The Biggest Challenges for a Conference Program Director

May 15, 2010

in Interview, Meet The Organizer, Tips

Each role inside a conference’s organization team has it’s own challenges but probably one of the most demanding is that of the Program Director. It’s her main responsibility to assure content that is great, new, relevant, inspiring, useful, well told (having good public speakers and storytellers), etc.

Monique van Dusseldorp, experienced program director with a record of remarkable events created and managed (amongst which PICNIC Festival and TEDxAmsterdam) describes which are her four biggest challenges in that role:

Program vs Marketing

The tension between a conference’s Program Director and the Marketing counterpart is a classic situation: the marketing manager wants to have a complete (and confirmed) list of speakers from the start so that she can promote and sell the event immediately while the program manager not only needs time to book the most interesting names, but also wants to wait until the last possible moment to tweak the content to obtain a better “flow” of the program, which is possible only when you have all the elements available (and that hardly happens at the beginning of the process).

“You want to wait to the last day”

Making Sure That a Speaker is Good

Sometimes you can see how good (or bad) a speaker is at other conferences but hardly you’ll be able to see all the speakers. Often you look for those that haven’t spoken elsewhere or are less well known because you want to have an original show and not just a bunch the usual suspects. This is especially relevant when you are booking non-professional speakers, researchers, entrepreneurs or other people that aren’t used (or comfortable) to be in front of an audience.

“I try to find people who know the speaker, who’ve seen him or her. I follow on Twitter the responses to other events […] but you never know for sure”

The Flow of the Program

Monique says that one of the most important lessons is to always finish with yout best speaker because it’s the one that molds the last impression people keep in their heads. You should also try to avoid ending your event with a panel session. It’s tempting to put everyone on stage for a final conclusion but from the event-experience point of view it’s usually a big turn-off.

“[When] people go home, they remember the last thing”

Big Names vs Small Names

You need big names on the program to justify the purchase of a ticket, but it’s not uncommon that the biggest satisfaction is given by those unknown names that the audience discover for the first time at that particular conference. The contradiction is that it’s difficult to have people coming to an event if you just feature new, young, rising start-ups, entrepreneurs, etc. The big names act as a sort of live bait.

“When they are there, they actually really enjoy the smaller names. But they wouldn’t have come if you had only had those start-ups and new people”

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