THE BLUFFERS GUIDE TO ORGANISING AN INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
This guide is not meant to be exhaustive, and we do not expect to be able to tell you all you will need to know when organising a conference. This guide is culled from our experiences in organising the Towards Car-Free Cities II Conference, held in Romania in April 2000, and we hope that by sharing our experiences with TCFC II with you, you can avoid some of the basic mistakes, and benefit from some of the best moments.
Towards Car-Free Cities II was a Conference bringing together 52 environmental anti-car activists from across Europe, and the United States, for one week of intense workshops, debates and direct actions on the subject of the Car-Free city.
The theme of the Conference was “Avoiding the Mistakes of the West”: the idea being that the massive increase in the numbers of cars in Eastern Europe is a threat to society and environment that can be avoided if Eastern and Western European activists meet to exchange views and experiences and information that can be used to persuade public and politicians alike that the car is not a sustainable nor desirable choice.
The organisation was shared between several groups: Car Busters, Czech republic, and European Youth for Action (EYFA), Amsterdam, with the bulk of “on the ground” organisation by Tinerii Prieteni ai Naturii (TPN), Romania. All are groups run entirely by volunteers, and had little or no experience in organising an international conference.
The participants were predominately aged between 20-25 years, though the youngest was 17 and the eldest 35. Most participants were working fulltime for NGOs involved in environmental issues, but some were independent environmental and anti-car activists. Some had their primary focus in anti-car activism, others came from different perspectives such as biodiversity protection.
The divide was approximately 60 per cent from Eastern groups to 40 percent from Western groups.
Experience levels varied considerably. A few of the participants had been involved in anti-car activism for many years, and attended the first Towards Car-Free Cities Conference held in Lyon in 1997. Many others were novices, just becoming aware of the problems surrounding car culture.
All participants spoke some English, the working language of the conference, but few were native speakers. Some were able to say literally only a few words.
The Conference thus presented a major challenge to organise and make a success, as so many cultures, ages, interests, levels of experience and languages needed to be catered for. We believe that we succeeded, but that we also made mistakes that could have been easily avoided. So that the organisers of the next Car-Free Cities Conference, or indeed any international meeting of activists, do not have to start totally from scratch, making things up as they go along and hoping that what they are doing will work, we decided to write this “Bluffers Guide” that will let you see the best and worst of what we did, some suggestions for improvements and, ultimately, if not exactly how to organise a conference, at least what issues you should think about.
So, read on and enjoy, but remember: this is a Bluffers Guide in every sense. We are not experts. We are bluffing if we try and tell you we have all the answers now, so if you see such grandiose claims in this booklet remember, we warned you here that we are still making it up as we go along!
Do you have one? Do you need one?
Towards Car-Free Cities II fundamentally aimed to allow knowledge and experience to pass beyond borders, both physical, between countries and across language divide. To give coherence and structure it aimed to provide participants with the opportunity to share experiences and learn from one anther’s successes and failures, as well as to pass on vital information from experts throughout the field.
In many ways the designation of a theme helps people to prepare in advance for what the conference will hold, both speakers and participants, and to give a coherence and structure to the conference. However, it can be difficult to achieve and even limiting, if the participants involved have a wide range of interests and may wish to explore other areas.
Obviously, your conference will be a miserable failure if you do not have participants, so outreach to find them is very important. With TCFC much of ours was done over email through networks that the organisers already had. Whilst this did result in a great diversity of attendees and reached surprisingly far, with applicants received from beyond Europe and into Africa and Asia, we did perhaps too much outreach via email. After all, not every one has access to it, not even in our target group of Eastern Europeans, so a few carefully placed adverts in magazines could be money well spent (or adverts well begged!) and make the conference more “democratic.”
Fundraising And Sponsorship
Local sponsorship can be a major bonus. If local businesses, citizens groups or government are prepared to assist in sponsoring your Conference, they can also assist you in outreach, publicity and “perks” that make the week easier for organisers and participants alike. One of the greatest achievements of the TCFC II fundraising and sponsorship was the involvement of the local public transport company, RATT, who were prepared to allow us to paint two of their vehicles - a tram and a bus - as part of a very visual message to encourage people to use public transport. It assisted with local community outreach, gave an opportunity to involve locals in the Conference aims, as school children and street children joined in with the painting actions, and the vehicles remain as a tangible and very visible advertisement to our aims after the Conference participants have packed up and gone home.
In addition, the company provided free tickets for public transport use for all participants during the week of the conference, which enabled people to explore the city in their free time, and move freely and easily. It was a small perk, remaining within our overall aims, which was greatly appreciated by the participants.
Such sponsorship we therefore recommend you seek. It worked well for us as conference organisers and participants, but also benefited RATT. It was all arranged well in advance, with a fax sent to the company explaining the conference, our aims and who the attendees would be and a clear presentation of the project. This was followed up by meetings with the company. Presentations to the company were done in an official, professional way, with TPNers ensuring they were dressed smartly and thus made the right impression, and had a clear list of requests for the company to look at an approve or otherwise. Generally, they were approved.
Fundraising: Fundraising was done with cooperation between all the organising groups, who separately wrote funding applications to potential supporters, and kept in touch with each other via an email listserve, which was used throughout all the organising.
We benefited a great deal from people’s knowledge of “friendly” potential sources. Insider knowledge of this kind meant much less time needed to be spent on fruitless grant applications, and often meant that we knew in advance we were practically guaranteed money before we put pen to paper. It made life a great deal easier to have such good contacts and relations beforehand, and meant that the fundraising was 100 percent successful, in that we raised all we needed.
Therefore, exploit all your contacts and when setting up your conference, do not be afraid to get the applicants to do some of the work, as many will have contacts that could prove useful in your fundraising efforts. However, do also try new and "unpredictable" funders, as these can prove important too. Just read carefully the guidelines that any funder gives, to see if your application will fall within the grounds of what they say they will sponsor, and then having read it carefully, write an initial letter outlining your project as asking if they think they would be likely to support you, for sometimes the guidelines seem more open that the reality actually is, and writing an initial letter takes less time than a full proposal so releases you to do other things.
In attempting fundraising within Romania, TPN experienced two difficulties. Firstly, the fulltime volunteers who are European Voluntary Service volunteers, do not speak fluent Romanian, so could only write suggestions in English, and the Romanian volunteers were left with the bulk of the work whilst also studying at university etc. Furthermore, TPN only took over conference organising after another group had pulled out. They thus had little time to fundraising (which can be a lengthy process, and involve long waiting periods before you know if the application has been successful) and also meant they missed deadlines for applications as they did not have sufficient time to research potential funders between the time they decided to take over conference organising, and the funder’s deadline. There was only one Romanian funder to give TPN money, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, whom again was a funder from whom TPN had previously received money and had good contacts with beforehand! In the case of Romania, however, the local funder's contribution was naturally much smaller than those from other, international organisations (about 600 Deutsch Marks compared to almost 10 times that from one international fund!). So whilst local support is important, perhaps it is worth considering whether the local support should be in the form of a cash contribution, or whether it is actually more valuable to get as much local sponsorship from companies as possible which could give more visible or valuable perks - such as the deal with the RATT transport company.
Travel To And From The Conference
Pay attention to the fact that your attendees must travel to, not just magically appear at the conference. The more information you can gather about the best travel routes, the cheapest tickets, the possible problems, the timetables etc. the better. The earlier you can do it, the better, but remember to check if the timetables are likely to change between the time you ask and the date the participants will travel. Do not overload the information with all possible routes. TPN deliberately did not give the bus schedule from Arad to Timisoara, only the train timetable, as trains were easier to find, cheaper and ran more frequently, and it would be too great a drain on their resources to have someone meeting participants on arrival at the train station and at the bus station. This worked well for all, and who would want to pay more for the bus anyway?
You may think this is unnecessary work, and certainly some people are more adventurous and will decide to travel their own routes. However, many really appreciate the time and effort it saves them in journey planning and, in general, participants will arrive in a more positive mood and be more prepared for the conference if such details can be provided so that petty problems can be avoided. And, it does mean less participants are likely to get lost on the way or arrive late. The great work of TPN in providing such information for TCFC II participants was of great assistance, including even details such as warning against train conductors who might claim money for a seat reservation on the train that you don’t actually need! Their hard work in this organisation was probably under-appreciated by all, but it is in the nature of things that lack of complaint equals success.
Nonetheless, some people did arrive late to Timisoara and TPN strongly recommend that you put a lot of emphasis onto the starting date of the conference, to make sure people respect it. Late arrivals caused much more organising work, as people had to be available much later in the week to ensuring the latecomers knew where to sleep, eat and keep their belongings, whether they had checked in and paid, and of course, having to do extra check in hours for those who had missed it on Sunday evening and Monday morning.
Do the participants need to have Visas to entry the country in which the Conference will be held? Find out for them. This is partially a matter of making life as easy as possible for participants, but it is also essential for the success of your Conference. Never, but really, NEVER assume people would think to ask these questions themselves. They won’t. And your conference will not succeed if everyone is turned away at the border...
Also, countries sometimes have strange rules and regulations around visas. Romania was one of them, and as a result many people (especially Eastern Europeans) who couldn’t come because of visa problems. And two Gambians who had fundraised their own fare to attend the Conference, ultimately couldn’t attend because neither they nor TPN realised that a 1500 dollar deposit was necessary for them to get a visa, until it was too late. A similar problem was experienced by the people from Bangladesh.
So, find out about Visa, and find out about every single detail; are deposits necessary, are letters of invitation necessary, who needs one and who does not. And find out early, as it saves a lot of time, nerves and disappointments in the end!
Choosing A Venue
It is never an easy task to chose a venue, and of course price and availability will be the major deciding factors. Book early to avoid the latter being a serious problem.
The venue of the TCFC II conference was both a boon and a blessing. Based on our experiences, here are some questions to look out for.
Situation: the TCFC venue was perfectly situated. Half way between the university campus where we were to take our meals, and the TPN office where the organisers were busy constantly in behind the scenes organising as the week progressed, it was no more than a ten minute walk to either, thus convenient for participants and organisers. Public transport was only a few minutes away, and next to the conference hall there was a park where free time (and some of the workshops) could be enjoyed in the warmth of the sun.
Accommodation: accommodation and the conference hall were for TCFC in the same building. If you can find the same we would recommend it, as the shorter the distance people have to move to attend a workshop or meeting, the better chance they will drag themselves out of bed. It also allows some additional “comfort” for participants, who may wish to return to their room to pick up a forgotten item, change clothes, take an impromptu shower or do whatever it is they do when they drift homewards, and hours could be lost if the accommodation is too far distant.
Comfort: the TCFC II venue was a failure on this issue. The room was made of marble and thus very cold. Concentration was lost during workshops as people were too cold. This was de-motivating to the Conference attendees and was a factor in the loss of enthusiasm for workshops and meetings, and consequent reduced attendance, as the week progressed.
Unfortunately, whilst we were blessed to have accommodation within the same building, which was in the main comfortable, it suffered from the fact there was only one shower with hot water, and two very very cold ones. Which resulted in a lot of disgruntled complaints that made life more difficult for the organisers.
So, please try to think about temperature, and other comfort issues - will it be too cold, or too hot, what control do you have. Also, what is the seating like, is it comfortable in the forth hour as well as the forth minute; is there natural light or only artificial, very bright strip-lights; are there toilets nearby; where can people get refreshments etc. It all helps to keep things running smoothly if attention is focused on your conference issues.
Acoustics: The TFCF II venue further failed on the acoustics of the room. Whilst it was very difficult to hear speakers, the slightest shuffle of a chair on the marble floor was extremely loud. When choosing a venue, try and test how difficult it might be for people to hear, by sitting at opposite ends and talking/shouting. If the acoustics are not good, but the venue is otherwise perfect for your needs, at least you will be able to try and take action to limit the problem.
General: It helps to have a sympathetic venue, and venue owners/managers who understand and support your aims. This is, of course, easy to say and difficult to find, but can make things much easier. In Timisoara, for example, we found out that whilst we had been told it was possible for us to serve our own food as breakfast in the bar, the managers then complained that we were using the seats when not buying from them. Even though we worked out a deal where we had a “pub night” in the bar and bought lots of drinks to appease them, they still complained at our using the seats the following day, and eventually the organisers were forced to tell people not to sit down during breakfast, which was unpleasant.
Flexible hours certainly help. Officially you may rent the room only from 9am to 6pm, such as us, but it was very useful to us that the managers at the Timisoara venue did not insist on us leaving on time, and we were able to run late. Check if this is likely to be the case for your venue, as it is a great help.
Also, if people do not have individual rooms for accommodation, but are sharing, then a system is necessary for who will keep hold of the keys so that anyone can get them when they need them. At TCFC II people were surprisingly tolerant about the fact that keys seemed to disappear all the time and there was a continuous hunting for the person with the keys. However, it would be easier if it was the same person(s) responsible for the keys all the time.
Paying for the Conference
How and when to get people to pay is never an easy issue. If you ask for full payment up-front potential participants might be put off at having to pay for something that they haven’t yet got much information about, or don’t know how useful it might be. On the other hand, if you leave payment until arrival some people who said they would attend and booked will not turn up, as they lose nothing for failing to arrive. A partial payment in advance can give them the incentive to actually attend if it is non-refundable, but then you have to consider how to get advance payments.
If you opt, as we did, to have full payment on arrival, then it does not have to be a failing that 10-20% of the people fail to turn up, as it does mean there is room for more. You can accept and invite extra people, to make up for the non-shows. The worst that can happen is all turn up after all, but is quite unlikely...
Advance payments: If you want to get full or partial payment up-front, how should it be done - can you accept cheques from multiple currencies, or credit card payments. If not, what is the simplest method that people can use to pay.
Payment on arrival: If you decide to have payment on arrival, can you take money in several currencies? Do you have all the exchange-rate information you need? Do you have enough change?
One small hitch we experienced was that the funding from one organisation did not arrive in time. Fortunately TPN had enough money in their account to pay the travel reimbursements promised, but lost money changing it from Romanian Lei into Dollars and Deutsch Marks for reimbursing. Again, this sort of thing is easily avoided if the fundraising is done well in advance, a luxury we did not have!
Obviously, you need the general information such as name, age, contact information, and country of origin, as well as country the applicant would travel from to your conference should it be different. This will help you in organising visas etc.
Then it is useful to know more of who people are, what groups they work with, what experience they have in the issues you will be discussing at the conference, and what is their motivation for attending, all of which will help you decide which applicants to invite if you have more than you have space for.
It is very necessary to ask if people need translation at the conference, and emphasise this, more on this subject under Translation.
Finally, for TCFC II, the organisers wanted to know if people had ideas about what workshops or actions they would like to see during the conference. But just mechanically asking did not really work. There should be a more interactive way of communicating on these issues, perhaps signing everyone up to an email listserve. The organisers felt that they needed to know more about the participants and their hopes and ideas for the week (especially with regard to the actions, in which many participants had more experience than the organisers) - the application form did not work as a means of finding these things out. Maybe application forms should not even try to work as a method of finding out everything, but simply focus on basic experience, motivation etc. as people tend to fill the forms in a hurry and don’t feel motivated to present their ideas in this way, or don’t understand why they are even being asked. A second form, to all who are being accepted, explaining briefly why this information is being sought and asking specific questions would, perhaps, yield better results.
As a general rule, when organising, things happen more effectively and smoothly if certain people have, and are known to have, responsibility for certain areas of the organising. Months before TCFC II organisers often found themselves confronted with the problem that many people were working on the same things and it was not clear who had done what, so task division together with good communication and regular meetings to discuss progress will even this out. If, like us, you have organisers in several countries, then a way to make things run smoother at the conference would be for all organisers to arrive a week earlier, so that all the final preparations and organising can be done together.
During the conference, both organisers and participants should know who to approach about a specific problem. During TCFC II many organisers were overworked and felt they did not have time to get to know the participants, yet were doing things which other people could easily have taken responsibility for - including the participants themselves.
See Choosing a Venue
You can’t please all of the people all of the time and catering will be one of those subjects that always leads to complaints, so be prepared. The TCFC II catering was complained about, of course. But, it was also not that bad. As a large number of participants were vegetarian all meals were made for the majority, and were veggie. Vegan options were available, and there was enough vegan food to feed more than just the registered vegans - frequently non-vegetarians will eat the vegetarian food, non-vegans the vegan food etc. so if you cater for just the number you were told about in advance, then some will go hungry. Have extra.
Do not assume that just because someone is a diabetic, lactose-intolerant, frutarian, with peanut allergies they will think to mention this in advance, even if you did ask about dietary requirements in the application form. Be prepared to rush around and find something for someone at the last minute, and try to keep smiling!
Aside from that, remember that people’s tastes vary - if its spicy some will love it, others hate it, if the flavour is subtle for some that will mean bland, etc. So strike the best balance you can and try to have a varied menu. In this, it can be worthwhile arranging in advance with the caterers what meals will be served, which day, and don’t be scared to change the menu if it needs it. Ultimately though, we can say this - the TCFC II food was always ready when we were, and we had time to enjoy the meal before rushing off. This is what really matters. Though, slightly less soya meat would have been nice!
Finally, we found that it was a good idea to serve breakfast in the same building as the conference hall/accommodation. Whilst it may cause extra work for the organisers, it is much easier to get people to attend the first morning workshop if they can have a breakfast immediately after waking up. Had we needed to walk over to the main campus where our other meals were served, it could have been very difficult to get people back again afterwards! It was also more pleasant to the participants not to have to rush somewhere at eight in the morning: breakfast organised this way was more flexible.
Travel During The Conference
As mentioned above, TCFC II participants were fortunate enough to have free public transport tickets for the entire duration of the Conference. It made life much easier, and we all appreciated it.
If you have a reasonable large number of people attending, see if you can arrange a similar deal. Or at least discounted travel.
With or without free transport passes, however, people feel more at home and welcome if they can find their way around, so make sure the welcoming pack, conference brochures, timetables or other printed matter include a map of the city to help people get around.
Timetabling your Conference is one of the most difficult things to get right. We are not going to pretend here that we have the answers, but will tell you about where we made mistakes so that you might try and learn from our experiences.
What Went Right: at TCFC II there was one aspect in which the timetable was well planned and followed. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were always served on time. Even if a workshop had to be interrupted midway through to eat. We believe this was a benefit in two ways. Firstly, people will not concentrate if they are uncomfortable - such as hungry. So you may as well break off to feed them if it is necessary, as there is no point continuing when people are not paying attention. Secondly, “third party” organisers, such as kitchen or canteen staff will not be complaining at you for not turning up on time, so as an organiser it makes your life easier. (Be aware, though, that you should not expect the participants to just turn up at anything, even a feeding. Have people around to wake them up and kick them out of bed, to tell them it is time to go to lunch and take them there etc. or it will end up being late.)
What Went Wrong: we ran over time. Especially at the beginning of our week, which was more intensely workshop based, with emphasis upon teaching the basic concepts and issues, our days ran over into the evening, and on the second day up until 10.30 p.m. When the day begins at 8 am, this made for a long day. As a consequence, participants were tired and exhausted, and lost enthusiasm and willingness to attend workshops and meetings, and there was a serious drop in participation by midweek. This was partially due to the fact that the balance of the schedule was too theory-oriented in the beginning of the week, with the actions all towards the end, not spaced throughout. Many people said the actions were energising, and they were too concentrated at the end of the week. On the other hand, if basic theories and concepts need to be understood by all for the debates and discussions to progress to greater levels, then intense teaching and theory is necessary early. The loss of energy and enthusiasm of the participants at TCFC II was largely because we tried to do too much in the first few days. There were many issues that we wanted to teach about, but when planning we mistakenly believed that a short workshop could take place in just half an hour. They all needed longer, probably as much as an hour, as people asked questions, debated and got involved (as we had wanted them to) but it all took time. As a result, many debates and questions were not covered as fully as they should have been, and conversations were cut off in order to begin the next workshop, which frustrated participants who felt that they were only then beginning to really learn and be involved in the workshops.
Therefore, we suggest that you schedule an hour for every similar workshop, if you want people to join in and debate, as it is the minimum needed. But, be prepared with back-ups in case the conversation doesn’t take off.
What Else Went Right: when thinking about the schedule and the possible “back-up” or time filling workshops, remember to keep a good balance and variety. At TCFC II the week began with many workshops which were very intensive learning and listening experiences. However, the workshops were interspersed with more “fun” activities - role-playing, small group discussions putting into practice some of our lessons (such as designing our own car-free city) which helped ease the difficulties of sitting and listening. Activities such as warm up exercises and silly games also helped to break up the days as well as encourage us to get to know one another. Some evening pure fun activities such as a pub night and a folk dancing workshop also helped participants to get to know one another.
As the week progressed it became less orientated towards listening and more to debating, and finally more towards planning and building props for the direct action that was to finalise the week, the Street Party. In one week, therefore, we had workshops on city design and its impact on car use, workshops on public speaking, debates on the best design of bike paths, a role-play of a town about to have its mainstreet widened in which we played either for, against or neutral townspeople, a tram painting action, a candy action (handing out sweets and thank you notes to people using public transport) and a great street party. All of which were educational experiences, which in their own ways contributed to our goals of learning about car culture and how to fight it, and provided variety and fun to the conference.
Arranging translation is difficult, especially if, like us, you have a minimal budget and cannot afford to pay for professionals. At TCFC II the translation was mainly done by volunteers for others in the group. However, there was not enough of it, and non-professionals are not usually capable of simultaneous translation. As speakers generally will not talk slowly enough or pause long enough for translation to take place, a lot of information was lost to those who needed translation.
In hindsight, TCFC II’s organisers feel we could have done more to find translators, and about who really needs translation. Two attendees at the conference had written their applications is very good English, but on arrival at was found that they did not speak very well at all - perhaps someone had helped with their form? At anyrate, they missed a lot through inability to understand and because translators were not pre-organised for them.
With TCFC II we asked participants if they could translate for others, but this did not necessarily work well, as it affected their ability to listen to and join in the debates. One
idea for free/cheap translation help could be trying to get local language/translator students to help, offering a small payment and good experience for them. This would give the students a chance to practise their skills and release the participants from giving their input to translation.
In addition, whilst there was translation at workshops, we did not have enough of it when doing visible public actions such as the Candy Action, tram painting or Street Party. Which made it difficult to make it clear to the public and passers-by who we were, what we wanted, etc. And even those fluent in the language were not always as willing to speak out in public as you may expect. During the Candy Action, for example, participants gave out sweets and a small !thank you for using public transport! note to all the passengers. However, it would have worked more effectively if one person had loudly announced what was going on from the front of the tram. So pre-prepare handouts and leaflets that non-speakers can give out to explain their actions, and make sure their is an appointed speaker to go round and talk to the public and answer questions.
A successful conference often requires that other people know you are having it, whilst you are having it and afterwards. In the case of the Towards Car-Free Cities Conference II, the very fact that nearly 60 people would turn up to discuss an issue such as this, particularly in an Eastern European country where car culture is really beginning to take off, is in and of itself an astounding fact that can be used to enlighten people about our movement, our goals, and our aims, and help us to achieve them. But, it is no good if wasted, which is why outreach (explaining who you are and want you want, and trying to get others to join you) and publicity are essential.
Media. Be careful when using the media. They are a useful tool to get your message out to a wider audience, but they can also twist your words and paint a negative picture of your actions if they think it makes a better story to sell to the wider public. Be aware and be prepared.
Having said that, the media is also often lazy, and if you have pre-written your story will publish or announce it with very little modification. Sometimes, therefore, it may be more effective for you to send a press release and a pre-written article to a newspaper or television or radio station than to get reporters to come to you.
Try therefore to make an informed decision on what means of media will best convey your message, as your message, whilst reaching the maximum audience possible. If you have a controversial agenda and/or means or achieving it, be aware that your words are more likely to be used to discredit you than help you. If your programme is not, however, controversial, then exploit the media for all it can give you.
If you decide to hold a Press Conference, there are a few basic rules to follow. Dress smartly, as your appearance will be judged before your words. Be professional and be prepared. At TCFC II TPN felt it was useful to have some of the foreign attendees at the conference, even though it diverted their time into translation, as many were well informed, articulate and obviously, by their presence able to emphasise the point that it is an international conference on an international issue, and thus important enough for the press to devote good space to! However, having someone concentrating just on translation would make this easier, as the Romanians felt they were less able to discuss their points when busy translating the words of others.
Public Interaction. Going directly to the public can be a more effective method of spreading your ideas, aims, goals and achievements, and breaking down the myths and barriers that separate you from your audience. But good public interaction is not always easy to achieve. At the TCFC II Conference, we both succeeded and failed, yet our failures are easy to avoid. We did not think through our actions. For example, we had the opportunity to paint a tram to give it colour and appeal that might contribute to a perception of public transport as fun, friendly, usable, modern and sustainable in contrast to the polluting, congested, noisy, dangerous etc. automobile. But, we did not prepare in advance. So instead of painting a tram with a coherent and easy-to-read-from a distance environmentally or socially positive message, we enjoyed ourselves and interacting with the street kids and randomly daubed it with bright coloured paint. Creating a tram that looked like it had been gratified by a bunch of “weirdo hippies” in the worst sense of the stereo-type. More-over, whilst painting we had no leaflets or information brochures we could hand out to passers-by, and not enough people could speak Romania to explain what we were doing. This was an extremely bad example then of public interaction, as we confirmed stereotypes held against us as young activists and environmentalists, and created a lasting memorial in the form of our gratified tram that can only serve to thwart our aims, and instead make an excellent advert for private car ownership. This was a mistake that could easily have been avoided with a planning session before hand in which the separate organisers of the schedule and the action joined to discuss what the action aimed to achieve and how to do it.
We did learn from this ourselves, and in the afternoon of the same day had a second painting action, this time of a bus. in this instance, we planned what we wanted in advance of painting and created a far more attractive vehicle. In addition, this action was done hand in hand with students from a local school, so we had more informed public interaction and a chance to share our ideas on a one-to-one basis with local teenagers who are more likely to join our movement and continue our work as a result.
Another consideration, however, is how well your street actions fit your overall aims and ethics. For us, painting a tram had great potential for advertising out public transport not private car message, but using a lot of paint is in itself not very ecological. Some participants may have felt that doing so, even for the purpose of spreading an ecological message, was good. Also, during the end of week street party, there was some criticism from bypassers and journalists about using petrol when putting on a firespinning and firespitting show...whatever decision you make about using “controversial” tools, it is as a minimum good to be prepared to answer comments and how best to explain them to the public. However, don’t forget too, that over-thinking everything takes away the joy of spontaneous things and can make everything too serious and boring. So just balance it, use both craziness and common sense, and you should get a great result. Which is ultimately your best weapon when dealing with the media.
So, the lesson to be learned is always think ahead to the consequences of your actions, especially if it is an action which is public from beginning to end. Always have information at hand to give to people who question what you are doing. Be bright and enthusiastic and colourful, for fun is attractive, but make sure the seriousness of you message is not lost in the fun and games. And be aware of cultural differences - if people are not used to seeing artistic and creative methods, too much can mean the message you wish to portray is lost. On the other hand, it could also make it easier to attract attention by doing something a bit different....
If you need materials for a workshop or an action, it does help to know in advance. At TCFC II the list f necessary materials was only drawn up 2 days before the action. And in Romania, it isn’t always easy to find what you need, especially if its a tin of spray paint!
Make The Participants Work
If you are reading this guide at all then we can assume that like us, you are an experienced group or groups, and possibly running on low or nothing budgets and arranging everything in our spare time. Under such circumstances never be afraid to demand help and assistance. At any stage.
Before The Conference Begins - Find the experts. Some people attending the Conference may have more experience than you in some of the matters you are organising. On the application form, try and give a general idea of what will happen at the Conference and ask for advice, helpful hints and tips on organising them. Given a little time to think, they may be able to provide excellent organising hints on subjects as varied as press conferences to spontaneous direct actions. However, the questions are more likely to illicit responses if you give some idea of what help you may need than if you put in a general question about what experience or skills people can offer, so be specific.
During The Conference - get volunteers to clear up the conference room, ensure that speakers do not overrun their time, to herd people off to lunch or back to the hall, to serve breakfasts, lunches or dinners, or wash up after, and generally do the jobs that do not need experts of organisers around. People are generally willing to help out if they can, and are asked nicely, and it can help participants feel more like they are participating.
Yes, The Stupid Little Things Do Make A Difference - To YOU
People do not think for themselves, nor do they work themselves if they think it is someone else’s job.
As conference organisers you will be in a difficult position, you will have chaos to deal with and deadlines and important work to do throughout the conference, but attendees will nonetheless complain to you about everything and expect immediate action.
You cannot think of everything in advance, but the more of the little things go right, the easier your job will be. So try to ensure that there is toilet paper in the toilets but if there isn’t, don’t waste your time going to buy it, ask whoever complained to go get some and give them the money...
And Finally - Expect Complaints
The task of organising any meeting is not easy. But a conference lasting several days, especially if you have participants from many countries, is a huge task. Be aware that people will always complain more than they say thank you, and expect to hear more moaning in a few days than you have ever heard before in your life. Prepare for it. Make sure you have someone around to listen to you scream and shout, or to give you a life saving smile, hug, cup of tea or glass of beer.
And then listen to what else people are saying. At TCFC II people were genuinely impressed by the conference and the people we met there. We may have made some mistakes, but we also worked together, learned from one another, argued about our aims and goals in a positive exchange of views and opinions. We exchanged contacts and resources. We were energised by the experiences shared, the friendships made, the lessons learned and the achievement of creating a successful action together, in the shape of Romania’s first ever street party. We left the conference each feeling lucky to have had the opportunity to have met so many other people fighting for the same goals as ourselves, carrying the knowledge that we were not alone in the fight.
The attendees of your conference will feel the same. So enjoy what you have created, and be very proud. Look at it, its really quite amazing! The main organisers of the Romanian conference, TPN, had this to say
There were not so many complaints ... we’ve had people email here to say it was the best conference they have ever been too.
There was a great atmosphere in TPN after all and we got lots of energy about this, as well as valuable experience. It was worth having continuous meetings, writing loads of emails, invitations, fighting with broken fax machine...we learned a lot!