Sunday, 23 April 2017

5 Things I Learned Organising an International Conference

I helped organise the European Youth Summit 2017 in Budapest along with the four other members of the Council of the Youth Platform, the ~10 other members of the Summit Organizing Team from the platform, the European Talent Support Network (the real adults) and the European Council for High Ability.




What was EYS17?


EYS17 was a five-day event at the end of March focusing on talent education and an EU charter pertaining to that, and aiming to connect smart active citizens from around Europe and beyond (we had people from India, Iran and China there too) with each other and start working on projects to improve the welfare of the students we represent.


How did it start?


The European Youth Summit was held for the first time last year in Vienna and bore the Youth Platform. I was chosen to represent my national Talent Centre along with Gabi and then elected to the Council (5 people representing the 70 Platform members and tens of thousands of TC members). The Council travelled to Budapest in October to start planning the Summit, and from there we formed a larger Summit Organising Team from the Platform and spent the next 5 months planning the schedule, making promotional material, securing speakers, sending invitation letters to TCs, having a billion online meetings (actually not that many Organising Team meetings, but since I’m on Council as well I had those too), researching and getting supplies for activities and more.

This was a nice event to start with. Firstly, it was small: we had capacity for about 55 students and some teachers/supervisors, and those were easy to recruit. Secondly, we had a defined audience -- we sent letters of invitation out to national Talent Centres and Talent Points rather than having to advertise to the general population. So we could tailor our message. Thirdly, the participants were really engaged with the programme and eager to actively contribute. We did structure it like that, but it helped that they were so willing -- these people were all very vocal and capable of contributing. You often get engaged and impressive audiences at conferences, but events for young people, in my experience speaking at them in Ireland, tend to have a lot of bored attendees because they’ve just been dragged along by their school. These people were chosen as representatives of their TCs so they weren’t like that, which was nice.


LESSONS


1. Running an event is TIRING. Oh boy, I thought attending conferences was tiring. Running them is way more so, because you’re (somewhat) responsible for other people’s enjoyment of it and always have to be on.


We had the work well spread out, so I really only had one day where I was in charge of a lot, the first full day. I had to give a speech at the opening ceremony as a Council member, give a talk at the Lightning Talks session, and most importantly, run the Lightning Talks session. I’d been working on it for weeks - reviewing applications, helping people with their presentations, co-ordinating them, making a running order, making sure everyone’s presentation was there and in the right format and on the right laptop (messed this one up for one talk but fixed it pretty quickly), MCing the actual event, even tiny things like making sure the microphone was on for each new speaker because some speakers seem to like turning it off when they’re done.


We had, I think, 22 talks over 2.5 hours, and given that they weren’t boring even though I know what they’d be about, I think the session went well, and participants agreed. It was a really nice session because it meant that the participants had a chance to speak about something of their choice before we brought in all the guest speakers. I think it really helped engage people, so yay!


To get back to the point -- tiring day, and a big relief when it was over. It did feel really good though, and the few days afterwards were much more relaxing even though I still had to be on, for the two reasons below.


2. Being an organiser gets you treated as an authority. I suppose it makes sense, but it definitely felt weird at first. Once I identified myself in person after the opening ceremony as the person in charge of the Lightning Talks and said I’d meet the speakers over lunch for final prep, they swarmed me, genuinely about 16 people asking questions all of a sudden. That makes sense since that was the session I was specifically in charge of, but people came up to me for all sorts of things -- when next year’s event in Dublin in August was announced, people came up to me and asked whether they’d have to book their own hotels. I know that’ll be my responsibility to know then, but I sure don’t know now!


That said, I didn’t mind people asking -- it was pretty fun, and I enjoyed it a lot when I got into the groove and wasn’t afraid to direct people a bit more. I could just take the initiative when something needed doing (e.g. people needed to move somewhere at an altered time) instead of seeking permission to do it because I knew what was happening.


3. It involves LOTS of impromptu speaking. I wrote my opening speech and my Lightning Talk on the plane over and figured that’d be the end of my speaking. But as well as MCing the Lightning Talks (introducing the session and speakers), I did a bunch of other speaking -- volunteering to encourage others to, reporting back from our group, co-ordinating people, letting people know about small schedule changes, just any small thing that was changed (e.g. someone had to fly back early so their session was changed, so I told other organisers and then informed the participants and introduced the speaker). Also, had to speak clearly because there were people from about 20 countries there, which was good practise (I still speak fast though, I will admit!).


(This wasn’t just me, obviously -- other organisers were doing the same.)


4. Many hands make light work. This is a cliché, but I never realised how true it was until we did this. We had about 15 people in total working on the Summit, and we actually worked really well as a team, even through disagreements. First of all, the fact that we actually sold out -- I’d subconsciously believed people wouldn’t actually get behind it. Then how we co-ordinated everything from securing speakers to procuring equipment to sorting everyone’s transport arrangements to funding (shoutout to the Hungarian Talent Centre) to answering email queries. Then how the event went off almost without a hitch (one lightning talk having to be pushed back a few minutes because of a missing presentation, some sessions running a bit late). I honestly couldn’t believe that we’d managed to just make this happen.

Sure, there were a lot of meetings, and that was sometimes a pain. But it was some really cool teamwork and really showed me the power of that. It was such a relief when the Summit finished and had just...worked! All the sessions went as planned, no one got hurt, people had a great time, got good work done on the Charter, project pitches and workshops, and formed friendships.


5. A great manager means a lot. All the youth organisers were doing this on top of school/uni work, so it was very much a side project. That meant things (e.g. things we’d agreed to do that week) slipped from our minds sometimes, and so having someone to give us a kick in the butt was helpful.


Lukas, as Project Manager for the Council and previously interim Internal Co-Ordinator, did an amazing job managing the whole thing -- I’m so impressed. Because his entire job for the last few months has been managing the Summit, he didn’t have one day he was mainly on for, he was just always in charge of everything. We had specific Team members running each session, but as well as running certain sessions he did all the other background stuff too including communicating with our parent organisation, the European Talent Support Network. (My role in the Council is Communications Officer, so while I did plenty of work for the Summit lots was in preparing invitation letters, checking all outgoing communication written by another Council member, managing the emails,  and writing the brochure and newsletters so I didn’t have as much to do as Lukas during the actual Summit.) He did a huge amount and deserves a lot of credit for the success of the Summit.

Towards the future: the next Summit will be held alongside the ECHA conference in Dublin in August 2018 (on my birthday, actually). My term as Communications Officer lasts until December 2018, so we’ll see how that goes!

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