Event Planning 101: Running a One Day Conference Well

Producing a meaningful event is hard. Producing an event that encourages dialogue that leads to innovation is near impossible. Yet, shouldn’t we try? My time is too valuable to pitch it away to a panel of talking heads with little meaningful discussion. Today’s professional events need to address our new paradigm in better ways. Meaningful, exciting ways. My time and attention is worth that much. This post is a little off topic from our normal discussion of how life collides with urbanism. However, so much of what I have been doing lately is organizing people that it seems worth a post.

Ok, so how does a new paradigm event get done? I had the pleasure of working with a fantastic group of CNUNE members on the production of the recent Sustainable Urbanism Summit. This small group was able to pull off an exceptional meeting that was interactive, inspirational and, perhaps most impressive, produced on practically no budget. Robert Orr and Robin Bergstrom deserve a massive thank you for taking on the leadership of this effort. The Summit would not have been the event that it was without their passion. That is the first lesson: let passionate people run things.

But, what else matters? Below is how CNUNE produces the Sustainable Urbanism Summit. These guidelines only plot the course. It seems every year things change due to new ideas. Which is perhaps lesson two: stay flexible. You could get on quite well with only these two lessons and produce a fine event. No matter how much planning is in place things come up, and having great people on the team who are not afraid to change is key.

What events have you been to lately that were full of meaningful discussion and ideas? And if you have run one of those events let me know what you think of the event production guidelines below?


The New England Chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU New England) hosts the Sustainable Urbanism Summit annually in a transit accessible New England community with the goal of creating a forum for the exchange of ideas for improving our regions built and natural environment. Throughout its history, CNU New England has focused on the improvement of the human habitat. After many years of advocacy and design guidance, the organization feels that now is a critical time for action. As the political and economic conditions of our country change, it is imperative that we tackle our environmental crisis, collectively identifying challenges, exploring opportunities, and planning for a better, more resilient way of life in New England.

Our hope is that the speakers and the discussions one experiences at the Summit will both inspire and better connect you with professionals, public servants, academics and citizens that share a commitment to improving our built and natural environment. New England has the physical framework to become a model for sustainable urbanism at every scale. Healthy and complete town centers can be one of the most comprehensive solutions to climate change. Building on this idea, we urge attendees to take advantage of the ideas discussed at the Summit. Now is the critical time for our region, we need your help to solve the critical challenges facing our villages, towns and cities.


  1. Produce an experience that inspires all into action.
  2. Create a platform for connections and projects to be created.
  3. Provide our speakers with an engaging audience.
  4. Make sure everyone has a fun and memorable time.


  1. One lecture hall that has good light and inspiring architecture. The capacity should leave no chairs empty. Moveable chairs are best. The room should have fine details and grand features that will enhance the presentations.
  2. The venue in general should reflect the importance of the Summit.
  3. Space for up to 10 breakout group meetings. It is ideal if several or all of these can happen in the lecture hall. Other meeting rooms should be located very close to the main hall to encourage cross pollination between small group discussions.
  4. Free space is best, but low fee space is acceptable. Religious and community meeting halls have been successful venues in the past.


  1. The group of speakers should be as multidisciplinary as possible. Strive to include all industries that might effect the built and natural environment.
  2. There should be at a minimum two big name speakers. These marquee speakers should draw attendees, and can help kick off and conclude the program.
  3. Several of the speakers should not be from New England states. This insures that we import new thinking into the region.
  4. At least one of the speakers should be “out of left field”. This speaker might be minimally related to the central theme of the Summit, but brings a unique perspective. This “sideways” speaker’s presentation will hopefully be refreshing and provocative. A little surprise is good.


  1. The Summit is designed to be an intimate affair. This requires that the population be kept below 150 people. Use this fact to encourage early registration. (Reserve your seat today. Don’t miss the latest thinking on creating Sustainable Urbanism. Space is limited!)
  2. Keep the ticket price low, and announce early so municipal people can get a request into their budgets.
  3. As much as it is hard to believe, not everyone uses Twitter and Facebook. Tell the story of the event to people.
  4. Word of mouth is great. Make sure people know what to tell other people.


Six Months:

  1. Setup Summit Planning Committee
  2. Assign team leaders: Program, Sponsorship, Events, Volunteers, Communications
  3. Brainstorm possible speakers and themes
  4. Lock in a city and venue.
  5. Lock in a date.
    1. Before committing fully to a date make sure any other regional conferences or large academic events do not occur on the date.
    2. A Thursday night start, and all day Friday event works best.
  6. Announce event on main CNUNE website.
  7. Begin production of the Summit Website from the template.
  8. Lock in the marquee speakers.
  9. Create a short list of speakers.
  10. Begin inviting speakers.
  11. Scout out a pub or drinking hall for the night before cocktails and kick-off speaker.
  12. Create event budget.

Four Months:

  1. Launch event website with date, marquee speakers, location and early registration instruction.
  2. Begin to blog about everything that is going on with the Summit production.
  3. Finalize speakers list with first and second choice speakers.
  4. Make invitations to speakers.
  5. Execute venue contract.
  6. Finalize the kick-off cocktail location.
  7. Contact colleges and universities to begin outreach for registration and volunteering.
  8. Send save-the-date email blast.
  9. Create fundraising plan and sponsorship packages.
  10. Make fundraising calls to sponsors.
  11. Monitor event budget.
  12. Scout hotels in the city, and inquire about deals for groups.
  13. Invite key bloggers and press to the event.

Three Months:

  1. General registration opens.
  2. Key speakers should be on the website. Headshots and bios for each speaker are important to include because the Summit is heavy on speaker interaction. It is all about the speakers and we need to market them well. Links to speakers websites and blog should be included as well.
  3. Create draft of the program & schedule.
  4. Communicate with speakers who are traveling.
  5. Make formal call for volunteers.
  6. Finalize any hotel deals for the Summit group. We should not be committed to having to fill a certain number of rooms.
  7. Continue to update the blog.
  8. Work to confirm final speakers.
  9. Hit 50% of fundraising goal. Collect checks from pledges, and put their logos on the website.
  10. Recruit partner organization. Send them text for an email blast to their members. Add them to the website.
  11. Update industry publication about the event. Make sure it shows up in their calendars & announcements.

Two Months:

  1. Email information on hotels and travel.
  2. Finalize tour details if occurring.
  3. Finalize extra workshops if occurring.
  4. Select volunteers from applicant pool.
  5. Finalize speakers.
  6. Recruit video or reports to capture the event.
  7. Followup with key bloggers and press about attending the event.
  8. Begin blogging about individual speakers to help marketing. Interview speakers if possible. This should be a “sneak peek” and should encourage registration.

One Month:

  1. Begin email series of “Top 10 Reasons to Attend the Summit”.
  2. Monitor registration.
  3. Confirm travel details for speakers.
  4. Confirm AV requirements at the venues.
  5. Assign tasks to volunteers.
  6. Monitor budget.
  7. Send speakers guidelines.
  8. Post draft schedule for the program.
  9. Review second draft of program.

One Week:

  1. Assign equipment and material procurement.
  2. Complete “Top 10 Reasons to Attend the Summit” email blasts.
  3. If registration is full announce it.
  4. Send thank you to volunteers and remind them of their instruction.
  5. Confirm final details with speakers.
  6. Confirm event bloggers and documentation is in order.
  7. Confirm travel plans.
  8. Issue production team and speakers contact list. Cell phone numbers should be included.
  9. Post final schedule and program to website.
  10. Print program.
  11. Relax.

Two Days:

  1. Email team leaders will any last minute changes.
  2. Confirm any last minute program changes.
  3. Update schedule if needed & post to website.
  4. Print sign-in-sheets, name tags, signs showing the way to the event, etc.
  5. Confirm venue logistics.
  6. Monitor budget.

One Day:

  1. Relax.
  2. Enjoy the chaos.

Good luck with your event. I hope this guideline can help in some little way make your event a more meaningful experience for all involved. Keep an eye on www.cnunewengland.org soon for the outcomes of the Sustainable Urbanism Summit.

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