Planning a conference schedule can seem like putting a puzzle together. With sessions, discussions, workshops, networking, and more – it can be challenging to squeeze it all in. Unlike a puzzle, however, there is no single way to organize an event.
There are no definitive answers to questions like –
How should I structure my conference? Or, how long should my event be?
While there is no rulebook on creating an event schedule, we’ll walk through the questions you should be asking yourself when mapping out your conference or event agenda. Here, we’ll share best practices to keep in mind when putting your agenda together to help you and your attendees get the most from your conference. Continue on for an overview of event scheduling and tips for organizing.
First, let’s take a look at the terminology used when planning an event schedule.
Keynote – A keynote refers to the opening address or important presentation at a conference. Often, this session sets the direction and theme of an event. A keynote speaker is often a public or well-known industry figure who may be a draw for individuals to attend.
Breakout Session – These smaller meetings or presentations take place in breakout rooms during a larger meeting or conference. Attendees normally have the option to attend one of many sessions taking place simultaneously.
Tracks – When larger conferences have many breakout sessions, they are often separated into thematic experiences, these are known as tracks. Creating these tracks allows attendees to find sessions of interest and relevance.
Trade Show – Often referred to as an exposition or B2B exhibition, a trade show is an event where a specific industry meets its peers and customers. During the event, participants exhibit goods and services.
Conference – Organizations plan and hold these meetings with targeted audiences in order to provide relevant information. Conferences can range in duration from one day to multiple days. These events may also be called seminars, user-conferences, symposiums, internal conferences.
Ancillary events – When an organizer allows sponsors or participants to host supplementary events, these are often called ancillary events. Examples of ancillary events include advisory board meetings, focus groups, staff meetings, social events, hospitality suites, and press events.
What to consider when planning a schedule
When organizing a schedule for a large event like a conference or tradeshow, it’s important to thoroughly plan upfront. Thinking through these key questions will simplify the planning process. Here are scheduling elements to consider:
What activities, sessions, and/or entertainment will be included?
Before setting out to organize your event, start the process with a comprehensive list of everything you plan to include in the event. This list will help you map out and organize your event.
Here, list out everything you plan to include in your event. You may have a keynote speaking session, sponsor presentations, discussion sessions, evening entertainment, a happy hour, and so on and so on.
As you build out this list, you should start thinking about how much time each item requires.
Conference Activity Examples:
Let’s take a look at two examples of lists of activities. You’ll see that there are some similarities (who doesn’t love a happy hour!) as well as schedule items that are unique to the event.
– Keynote presentation
– Educational session
– Industry trends session
– Partner session
– Training session
– Happy hour
– Keynote session
– Product training
– Pitching discussion
– Sales workshop
– Happy hour
In addition to the agenda items, you should also keep in mind you’ll need free time for activities such as networking, visiting exhibitions, and spending time with sponsors. We’ll revisit this point.
What is the duration of the event?
Understanding the volume of event content will help to shape the duration and organization of your event. Looking at the examples above, both look like they will easily fit into a single day. If, however, the list grows beyond what can fit into a single day of content, this will tell you how long you have to fit in speaker sessions, networking, breakout sessions and so on.
Most events fall into one of these buckets, let’s look into the benefits of each:
|Single Day, |
|Single Day, |
|Multiple Days, One Track||Multiple Days, Multiple |
|When: Great when you have a cohesive agenda that applies to all attendees.||When: If your agenda begins to extend beyond a single theme or is longer than can comfortably fit within a business day, you may want to add a second or third track.||When: for agendas that contain more content than can feasibly fit in a single day, and you want attendees to join every session, a single track can extend across multiple days.||Many conference organizers want to offer lots of content and empower attendees to choose their own agenda. Multiple tracks across two or more days make this possible.|
When you identify the right organization system for your event, you can begin fitting your agenda items into your schedule.
How are you going to organize your content?
As you compile a list of event sessions and activities, you’ll also want to give these elements structure. This is the core process of turning a list of sessions into an event schedule.
*Often this happens in tandem while compiling agenda content. Organizing your content will likely provide insight into the number of sessions, days, and tracks you’ll need.
Time Chunking: To ensure your conference follows a structure, time chunking is an effective method for building out schedule. There are multiple ways you can go at this, commonly followed methods are:
45 minute sessions with 15 minute breaks.
30 minute sessions with 10 minute breaks.
60 minute sessions with 15 minute breaks.
While any number of variations of these are commonly used, what’s nice about 45/15, is that it keeps your schedule tidy and easy for attendees to follow. Of course, this doesn’t work for every event. You may want sessions to be longer or shorter based on your content.
If you use Google Calendars or similar digital calendars, time chunking is something you already do throughout the day!
Working on a calendar helps organizers visualize an event flow. Take a look at this sample one day conference schedule as an example. Using time chunking, you can visually drag and drop activities or sessions from your list into a time slot and make modifications as you go.
|8:00||Breakfast and Networking|
|10:00||Marketing Analytics Demystified|
|11:00||Discussion: Learnings Shared|
|12:00||Lunch and Networking|
|1:00||How Acme Company Used Social to Make $1M|
|2:00||Turning Your Customers into Advocates|
|3:00||Grow with New Software|
|4:00||Digital Marketing Panel|
Does your schedule make sense for attendees?
Often, we have a tendency to cram as much into an event as possible. Once you have created an agenda, it’s a good practice to take your eyes off of it for a day or two and revisit it with fresh eyes. Or you can share the schedule with somebody who wasn’t involved in creating the schedule for an objective opinion. It’s likely you’ll notice a few items that need to be tweaked.
- Is 5 minutes enough time for attendees to get from one session to another?
- Are you proving enough downtime or breaks?
- Are there any overlaps in content?
- Would attendees want to attend two sessions that are happening at the same time?
These are just a few examples of questions that may pop up when evaluating your event schedule. Rather than seeing attendees as a number, think about their wants needs as if they are individuals. The more you can think about the experience, the happier your attendees will be and the more chance they will come back next year.
How are you managing your schedule?
When creating a complex event schedule, it can take days, weeks, or even months to pull it all together. The next question you should ask yourself, before jumping right into the planning process, is: how are you going to manage all of the moving pieces?
Here are a few common considerations to think about upfront in order to make your life easier.
Team: who is working with you to manage your event schedule? Your working schedule should be accessible to all necessary stakeholders. Additionally, you should have guidelines and procedures around scheduling – will one person be responsible for moving sessions? Will another person support in another capacity. As with anything else – too many cooks (without defined roles) can lead to chaos.
Timelines: While you could probably continue tweaking your agenda indefinitely, you need to define deadlines to keep your process moving along. Think about creating milestones along the way which lead up to a final deadline.
Scheduling software: Spreadsheets and Google docs work well for many event schedules, however, if your event is complex with multiple tracks running at the same time, you may want to consider event scheduling software for additional control and support.
How are you going to present your event schedule?
While creating your event schedule think about how this will be shared. Will you have an event website? An event app? Paper printouts of the conference activities? This will help you to visualize how you want your event schedule to look and whether it will work across a range of mediums.
Now that we’ve looked at the questions you should ask yourself, let’s talk through the planning process:
One Day Conference Schedule
When planning a single-day conference or seminar, you should look at your event like a full working day. Taking this approach, kick off the event at the start of the working day (8 or 9) will feel natural for most attendees to feel engaged in work mode.
Try and chunk the day up into no more than 90-minute segments before having some kind of break, and then within those segments keep things interesting by changing up formats, speakers, etc., ideally at least every 30 minutes.
When you do provide for breaks in the schedule, make them a reasonable length in time – at least 30 minutes – otherwise it feels snatched and rushed. Remember people are there to network as well as learn, and they’ll also need time to catch up on work emails too.
After the lunch break, you should try to put on an interactive session, as people will be sluggish and sleepy after a large meal. Re-engage their brains by getting them involved in the content conversation.
One common mistake conference organizers make is trying to cram too many speaker sessions into the day. Of course, you want to give your attendees the most bang for their buck with a strong lineup of speakers! However, while big names may help draw a crowd, it’s important to find the right balance of quality and quantity, keeping in mind the overall attendee experience.
If the schedule is too packed and hectic or has too many tracks, not enough breaks, etc., then it will lead to a worse experience and may hurt your chances of attracting your attendees the following year. Sometimes less can be more.
Keep your attendees in mind when planning. The hour before lunch and the final hour of the day can be challenging times for a speaker to hold a room’s attention. Think about incorporating discussions or pannel talks to keep audiences engaged.
Multiple Day Conference Schedule
When planning a two or three-day conference, you should go at it similarly as you would to a one-day event and all the same best practices apply.
You do have more flexibility with start and stop times and the framework of your event.
Whether it’s day one or day two, it’s also a good idea to give a start time 10-15 minutes before the main speaker (or first formal session) begins, to give late-comers and stragglers time to settle in without disturbing the main session.
It’s also a best practice to end the last day earlier than the first, as people hit ‘content overload’ and usually need to get back to wherever they traveled from in order to start back at 9 am or 10 am the next day.
In both one and two day conferences it’s also important to vary the different ways you deliver content to your audience, so consider having a mixture of shorter talks, longer talks, fireside chats, panels, workshops, and roundtables.
Also, if you have a relatively large exhibition, you’ll need to extend your breaks in order to provide more networking time for attendees to walk the show floor and meet exhibitors. If you keep them in sessions all day, your sponsors and exhibitors will not be pleased.
Exhibition or Trade Show Schedule
Speaking of exhibitions, if you’re planning a trade show or exhibition focused event, your main consideration is encouraging attendees to meet and speak with exhibitors. To do this, your emphasis should be on keeping attendees on the show floor.
Often, exhibitions also offer content and speaking sessions an added draw to get people through the door.
To balance out the need for content with the need to have plenty of exhibition meet-and-greet time, many exhibitions run multiple tracks, in order to appeal to different buyer personas.
There will also frequently be a notable keynote presentation as the main draw. Timing is key so think about loading sessions in the morning to bring attendees out, then providing ample time throughout the day for attendees to connect with sponsors. Similarly, organizers will add a second notable speaker towards the end of the day as another way to encourage people to stick around. Then between content sessions, there will be extended breaks without distractions.
There really is no single best way to run an event – that’s one of the things that makes events unique and fun to attend! There are some good rules of thumb and considerations to follow to simplify the planning process.