A schedule for organizing international symposia

Posted by , on 5 September 2023

TL;DR: Coordinating an international conference can be a complex endeavor, especially for scientists whose primary focus often lies outside the realm of event management. A major challenge in this context is timing. In this blog post I outline a potential schedule of tasks for organizing an international conference such as the PoLBIAS23.

As a senior scientist the community may expect from you to fulfill certain roles you did not learn during your PhD. One of these roles is organizing a scientific conferences. When tasked with this, you face some challenges for the first time, and they could appear overwhelming. However, it is just a list of todos that need to be done like in any other project. The major difference to other scientific projects is that the deadline cannot be extended and results are expected to be available on the day the event starts. Thus, timing is key. In this blog post I outline a schedule of tasks and explain why it is important to not postpone certain milestones.

What do you need

  • An event management tool such as Indico: Get training in using the tool so that you can easily send emails to all attendees or attendees who are members of specified sub-groups such as poster presenters or invited speakers.
  • A team of organizers with defined responsibilities: Make sure the right people are on board. For example when negotiating with catering companies or when organizing a gala dinner, let professionals lead the negotiations. Most institutions have dedicated and experienced staff in the administration for these kind of tasks.
  • Professional event organizers: If you’re lucky, your institute may have a team of professional event organizers. They know how to talk to catering companies and how to negotiate special prices with hotels. If your institute does not have such a team, no worries: You can hire companies who provide these services.


When organizing a conference, timing is key. Some tasks need to be done very early before the event and delays are often inevitable. The following list of tasks is scheduled in months before the event: e.g. M-6 refers to half a year before the event.

Planning the event date (M-18): When organizing an international event, you should make sure that it does not overlap with other events of the same scientific community. Get in touch with organizers of other conferences, and leaders of national and international societies. Reserve a week for your event and let everyone know that you will be organizing a symposium. If possible, plan the event in a way that attendees can travel there and home on weekdays. Many attendees may leave early in case of a symposium that ends Friday 5 pm.

Reserving the venue (M-18): Depending on the number of people expected to come to the event, an affordable venue of the right size might be hard to get. Block the lecture hall of the university for an entire week, even if you plan a 3-day event. You will need to consider time before and after the event, to set up spaces, check equipment, advise sponsors and clean up. In some cases, it may also be necessary to shift the event by one day.

Involve institutional coordinators (M-15): When organizing a conference, you need support by your institute administration staff, e.g. to make contracts with event organizer companies, catering etc. Involve people who have experience as early as possible.

Setup event website (M-15): Setup a conference website with preliminary program, e.g. session titles. You will need this website to attract sponsors.

Estimate the budget (M-14): Make a first estimation of the conference budget. This will be necessary to know about entrance fees, sponsoring and costs. Reach out to other local colleagues who may have organized conferences in the same venue.

Budget checklist
When planning the budget, estimate individual costs, costs for equipment, services and rooms and put all together in a table. Actual numbers may vary depending on where you organize the event:
  • 100 Eur for catering per person per day. Estimate the number of attendees + the number of speakers and organizers 100 Eur for a networking event + bus transfer to its venue
  • 500–700 Eur for each invited speaker from the same country or neighboring countries
  • 1000-2000 Eur for invited speakers who travel from other continents
  • 70–120 Eur per night per speaker for a hotel room
  • 1500 Eur lecture hall booking, some venues require this, others such as your own university may be free
  • 2000 Eur for rented furniture such as standing tables and poster walls
  • 500 Eur for security personnel that is required, e.g. if a social event at the venue goes until late in the night
  • 500 Eur for cleaning service. You will need extra personnel taking care of the bath rooms and the catering area, at least twice a day
  • 500 Eur for technical support
  • 5k–20k Eur for a professional event organizer company
  • Find sponsors (M-12): Talk to company representatives from your field and ask them if they want to sponsor the event. They will need details such as expected number of attendees and topics of the conference. The larger the company is, the earlier you need to talk to them. Large corporate vendors may plan the conferences they sponsor and attend about a year in advance. Smaller startup companies can make these decisions more flexibly. Offer the sponsors specific tiers, e.g. gold sponsorship for 2.5k Eur, silver sponsorship for 1k Eur. Also specify what each tier entails, such as a 15 min talk slot, free access to the conference, and 5 square meters booth. Also give them flexibility, they may want to sponsor a networking event instead of paying money for the standard offers. Also check out if your university has options for funding events internally. Some universities have programs for internationalization, networking and outreach.

    Find co-organizers (M-12): ou cannot do everything alone and thus, you should set up an organizing committee. Ask local colleagues who could help you implement the conference on campus. Also, ask scientists who work in the building of the event  venue. Also ask international experts to join the committee to shape the program. When asking others to help, be clear from the very beginning what you expect from them. Estimate the number of hours they need to work with you. Schedule semi-regular [virtual] meetings, e.g. every 3 months in the early phase and monthly closer to the event.

    Invite speakers (M-11): Talk to the co-organizers about who to invite. Delegate reaching out to potential speakers if possible. Split the program into parts where other organizers are responsible for. When setting up a list of potential speakers, make sure you have backup-candidates in case the people you ask first cannot come.

    Speaker checklist
    When inviting speakers for your event, make sure the list of speakers reflects diversity in human society. Try to balance gender and origin of speakers, as well as career level. Inviting a PhD student as speaker to a conference can give them a substantial push in their career. Also make sure to have administrative support for handling the travel management and reimbursement of the invited speakers.

    Announce the conference (M-10): As soon as the first speakers are confirmed, update the website and announce the conference in social media and society mailing lists. This is also a good opportunity to follow up with  sponsors who have not yet made a decision.

    Plan social events (M-10): Make a first estimate for a social and networking event and ask for quotes. You need cost estimates before opening the registrations.

    Open the registration and abstract submission (M-9): Open the registration early and not during summer vacations to give attendees a chance to register for  your event before they plan the rest of the year. Be fair to other event organizers: synchronize with them when to announce which conference. Make sure the registration period is long enough, e.g. 4-6 weeks, so that interested scientists can check with their groups and arrange travel budgets.

    Registration checklist
    When collecting information from registrants, it is common to ask for their name, academic title, email, affiliation and billing address. You should also give them flexibility in the ticket options: let them choose if they want to attend the gala dinner, and satellite meetings or training schools before/after the symposium. When billing registrants later, make sure the terms in the ticket options are acceptable by employers: For example listing a “guided city tour” may not be paid by employers, but a “networking event with snacks” may. Also don’t forget to ask attendees if they need support with childcare or if they have special dietary and access requirements. Make sure everyone’s needs are considered and taken care of as much as possible. Because of some legal aspects registrants show check some boxes:
  • they comply with a defined code of conduct
  • submitted abstracts are published online under a given license.
  • photos are taken during the event and these photos will be published.
  • cancelling attendance causes costs
  • entered data will be stored and handled, e.g. for billing.
  • Also consider providing a privacy policy.
  • Close the abstract submission (M-6): Close the abstract submission to give abstract reviewers time to go through the submitted abstracts. In case there are not enough submissions, extend the deadline. Make sure there is still enough time for reviewers.

    Notify selected speakers (M-5): Notify abstract authors if their talk abstracts were accepted and/or if they can present a poster. Make sure they still have enough time to book a flight and reserve a hotel room.

    Order furniture (M-4): Depending on the available furniture at the venue, additional tables, chairs, poster walls etc need to be ordered in advance.

    Organize virtual options (M-3): If you plan streaming the talks to the internet or virtual poster sessions, find someone who can assist you with organizing the online event. Local organizers will be busy with local tasks and cannot take care of the virtual space in parallel. Service providers such as Zeeks Art For Geeks provide such support. Consider that you need one person at the conference who can act as virtual-to-in person liaison, e.g. ask questions for online attendees.

    Find helpers and organize their schedule (M-2): During the event, you will need helpers who welcome attendees at the registration desk, pass microphones to people with questions in the lecture hall and collect talks from speakers on the conference laptop. You may also need support for managing the virtual meeting. Ask around among your colleagues, students and friends. Offer them free attendance during the event or a conference t-shirt if the budget allows it. Make a list of tasks and distribute it to the volunteers. Everyone should know when they have to be where and what they are supposed to do. Delegate everything you can and do not volunteer for anything yourself. You will be busy with other tasks anyway. 

    Last-minute tasks (M1): In the last month before the event, plenty of small tasks need to be done: The catering team and the event managers will need to have a look at the venue. For this, bring a colleague from the building maintenance along as you may not be able to answer all questions from the guest team. Also, for example, if catering comes with devices such as a barbeque grill or chafing dishes with flames, the fire alarm needs to be configured accordingly. Poster walls need to be built up and the venue needs to be furnished. Update the online booklet with the new venue map after things have been arranged in place. Consider using an online available booklet instead of a printed version. Also the environment will thank you. Talk with the public relations department so that they can come by at the right time to take pictures of the event. Design diplomas for best poster and best talk winners. Last but not least, dedicate a colleague to buy flowers for the acknowledgement session on the last day. Make sure the people who deserve these flowers will be there that day.

    The event (M0): Don’t plan any tasks for yourself. Delegate everything. You will be busy anyway.Make sure you have dedicated people available to call any time. For example if a exhibitor needs additional poster walls or tables, it should not be you who carries them out of storage. Know who to call instead of everything yourself. Setup a chat group in a messenger of your choice to communicate with the team of organizers and helpers. During the opening session explain the attendees how the event works, how they can get out of the building in case of fire, how they can vote for the best posters and talks, and when they need to be where. Also remind session hosts publicly that they are responsible for sessions being in time. If a coffee break needs to be shortened, it must be clear who’s responsiblde for this. This is in particular important in case events cannot be postponed during the symposium. For example if the crowd has to board a boat for a city tour on the river, the session before cannot end one hour late. Last but not least: take time to network with others and reserve time for yourself. Conference organizers sometimes run around busy, but this can be avoided by delegating tasks and clarifying responsibilities. At the end, you should also enjoy the event you were organizing. You shall remember it as a great time.

    Evaluation (M+1): After the event, ideally after attendees returned home, send them a link to a survey. Feedback collected via such a survey is useful to improve the event in case another one will be planned in the future. If similar events took place in the past, take the survey from these events and adapt it to your needs. If you have similar surveys, you can later compare similar events long-term and know what worked well and what did not.

    Debriefing (M+2): Summarize your own experience with the event in a short document. Write down what worked well and what did not. Write down what you would do differently next time. It’s not necessary to share this document immediately, but in case someone reaches out to you next year because they plan a similar event, you should have notes of that kind to provide them assistance. Also reach out to the other organizers and ask them about their perspective. Consider sharing the results of the evaluation survey with them.


    I would like to thank the PoLBIAS organizers behind the scences, Ilona Kreher, Philipp Naumann and Conni Wetzker for this super smooth running event. I learned a lot. I also would like to thank Elisabeth Kugler for the proof reading of this blog post and the very helpful feedback.

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