Tips to Organize a Great Conference

We've been hosting the annual 99U Conference for 7 years now. It gathers 1000 creative leaders at Lincoln Center every year through an application process, and it's always a highlight of my year - full of thoughtful conversation about the execution of ideas from so many different perspectives. Here are some insights into what makes 99U tick...
  1. Short Talks For Main Stage, In-Depth Workshops For Smaller Groups
    We curate about 15 main stage talks that are all about 20 min each. These quick talks keep everyone awake and ensure that folks don't tune out if a talk isn't relevant to them. It also forces speakers to get to the point. But we also do 90min workshops for smaller groups - attendees self-select for these.
  2. Lots Of Candy
    Sugar gathers people and keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. We've had cotton candy stands, barrels of different candies, cupcake collages, custom chocolate bars, and the list goes on.
  3. 30min Breaks Every 2 Hours
    With most conferences recorded and posted online, the reason people come together physically is to meet each other, discuss the content, and discover people with similar interests. Breaks are as important as sessions.
  4. Make Registration An Event
    Rather than have your attendees' first experience be waiting on line, turn your registration into an event the night before the conference. We started doing this years ago and it really breaks the ice.
  5. Design Amazing Collateral
    Our design team goes all out every year for 99U - badges, maps, programs, posters, volunteer t-shirts, decals, signs...and we create a new identity for the conference every year that affects lighting and communications. Check out 99U on Behance to view some of the past identities... People really look forward to this every year - it makes the experience a piece of art.
  6. Optimize For Circumstantial Connections
    If you ask an attendee what, if anything, they got out of a conference years after attending (we have), they'll usually cite someone they met that made a difference in their career. So, conferences should be designed to foster these chance encounters. No saved seats, many different meals with open seating, many breaks, fun activities in main hall, interactive sessions, CULTURE of everyone meeting each other!
  7. Have A Fellows Program
    Our tickets are expensive for many people (it costs a lot to put on a high quality experience, especially if you don't want to sell the soul of the conference to sponsors). So, we invite sponsors to subsidize 50-100 tickets for "Fellows" who get invited for their awesome work in social/not-for-profit causes. This adds more diversity of opinion and expertise to the conference.
  8. Treat Your Speakers Like Royalty
    Our speakers get invited 6-9 months before the conference. We are very clear with what we expect of them and what we provide. We want them to be on-topic, original, and committed to a prep call, speaker dinner, and advance preparation. We go out of our way to cover all expenses (and keep it classy), provide an honorarium, promote their books/works to our audience, and get every detail right. Most speakers tell us 99U was the best and most organized conference they've ever spoken at.
  9. Recruit & Train Amazing Volunteers
    Our volunteer program is a bit of a legend - hundreds of people apply for a limited number of volunteer positions. These folks come together pre-conference for training and are carefully positioned throughout the conference to make everything super organized. All volunteers wear the same t-shirt.
  10. Have A Killer After-Party
    After a conference, people should come together and celebrate, say their goodbyes, and experience the host city. For a few years, we have hosted our after party at the MOMA, usually with a well-known DJ, great open bar, lighting, etc...