Organizing academic conferences: Behind the scenes of EurOMA 2016

We have just finished organizing the 23rd EurOMA 2016 conference at NTNU in Trondheim, Norway. The European Operations Management Association (EurOMA) is the premier European association for academics in the fields of production management, operations management, and supply chain management. The EurOMA conference is hosted by a European university late June every year and draws around 500 participants from all over the world. Two years ago, NTNU won the bid for the 2016 conference – and we set an ambitious goal of organizing a flawless and unforgettable experience for all attendants. Although EurOMA offers an appropriate manual for organizing these events, someone still has to do the job… Here are some key learning points from our side.

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Team up

Organizing an academic conference with 20 parallel session tracks is a daunting task. I advise no one to do it alone. The first thing we did was to establish the local committee. We split the leadership into four chairs: scientific program, finance, logistics, and communication. About ten other local people took responsibilities for specific events and tasks (e.g. accounting, design, pre-conference events, entertainments, tours, exhibition, web, social media, scheduling). In addition, we were quick to sign a contract with a local professional conference organizer. Speaking of contracts, we spent much time early on securing funding from sponsors. Lastly, as we were close to the conference we offered about forty students jobs as volunteers (they proved invaluable).

Local people are an absolute necessity, but we were also dependent on the usual EurOMA international scientific committee—for reviewing papers and contributing as pre-conference faculty, organizing special sessions, being session chairs, or serve on award committees. I guess about half of the 500 participants were also involved in the organization of the conference in one way or another. We surely recommend any organizer of an academic conference to “team up”!

The workload is an iceberg

The things you see when attending a conference is only a tiny fraction of the work that goes into organizing it. It is a good that the organizers do not envision the amount of work before putting in a bid—if they did, not many would apply. We had more than 50 meetings in smaller work groups and 10 extended organizing committee meetings in the ten months prior to the conference. All the individual work comes in addition, which I guesstimate to a few thousand hours in total. In other words, a serious investment of time and efforts from many people.

The saying “the devil is in the details” was probably invented during a conference. Try scheduling 400 papers and 100 session chairs into 20 parallel sessions on three days—sorting on themes, avoiding overlaps, and accommodating a myriad of special wishes. Even a trivial thing like signing turned out to need special attention and dedicated resources. In addition comes all the things you do not foresee. In our conference for example, we got an issue with locked doors and lack of toilet paper. Good then—because we had “teamed up”—we fixed all issues just before the delegates noticed them.

The participants create the quality

No conference is better than its participants are. In EurOMA we have a tradition for double-blind reviews of extended abstracts. We also require full papers for accepted abstracts. This two-step process certainly helps ensure a good quality of the content. Moreover, we handpick session chairs well before the conference. We particularly asked all session chairs to prepare good introductions and questions to each paper and to stimulate a constructive discussion among session attendants. Each session runs one and a half hour and contain three papers. That is, authors have 30 minutes to present their paper including time for discussion, which should be sufficient for getting some valuable feedback.

One thing is to have quality. Another thing is to let participants know where to find it. Communication is essential for a smooth conference experience. We used web, emails and twitter prior to the conference, printed a conference book, and had a physical secretariat during the conference. More creatively, we developed a conference app together with Guidebook. Over 400 of the participants, twice as many as we hoped for, used it. The app proved to be very helpful. Important notifications were pushed to all users (for example, location for key events), special sessions integrated live polls, and last-minute changes in the program were instantly updated and available to all.

Make it social and fun

Creating good scientific content should be expected in an academic conference. A bigger challenge is to make it pleasant and fun. That challenge starts with food. People always remember if the food is below standard, so we were not willing to compromise with the quality of the food. Do not forget the vegetarians, the vegans and the traditions of different religions. Hungry academics are not exactly the friendliest discussants, so we made coffee, fruit and nibbles available in breaks. (Note that this is where the earlier point about securing sponsorship kicks in).

Most conferences include a gala dinner—the icing on the cake. Ours did too. The gala dinner is surely not the place to save, so we went “all in” on food, drinks and entertainment. I am proud to report that we got over hundred academics to dance to the electropop tunes of a DJ group (Rytmeklubben)—even before we served desert. It is our hope that the participants of EurOMA 2016 in Trondheim will remember it for a long, long time.

Thanks to all contributors and participants of EurOMA 2016, and the best of luck to next year’s organizers of EurOMA 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland. See you there.

EurOMA 2016 logo

Read more about EurOMA 2016:
EurOMA 2016 sends special thanks to:
  • KvartalKvartetten (string quartet)
  • Careful,Boy (jazz trio)
  • Nidarosdomen (Steinmeyer organ concert)
  • Embla (women choir)
  • Joakim Røbergshagen (violin) with Mona Spigseth
  • Rytmeklubben (DJs / electropop)
  • NTNU Videre, our Professional Conference Organizer
  • Marius Hansen and his team of student volunteers
  • Key note speakers Prof. Kasra Ferdows (Georgetown University) and Kristine Gramstad (Marine Harvest)
  • The Norwegian Research council and our other sponsors