Career development

Planning Industry Events: Setting Them Up For Success

While you may have attended one or many industry conferences, symposiums, and workshops, have you ever considered the planning that happens behind the scenes of these events?

Among others, Amber Sturrock volunteered as a member of the 2017 OTC d5 committee, which organized the d5 Conference (in the picture) at Rice University. Photo by OTC/Edmund Fountain 2017.

From workshops to technical courses, annual conferences to niche forums and symposiums, the oil and gas industry offers a diverse assortment of knowledge sharing opportunities. While you may have attended one (or many) of these events, have you ever considered the planning that happens behind the scenes of these events?

Planning industry events is a great way to build a network, develop project management skills, practice public speaking, and perfect the art of efficient email communication. Throughout my career, I have either directly planned or supported the planning efforts for more than 20 industry events. I am by no means an expert event planner, but I have had ample opportunity to consider how long an audience can pay attention (not long), hold their bladder (slightly longer than you think), and require coffee or snacks (morning and afternoon).

The foundation of a successful event hinges upon the ability of the chair or leader of the organizing committee to make decisions and clearly establish the vision of the event. These decisions not only include establishing the event theme and agenda, but, more importantly, identifying the committee members who will be tasked with supporting the maturation of the event.  While a committee of one can certainly create an event, I would advise against it. Without a balance of fresh and seasoned individuals, it is likely that in the long run this “committee of one” would not be able to maintain a recurring event or its quality, and the individual may lose his or her interest and passion for that event. 

Elements of successful event planning align with the elements of successful meetings. Successful meetings have a purpose, an agenda, a clear set of objectives, attendees that know why they are attending, correctly sized meeting facilities, food and beverage (depending on the time and duration), and prescheduled breaks. 

To help those that are new to industry event planning, I wanted to share my thoughts on five key elements of event planning. Some of these elements may also correlate to the workplace; however, they are specifically written to capture my experiences planning industry events.  (A quick disclaimer: there are many other aspects to event planning which are not captured here but also require thought, such as advertising, venue selection, food selection, budget, record keeping, digital workspace for collaboration, event questionnaire, continuous improvement, and more.) 

1. Planning Timeline

Attendance determines the success or failure of an event. Attendees need to have time in their schedule blocked out to attend events. If events are scheduled too late or advertised at the last minute, it may be challenging to fill the event. If you are planning an event that takes the whole day, 3–6 months’ lead time would be minimum with an easy working schedule of 1 year being ideal. You will also want to allow ample time to secure speakers and volunteers—the higher in an organization the speaker or volunteer resides, the more lead time is required. 

2. Committee Members

A reliable team of committee members should help to take the stress of planning off the leader. Having a committee also allows for backfilling when work and personal commitments swell. Expectations of all committee members should be made clear upfront. Typical responsibilities of committee members include

  • Attending planning meetings
  • Responding to emails
  • Completing action items in the agreed upon timeline
  • On-site support at the event 

It is up to the leader to motivate committee members to participate.  There are some participants that will go above and beyond the call of duty, but there are also other members who may be lackluster in their contributions.  If you are leading a committee and want to remove a volunteer from the group for lack of participation or lack of commitment, reach out to try to find out what is not working for that volunteer. It could be that they lack time to participate, or that their volunteer capabilities are better suited for a different role within the group. 

3. Establish a Clear Theme

Vague event titles and themes can lead to confusion on the purpose and a lack of attendance. Event titles from five to ten words in length supported by a one-to-three-paragraph long theme description or mission statement will help decide the planning committee, speakers, volunteers, and audience. 

Depending on the event, there can be a sentence- or paragraph-long description about each element of the event. The more the leader and planning committee can document their vision, the more likely that others will support its execution. The plus of developing these guidance documents early in the planning timeline is that they can be used to solicit speakers, volunteers, and in advertising efforts for the event. 

4. Speakers

Each and every speaker should be considered a champion for the event.

Careful consideration should be given when deciding speakers, panelists, roundtable leaders, coaches, breakout session discussion leaders, and other volunteers that will be invited to participate at the event. Each and every speaker should be considered a champion for the event.  If you can get the speakers excited about the event, they will be sure to tell their colleagues and networks about the “super cool event they get to participate in.”  Although gender parity does not exist across all areas of the energy industry, it should not preclude diversity in speakers.

If you would like more tips on how to eliminate bias, check out this article.  

5. Event Schedule

Practice makes perfect for introductory remarks and for speaker introductions.

Both high-level event and detailed event schedules should be created for each event. The high-level event schedule can be shared with attendees and can also be used for advertising. It should contain the main event tranches including but not limited to registration, welcome, speakers, lunch, coffee, and networking. 

The detailed event schedule will include a subset of activities and should also provide a detailed list of speaking roles ahead of the event. A well-rehearsed event introduction with optional slides can help to further gain the audience’s attention and set the scene for the speakers.

Practice makes perfect for introductory remarks and for speaker introductions. Assign these prominent speaking roles at least a month out from your event to ensure plenty of time for rehearsal. Capturing times for coffee, table swaps, and lunch in the event schedule is also something to consider. Allowing the audience to go back and forth between lecture style activities and small group discussion can help to keep attendance and engagement high throughout the event.  

As you go forward with your event planning, be sure to acknowledge everyone’s efforts throughout the planning process—be it committee members, speakers, member society staff liaisons, and others that play major and minor roles. While email thank you’s are most common (and easy to forward to supervisors), nothing beats a good old-fashioned, handwritten thank you note. 

If you are rusty and want some tips for writing a thank you note, check out this article.

If you are new to industry event planning, contact the sponsoring organization, be it SPE or your member society, to get help.  Find a mentor who has been there, done that, and can help ensure you get started on the right foot. Find the person or people who have organized that event previously or have planned similar events in the past.

Remember that the more effort you put into your event, the more you will get out of the event. The same goes for leveraging your memberships in professional organizations. The more you put into the organization, the more you get out of the organization.

Amber Sturrock is the managing editor of The Way Ahead. She is currently a risk and interface engineer for the Chevron Jack and St. Malo Project. Over her career, she has had the opportunity to help plan events focused on education and networking with the SPE Gulf Coast Section, SPE International, Offshore Technology Conference (OTC), and the Women’s Energy Network. Sturrock is the director for the inaugural SPE Women in Energy Committee event "Own Your Future," which will occur at the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in San Antonio, Texas, on 10 October.  She currently serves as the chair of the OTC Networking Committee, which will deliver four events throughout OTC 2018 in Houston. She has previously volunteered with OTC The Next Wave and d5 committees, and with TWA since 2013 supporting multiple sections prior to transitioning to a leadership role in 2015. Sturrock has been an active SPE member since 2001 and received the SPE International Young Member Outstanding Service Award in 2014. She holds a BS in petroleum engineering from Louisiana State University.