ELT Conferences: Organiser’s Perspective
by Henrick Oprea.
I’ve been in ELT since 1997 and my very first conference as an attendee was in 2000. There was no millennial bug that year, but the conference bug certainly bit me. From a conference goer, I became a conference presenter and before I knew it I was volunteering to help in the conference. I had the chance to be an MC and work with the minders; I’ve been a proposal reader and a member of the academic committee. And now, in my current position as the president of BRAZ-TESOL, I’m actually in charge of organising our 16th BRAZ-TESOL International Conference (16th BTIC), to which all of you are invited, by the way. As my roles changed, so did my perspective of ELT conferences.
As a conference goer, you’re concerned about the value you’ll get for the money you spent. “Will I see good sessions? Will there be enough networking opportunities?” are some of the questions I had in mind. As a conference organiser, I can tell you that the concerns are even bigger. The question now is not whether it’ll be good value for the money I’ve spent, but whether it’ll be good value for money other people invest – and this makes a huge difference in terms of responsibility. Thankfully, ELT is a world filled with generous people who are willing to offer their expertise and support to help you in such a humongous endeavour. The only possibility of one being able to organise such massive events is counting on, and really depending on, the help of volunteers.
As a conference organiser, you soon realise that even though the academic part of the conference is important, there are many other aspects that need to be dealt with if you want the conference to actually happen in the first place. I’m talking about the choice of the venue, for instance. Can we find something to hold the number of participants we have in mind? How expensive is it for people to pay for accommodation and food? Is it easy to get to the venue?
As far as the academic part goes, the questions are also abundant. Do we have the right speakers? Is there a good balance in the presentations? Can we offer support for first-time presenters? Do we actually want first-time presenters (and, to my mind, the answer to this question should always be YES)? Have we ensured that the gender-balance of plenary speakers has been taken into account? Regardless of gender, did we manage to get outstanding speakers for the money we had? How do we deal with the “recommendations” of sponsors when they suggest (push) a name you didn’t really want in the first place? How financially-sound is the association to fight such battles?
But there’s more! You have to think about the financial part of the conference as well. How will it pay for itself? Can we make it any cheaper for participants? How? How can we save money? What if we tried to be more sustainable and ditch paper? Will the Wi-Fi be powerful enough to hold all connections then? Should we try new technology to help participants or will that just make things more confusing? Are we willing to play it safe and do the same old things that have been done, or are we OK with being open to new problems in order to try to provide a different experience to attendees? If so, how much further will we get?
I guess the main issue for a conference organiser is that you suddenly realise you’ll be organising a conference you’re very unlikely to attend yourself as you’re constantly handling problems in the backstage so that the participants’ experience is as smooth as possible. In a conference with more than 1,000 people, it is very likely that some will be displeased with something. However, that’s what we do.
As we walk into a classroom in our teacher role, we are putting our planning to the test. This is pretty much what we do as conference organisers. We plan, we prepare, we talk to people, we invite A LOT of people to help you out. You are very grateful for the support you get and wonder how you’d manage if it were not for all the good will of people to make things happen. You relearn the value of trust and the number of people willing to work to make something happen just because they want to donate their time and work for a cause. Yes, our conferences are not-for profit and run by volunteers, so it’s amazing to witness what can be accomplished when people work together. It’s the magic of organising an ELT conference – the magic of bringing people together, of worrying about others’ well-being and investment. It’s being open to all sorts of criticism and hearing that things will never work, and yet believing that it will because a group of fantastic professionals have decided to come together to make it happen.
Next time you attend a conference, pay attention to the little details and be thankful to all those who have put it together. You never know the workload until you try to do it yourself!