Steps to Sponsoring Successful Seminars and Symposiums


Tips, Tricks, and Traps on Training Tracks

A. Larry Aaron


Seminar planning and execution is an involved but rewarding job, both from personal and organizational finance viewpoints. An annual Fall Seminar in the Knoxville/Oak Ridge area has been the primary source of income and scholarship funds for the East Tennessee Section (ETS) of AACE International for many years. The Section has raised many thousands of dollars in scholarship funds in that period of time. The author has served on six seminar planning committees, four as chair or co-chair.

Some professional associations and their branches may hesitate taking on such projects due to the lack of experience, skills, or resources. The goal of this paper is to encourage professional associations to host seminars by:

To provide an in-depth discussion of the entire scope of subject matter would require the space of a book or meeting planner's guide and would need to be written by a professional meeting planner. The author may be contacted at for numerous checklists and schedules that have been used successfully in planning seminars.


Seminars are managed using skills and tools familiar to cost engineers and project managers who plan and execute large engineering/construction (E/C) projects:


Cost Engineering Discipline


Organize & Administer

Project Management

Quality (standards, procedures) & Organization (personnel)

Control Costs

Cost Management

Scope & Change Control, Work Breakdown Structure

Manage Time

Planning & Scheduling

Use of Goals, Schedules & Checklists

Plan the Use of Money


Financial Planning & Budgeting, Code of Accounts

It should be comforting to know that to host a successful seminar, a professional cost management organization only needs to practice its trade - that is, the organization needs to "cost engineer" the seminar. The basic tools of a project manager are the schedule (including task lists and checklists), the budget and code of accounts, the organization chart, and the scope definition statement, including a work breakdown structure. The importance of many of these tools is explained below.

As in a major E/C project, a seminar is divided into time periods or phases and a number of discrete elements or tasks. The staff, or seminar planning committee, carries out the tasks while maintaining control of the scope of work, including the quality, schedule, and costs.

There are four phases during seminar development similar to phases of an engineering-construct project with which most cost engineers are familiar. Each begins with an "S":



Phase Name

Generic Action

Engineer/Construct Project Analogy

Seminar Activities



Planning the Plan

Project Definition, Budgeting, Planning, Personnel Assignments

Identify a leader and plan the seminar from a macroscopic or strategic viewpoint.



Detailing the Plan

Project Design, Scheduling, Detailed Estimates

Determine speakers, make staff assignments, and develop specific plans for each detailed activity.



Executing the Plan


Execute the seminar.



Checking, Evaluating, Improving, and Recycling the Plan

Project close-out

Analyze the positive and negative points of the seminar. Celebrate.

Albert Einstein said that, in an activity oriented situation, 85% of ones time should be spent planning, and the remainder of the time doing and checking. A seminar is much like an athletic event - more time goes into practices and strategy development than to the actual game. The first two seminar phases are planning intensive and utilize most of the available time. Comparatively, very little time is spent on the execution of the seminar.

The tasks within each phase are discussed below.


Phase I - Scoping Phase -or- Planning the Plan

In the Scoping Phase, the entire seminar's foundation is built by thinking through various classifications of strategic thinking. Each category starts with the letter "s":

Each category also answers the classic cost engineering/project management "W" questions: WHAT is our task? (Project Title), WHY are we doing this? (Project Mission), WHO will lead and have responsibility? (Staff), WHEN will this be done? (Schedule, Season), WHERE will it be held? (Site), and HOW MUCH will we do? (Scope Specification).

Setting Strategies for Success


You have decided that a seminar is worth investigating. Next, key parameters for seminar success should be defined much like system parameters are defined when producing a conceptual grade estimate. Typical strategic questions focus on selecting a leader, establishing a seminar philosophy and goals, defining a target audience, establishing a theme, and assessing finances and risks.

A project like this needs a "champion" - someone who believes that the fruition of the seminar is a real possibility and is willing and has the time to do the majority of phone calling, planning, and initial strategy development. A seminar may never reach the planning stage due to the lack of a dedicated person to coordinate the seminar effort. In selecting a leader or chair, look for someone who is detail-oriented, flexible, and with time, energy, and good organizational and follow-up skills. He or she need not have a lot of contacts but rather the ability to ask questions and research information.

Much of the chair's time is spent on some form of communications - preparing staff handbooks; planning and chairing planning committee meetings; updating schedules and cost status reports; developing/updating lists of potential speakers/vendors; contacting facility managers, subcontractors, speakers, registrants, vendors, and door-prize donors; writing close out reports to the organization's Board of Directors - the paper work is immense. Paperwork skills are a must. Advanced word processing and database management skills are an asset. Be sure to appoint a co-chair to train with the chair to allow an orderly transfer to next year's seminar. The co-chair can also carry a portion of chair's responsibilities.

Two administrative tips: (1) progress meetings are much more effective when status information is obtained in advance. Since staff meeting time is limited, it is recommended that completed items be noted as such and limit discussion to only the exceptions, and (2) distribute to each planning committee member a loose-leaf binder with tabs designating the main divisions of the seminar. This is a convenient tool for keeping notes, schedules, phone numbers, etc regarding the seminar. Supplement revised information as it is available at each subsequent meeting. Content should include useful items as job descriptions (specifying all deliverables and time milestones), phone numbers of all planning committee members and key contacts, layout drawing of the meeting facility, and a supplementary page with updated information on potential speakers and vendors. Planning committee members should receive updated lists at each meeting. Issue hot lists of delinquent activities and schedules of upcoming activities for next reporting period. Sort these by "responsible person" and distribute accordingly. All this specialty reporting is facilitated tremendously by a database management program or a word processor with sorting capability.

Philosophy and Goals

Every organization has a philosophy underlying its operation. The philosophy is usually reflected in policy and modus operandi. Take some time and document the philosophies and policies of your organization. These will have a big impact on the tone and atmosphere of the seminar.

A primer on sound goal setting practices would state that all goals must be:

To put goal setting into practice, call a brainstorming session of the seminar planning committee and ask "Why hold a seminar?" After all ideas are suggested, refine the list so that each statement reflects an achievable, measurable item. All others are deleted. The remaining list is put into a cascading structure of primary (P), secondary (S), tertiary (T), etc goals. The goals will be referred to later when planning committee members develop action plans to accomplish each goal.

An example of a modest P goal is "to provide a $500 surplus to be used toward a scholarship." It may have S goals of "attendance by 50 people" and "participation by 3 vendors." A more ambitious goal may be to have a surplus of $4000 ($2500 in scholarships, $1500 working capital to fund next year's seminar, and $500 for a new overhead projector). This P may have S goals such as "Attendance by 150 registrants for speaker sessions, 40 classroom registrants, and 12 vendors," or "Publicly acknowledge all current scholarship recipients with an award."

The more ambitious second scenario has higher risks and requires more investments in money, time and people than the first. Also, the second scenario could easily have T goals and/or action plans to support each S and P goal. For instance, "Design and distribute a special brochure to attract 12 vendors to the meeting", or "Use direct mail techniques to other members in the region and magazine advertisements to draw some national attention." Note how these T goals create an expanded need for personnel to develop these products.

Don't overlook the consideration of "must" and "want" goals. These are often derived from the philosophy and policy statements mentioned above. The following have been used by ETS over the years:

Keep the organization's seminar goals visible throughout the planning of the project. Take the time to put the goals in writing. This process cements the goals among the planning committee members. Keep the goals visible at all planning meetings. ETS has gone so far as to list the goal at the top of seminar planning committee meeting agendas.

Target Audience

One pitfall is failing to define the seminar's target audience. Assuming that the local membership is the target audience causes missed opportunities to expose new people and companies to the organization and a mismatch between the audience and seminar content.

ETS's most successful seminar (135 attendees) occurred when they chose the theme of Productivity and targeted the Construction Industry Institute (CII), both in terms of audience participation and speaker involvement. Early identification of the target audience enabled the Section to build an appealing technical program and a marketing program to support it.


A theme is not a "must" but, like logos, should be considered since it can encapsulate the thrust of the entire seminar into a slogan or picture which may be useful in marketing the seminar. Devote a portion of a meeting to brainstorm possible themes for the seminar.

Finances and Risks

Plan on preparing two budgets- a study budget for the initial planning meetings and a detailed budget based on specific plans from the scheduling phase. For the study budget use a prior year's actual costs as a guide or use a seminar budget planning sheet. Consider alternate sources for up-front funds, such as company sponsorships or donations. Also plan on conducting fee versus attendance optimization scenarios and break even analyses. Use a budget checklist as a guide to other financial activities that need to be performed. A computerized spreadsheet model has been developed that allows the ETS to generate "what if" scenarios for various fee structures and attendance levels.

Finally, before assessing various sites, it is best to know the financial status of the organization and develop alternative financial strategies. The organization should conduct an informal risk analysis to assess the likely positive and negative outcomes, likelihood of occurrence, and impact of each occurrence. There was a year that the ETS had 35 walk-in registrations. This was good from an attendance/income standpoint, but it caused a problem with the luncheon arrangements. However, this had been an anticipated risk from earlier risk assessments and there was a plan to deal with it.

Selecting the Site and the Season


Consider talking with various site representatives about their specific facilities and your goals. Be sure to ask for suggestions from the experienced staff of these facilities. Be mindful of your audience in picking the site. Think about the proximity of each site to your local population or how convenient each is for out-of-towners, or the atmosphere and impression each makes.

Take the time to tour several facilities and meet with their management. Before touring each site, you should have an idea of:

Many hotels will grant significant discounts or free space if a block of overnight rooms is filled or a specified amount of money is spent on food service. Be sure to get price lists of facilities/rooms, food service, audio visuals, etc for further budget planning. Try using the pursuit of a long-term relationship as leverage to obtain discounts. Be sure to investigate contractual requirements. Don't assume anything and ask a lot of questions. Who is responsible for taking out trash, sweep up, and tear down? What about insurance and liability coverage? Security and early/late occupancy for vendors? Get a floor plan (with measurements) and seating capacities/arrangements for each site. Note audience convenience features such as phone and restroom facilities. Pick both a primary and secondary site in case something falls through. Many facilities will allow booking of space with no deposits.

Take care before contractually obligating the organization or its officers. Have in writing the terms of payment if the facility will be collecting fees on behalf of the organization. Also understand clearly what kind of information will be available at registration and in what form, if at all, a close-out report will be in.

Food can make an impression on your guests and your treasury. If the facility will allow it, consider bringing your own food and snacks but be prepared for a lot of work if you do. Coffee/drink breaks are costly. Think through in advance from where/for how long the coffee pots will be available. When thinking of food service, consider sit-down vs. buffet meals, ambience and appearance, pricing, and capability to serve special meals (kosher, vegetarian). Most caterers expect a guaranteed minimum number of meals 24-72 hours in advance. They usually prepare 5-10% more as a contingency.

Develop a checklist to use while touring each facility.


If you plan to use a commercial site, start your site analysis early. You may have a limited number of dates available due to other advanced bookings at the facility. One year in advance is not too soon to reserve a facility.

Consider the season and month, day of week, and time of day when selecting your strategic time periods. Is there a particular time frame that many people in your target audience will be out of town? Should the seminar abut a weekend to accommodate out-of-towners? Also consider whether other events (local, regional, national) might draw people away from or to the seminar. Consider athletic events, national and religious holidays, major conventions, vacation periods and school breaks, large corporate plans, other similar events by competing organizations. Think about times of good/poor weather. Check with Visitors and Tourism Bureaus, Chambers of Commerce, and athletic event schedules. Bring a calendar to all planning meetings.

Selecting Staff and Scope of Support Services

This section links the discussion of staff with the scope of support services since one cannot be determined without considering the other. It is necessary to look at these simultaneously with trade-off consequences in mind. This is analogous to setting the work breakdown structure (identifying the scope of work), the organizational breakdown structure (those personnel responsible for planning and executing the seminar), and the responsibility matrix (correlating the people with the tasks). Each of the support services is mentioned briefly.


For a typical seminar, the leaders are the chair and co-chair. Support may be supplied by a budget committee (usually the organization's treasurer) and optionally a scheduler (to track progress on all activities), a technical committee (contacts speakers, arranges for classes, etc) and correspondence secretary, although many chairpersons prefer to keep these three functions to themselves. Additionally there are overhead support service positions such as publicity (including brochures, public relations, and mailing lists), vendors, registration, and hospitality/miscellaneous. Although most staff personnel come from the organization's membership, volunteers such as students, spouses, and the Visitors and Tourism Bureau may be recruited. The extended staff includes the employees of your contractors and suppliers. Consider them as sources for ideas and invite them to planning meetings when the agenda is appropriate.

Most staff personnel will do their job provided they are treated with respect, know their responsibilities, and are given clear directions. The chair must provide guidance to all planning committee members, clarify each job responsibility, and monitor progress on all tasks, events, and milestones. Document the relationship and responsibilities of planning committee members in an organization chart listing any deliverables and milestones being consistent with job descriptions/task lists. Develop job descriptions and master task schedules for each major staff position on the seminar planning committee including that of the seminar chair/co-chair. The scope of each of these positions follows.


The seminar's publicity information is the first time that the target market has contact with the organization. You should put your best foot forward but use caution because it's easy to spend a lot of time and money on publicity.

Much could be written about how to develop brochures, press releases, etc but space is limited in this paper. Several helpful resources are listed in the References section. If you decide to produce a brochure, realize that the seminar's critical path will typically pass from making technical content decisions and receiving speaker abstracts to the printing & distributing of the brochure.

Consider issuing flyers aimed at specific target audiences, distributing information at local meetings or national conventions, placing advertisements in magazines or journals, including the publications of your professional organization. Some organizations may donate free advertising space and listings in "Calendars of Events." Finally, consider mailing brochures to your target market. These contain a lot of information but can be quite costly after accumulating the costs for typesetting, art/graphics/photos, paper/printing, folding, sorting by postal code, mailing label acquisition, and postage. After manually sorting and affixing 5000 labels from six mailing lists into postal code order, the ETS now uses a county agency serving the handicapped to fold brochures, affix labels and postage, and sort-bundle-tag-bag the brochures in accordance with U.S. Postal Service bulk mail regulations. Their price is reasonable and quality and turnaround time is good.

For organizations that have little or no experience, consider starting small, doing little advertising. It almost goes without saying but get as much for free as you can. If you are forced into working with a printing service, prepare a brochure mockup indicating full scale sizes, fold lines and block-outs for art work and photos. This can be used to solicit quotes if you also know paper weight/size/type/color, number of ink colors, number of copies, number of folds, and whether you or printer will do the typesetting and paste up work. One shortcut is to use half-tones to limit printing to two colors but get the effect of 4 or more.


The registration operation will affect influence the opinions of attendees. Registration should be handled very professionally and plans should begin immediately at the start of the Scheduling Phase. Consider traffic flow of guests and locations of coat rooms in choosing registration area. Find a number of people to work registration during the first few seminar hours. Give careful though to the contents of registration packets. The registration chair should prepare the registration coupon for the brochure and issue confirming post cards upon receipt of complete registrations. If possible, utilize portable computers/printers and a database program to prepare registration records, name tags, certificates of attendance, etc.


Vendor space is a great source for income at $100 and up for 1 day of booth space. It also creates an interesting diversion for the attendees. Consider preparing a special vendor brochure explaining the seminar from their viewpoint (number of attendees, layout of booth spaces, number of days). Be sure to explain set-up and tear-down times, amount of contact time, and security provisions. Indicate location of power outlets.

A potential vendor list can be developed in a brainstorming meeting or through contacts at meetings and conventions, by looking in journals, magazines and local phone books, or searching old business cards and rolodexes. Solicitation and confirmation letters should be issued in a timely manner. Use logs to track status of progress vendor booth bookings.

Hospitality, Miscellaneous

In the ETS, hospitality includes room hosts, speaker/host ribbons, awards/plaques, and give-aways. Miscellaneous activities fall to whoever can provide services such as photography, signs, door prizes. ETS's "room host" system has worked well in developing confidence in new Section members and scholarship recipients.

Photographs are used to document the seminar in the historical records and to use as a public relations tool. Signs are used in many ways. Pointing arrows can direct attendees down unlabeled corridors. Other signs prompt speakers when 2 minutes remain in their speaking time. Signs can label main seminar areas, registration lines, and the rooms hosting speakers/topics during the seminar. Banners can display the name of the seminar on a prominent wall. Check with your site facility to see their sign making capability and pricing.

Selecting a Strong Speaker's Session

The technical portion of the seminar is the "meat and potatoes" (analogous to the direct costs of an E/C project), as compared to all the activities mentioned so far (analogous to the indirect costs of an E/C project). This portion of the seminar has the biggest impact on the attendees since this is what they paid for and are most interested in.

Selection of the technical session is the primary task. Speakers, classes, discussion panels, audio/video tapes are all viable technical programs. Some of the common questions asked are: Who do we know that can present? Who can we get to present? Who have we heard of? What other resources can we use to contact speakers? What are the "hot" topics? Will these speakers connect with the theme and target audiences?

Some of ETS's successes in getting good speakers have been through 1) AACE's Speaker's bureau and prior speakers list, 2) catalogs used to accumulate training advertisements, catalogs, and professional magazine advertisements, 3) other professional groups/conferences speakers, 4) corporate, university or government officials, and 5) people that you know, work with, have heard about. If several people are dealing with speakers, be sure they understand the established policy for negotiating arrangements and cutting deals. There are few things worse than a bad reputation from dealing inconsistently with vendors and speakers.

As with the vendors, use a log to track and report the status of each prospective speaker.

Costs are always a consideration. Many speakers will attend at no cost, especially if they are local. However, do consider honorarium, travel expenses, and your out-of-pocket seminar costs such as a seminar luncheon and registration packet to be given to the speakers.

Consider publishing transactions or speaker handouts. Attendees like having these publications although they are very expensive. They are a burden for the speakers to prepare, and they overload the staff with a large volume, last-minute copying activity. ETS has never published transactions and still has had successful seminars.

Another point worth serious consideration is holding classes. Classes generate large revenue and a lot of interest. A number of universities and vendors have donated time and expenses at no cost to the Section. Consider classes that will meet the seminar objectives and be of interest to the target audience.

Phase II - Scheduling Phase -or- Steps to Success by Detailing the Plan

Now that all items regarding the seminar have been identified, a detailed schedule must be developed to track progress. The chair and each planning committee member should develop applicable task and milestone lists together. Every step in the action plan must be listed with a corresponding deadline and a person responsible. ETS distributes such a checklist to each planning committee member. Generally, the chair is responsible for monitoring schedule progress. A similar report sorted only by date and not by responsibility allows the chair to track overall progress and spot upcoming or delinquent tasks. Use planning checklist and task and milestone lists at each planning committee meeting to track status on all activities. A word processor with sorting capabilities, a spreadsheet program, or database manager can manage this simple schedule information. Detailed schedule logic is not necessary. The checklists can be used from year to year making minor revisions when required.

For detailed budget planning, develop and distribute a code of accounts that relates to the schedule of activities. A detailed budget should be developed from the study budget's "not-to-exceed" objectives developed in the Scoping Phase. The Treasurer should report the financial status at each seminar planning committee meeting. Using good cost engineering practices, commitments as well as actual costs should be reported.

The ETS has linked the schedule with the budget by assigning a task ID Number to each activity. All invoices submitted to the Treasurer must reflect the Task ID number. The cost status report and budgets are done with a spreadsheet program allowing easy math capability and sorting (by responsibility, category, person responsible, etc).

Bear in mind that there is no such thing as "profit" for non-profit professional organizations. The preferred word is "surplus."

Expect the Unexpected - Risks Again

At least two months before seminar day, develop plans to circumvent high-impact, high-likelihood problems and promote high-impact positive consequences. Risk planning is again performed as detailed seminar plans are made. Before final approval of the working scope a part of a meeting should be spent asking the question "What Could Go Wrong with Activity xx." When each significant item is identified, an action plan is developed to circumvent the problem before it occurs and a contingent plan in case it occurs anyway. Typical questions that get asked here are: If speaker XX doesn't come, do we have a contingency plan? If too many people show up how will we find out in time to make meals arrangements, registration materials, etc? How can we minimize our exposure in case too few people show up to break even? Can we get up-front financial/attendance commitments from employers?

To assess risks, ask all planning committee members to list all the "What ifs?". Then assign a probability of occurrence (High, Medium, Low) and impact if it did occur (High, Medium, Low) to each. Then pick the top few and figure out a way to prevent the negatives, cause the positives and plan action steps for each.

Phase III - Staging Phase -or- Sustaining Seminar Stamina and Executing the Plan

It's one week before the seminar and a number of details need to be dealt with. Consider doing the following:

Coordination Meeting

Hold a meeting with all immediate and extended staff (including particularly the facilities people and subcontractors). Go over every detail of the seminar including the sequence/logistics of all activities, what/when/where refreshments and meals are to be served, audio/visual arrangements, and registration details. Plan for several people to arrive early to hang signs; establish the registration, "for-sale", and literature distribution areas; and set up and test all audio/visual equipment. You will also want to verify that everything was set up according to your contractual agreement and that all lights and sound systems are in working order. Be sure to arrange any early arrival/late departures with hosting facility manager.

Supplies List

Prepare a checklist of office, registration, audio/visual, clean-up, and other supplies/material that you need to bring on the day of the seminar. Don't forget your site and meal contracts and registration materials. If you can afford it, make arrangements to have a walkie-talkie so that you can communicate with key staff people but particularly the site manager.

Introductory Remarks

The introductory remarks should be carefully planned, including who will open the meeting, who will introduce whom, orientation to the registration packets, orientation to the site (phones, restrooms, fire exits, message boards). Introduce staff (as each one stands) in case a registrant needs to contact someone (good use of the committee ribbons). Use "crowd warmers" such as a show of hands indicating the furthest traveled, longest repeat customer, etc. If you are not a natural joke teller, don't tell them.

Plan all remarks before breaks, meals, whether you will offer a blessing, etc.

Tips for "The-Day-of"

The day of the main event arrives. Some of the staff are excited and some are nervous. The many months of planning are about to unfold. Generally, the day of the seminar will go according to plan. If a professional site (hotel, convention area) is used, there will probably be little difficulty because they coordinate these types of functions regularly. But despite "the best laid plans ...," things will go awry. Instructors usually are prepared to deliver their talks, although without a doubt, one of them will have an audio-visual or copying request that was never placed in advance - or the missing easel that didn't show up - or the luncheon speaker that didn't arrive until 5 minutes before lunch - or the speaker that got ill or had a death in the family. Having done a good job of risk planning, the chair and the staff ought to be able to deal with these situations. A good tip would be to expect anything to happen and be prepared to take action. The chair must remain calm, upbeat, and proceed in an orderly manner no matter what happens.

The chair and planning committee members should spend the day mixing with the crowd attending to the needs of guests and vendors. Check rooms for comfortable temperatures, over-crowding and problematic audio/visual equipment. Most important, talk to people and find out what they think of the seminar. Seek and accept informal comments and suggestions. Check with the staff to see if they have any difficulties. Delegate action whenever it's logical to do so.

The Niceties

Word-of-mouth is the best sales tool so take steps to cause people to leave your seminar with a positive impression. Provide great technical content and a lot of personal hospitality. Make your guests feel like they are in your own home. Every person should be treated with the utmost respect and remember the customer is always right. Your organization's and your personal reputation are at stake.

Phase IV - Synopsis Phase -or- Checking, Evaluating, Improving, and Recycling the Plan

The purpose of the Synopsis Phase is to:

This is the wrap-up stage of the seminar and the phase most easily forgotten. This phase is analogous to the project analysis phases of a completed project. The thinking is often, "The main task is behind us so why spend any energy on the past." But it is as important as the seminar execution, especially if future seminars will be sponsored by the same organization.

The types of things that are dealt with in this stage are highlighted in the Follow-up Checklist. This effort is generally headed up by the co-chair of the current seminar (and usually the lead chair for next year.) You should spend time planning the feedback meeting and develop an agenda.

One way to develop seminar management skills is through the learning that takes place at such a meeting.


This paper has listed and described many of the tactics, tips, tricks, talents, techniques, tools, thoughts, and traps from the AACE International East Tennessee Section's successful series of seminars and symposia over the years. There is much more to seminar planning and administration than can be discussed in this paper. If you have additional questions, the author is willing to try to answer them. He may be contacted at


Devney, D.C. 1990. Organizing Special Events and Conferences. Sarasota, Fla. Pineapple Press, Inc.

Meeting Planner's Guide, AACE International, Morgantown, WV

PR Handbook, AACE International, Morgantown, WV.

* This article has been adapted from 1992 Transactions of the American Association of Cost Engineers (now AACE International), Morgantown, WV, USA, copyright 1992.

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