eventually did commit with us and we had enough funding to push the project ahead. Another source of income came from the registration fees for the conference which we set at a very modest sum of RM 50 per person. (Actually, had the event been held in a large city, like Kuala Lumpur for instance, we could have charged at least 6x that amount!).
RULE 7. GET THE WORD OUT!
We had to come up with a catchy theme for the conference, get some really good speakers on board and put in a one-day-program interesting enough to stir the interest of the average medical practitioners, nurses, paramedics and medical & nursing students!
We eventually decided on ‘INFECTION CONTROL CONFERENCE 2012 – ARE YOU BUGGED BY BUGS?’ as the title and theme of the conference. We also invited several speakers who are experts in the field of infection control including a keynote speaker from Hong Kong to give the conference the ‘International’ edge.
In order to get the word out, we utilized every form of electronic media we could get our hands on which included Facebook, blogs, and emails. We designed an eye-catching poster and e-flyer and set them loose on the internet! Traditional print-and-paper media was also used and most importantly, we TALKED about it all the time, to anyone who would care to listen.
RULE 8. GET SOME LEGITIMATE BACKING!
Because the organization I worked in is a private entity while the target audience for the conference will most likely be from the public sector, we had to get some legitimate backings from heavy weights. We approached the Postgraduate Society of Hospital Tuanku Ja’afar Seremban to collaborate with us in the project (thankfully they were very open to the idea and embraced it almost immediately) and after several meetings, received the blessings of State Health Department to proceed with the conference. The backing of the latter was crucial in order to ensure participants from the public sector would come.
RULE 9. GET THE NUMBERS!
Our target of 200 participants was dismissed by some because they felt that in such a small town, getting that many participants was unrealistic! We tried many tricks in the book to get the people in – we gave away 50 free seats to the public sector! That way, even if no one else turns up for the conference, we were assured that at least fifty people would be there! We got classes cancelled for the day so that medical students can apply for it. We offered special rates to some students with collaboration with the Student Representative Councils – we rationalized that once the word gets out from the few students who had special rates, other students would want to join in, even if there is no discount! We also threw open the conference to health care providers from the private hospitals and received overwhelming response from them!
In the end, we had 278 participants from both public and private health care sectors from both within and without the state! The turnout was far above our modest expectations!
RULE 10. GET THE LOGISTICS RIGHT!
We received permission to use a government auditorium free-of-charge because of the backing of the State Health Department and this saved us a lot of money! In addition, generous contributions from each of the pharma-companies ensured that participants had goody-bags filled with nice goodies! We had to rent tents, tables and chairs in order to host such a large group of people during meals. Still, what we could D.I.Y, we D.I.Y.ed – like the designing of posters, eflyers, certificates, etc saved us more money which would otherwise be used up had we sourced them from others.
11. MINIMIZE MEETINGS!
Other than the first brain-storming meeting with experienced seniors, the team have had only ONE other meeting where we all actually sat together to formally introduce ourselves to one another and iron out a few issues. The entire conference was planned virtually via the electronic media – emails, Facebook, whatsapp, and Twitter! Of course, there were the occasional meets along the corridor or a short peep into a team member’s cubicle to discuss a pressing issue but besides that, we never actually met again as a team!
I have long learned that having long long meetings is more often than not extremely counterproductive. This new way of planning a conference is the way to go!
12. DANGLE A BIG CARROT AND DELIVER!
And finally, in order to motivate the team continuously, a big enough carrot has to be dangled, and delivered! Rewards in the form of recognitions, a chance to publish the results of an in-conference survey, a post conference celebration dinner and monetary returns worked like a charm in spurring us to work that much harder.
And so, on 28 June 2012, we held our conference and by and large from the feedback we received, it was a very successful conference!
I want to say a BIG THANK YOU to all my team members. You guys were awesome to work with!
But the next time I am approached to organize another similar event, I’d stick with Rule Number 1 firmly!