Develop a Budget.
Determine how much, if any, is to be advanced by the Region/ League as a temporary operating loan. (The AL will advance funds for a National convention; check with your Regional officers to see what amount, if any, can be advanced for a Regional convention.) This is important, considering the amount of money that must be spent mailing out the initial information packages before the registration money starts to come in. Remember, as you go along in your planning, to try to keep costs at a minimum for your attendees. Keep in mind, however, that this can be a BIG moneymaking opportunity, and it is not uncommon to charge an extra $1.00 on top of the base cost to each item: housing, meals, banquet, group photo, etc. The rental of certain equipment such as a projection TV system (if it is needed and not provided by the site) is expensive and may require an additional $1.00 added to each registration fee in itself. Set a registration fee that will generate a slight profit. Be sure to offer a package fee for the whole convention, especially for Nationals, and maybe even special family rates. The League ByLaws require that the registration fee be approved by the Executive Committee.
Choose a Date.
Avoid all holidays (for all religions) and other astronomical events. Try to hold your convention when it does not conflict with New Moon, unless it will be an observing convention located at a dark site (such as the Texas Star Party). National conventions are usually held in late July or early August. Where spring Regionals are concerned, plan around weather conditions rather than holding it on a traditional date. If you are in a far northern area, you may have snowy weather later into the spring than groups at the southern end of your Region. Also, if in April, do not plan your convention on Astronomy Day, as many societies in your area may have activities scheduled. If you are part of a smaller community, you may also want to avoid other major events or conventions that might tie up hotels or other facilities.
Choose a Location.
Discuss possibilities, make a list of what is important, and begin to narrow it down. Important points to consider: cost, auditorium facilities (be sure it’s plenty large and can be blacked out!), atmosphere, availability on chosen date (or choose your date according to availability), food services, banquet (sit-down or buffet?), a separate room for the National Council meeting (at National conventions), lodging, location for a Hospitality Suite (if desired), parking, walking distances, available transportation to/from, nearby restaurants, points of interest, insurance, etc. (See Separate Checklist.) Note also that some people like to have a table to write notes on and many people bring camera equipment and camcorders. Remember that this type of equipment takes up space. Get to know the staff, and update your plans with them frequently. Universities often have their own conference departments which can help you arrange many events to be held on campus. Also, you will have a larger profit if you find a location where the meeting rooms are FREE! Select your site (university, hotel, etc.), negotiate a contract, and get your agreements in writing!
Whether on-site or nearby, get prices (single and double rooms), special convention rates, and registration deadlines. Estimate the number of attendees by obtaining actual attendance figures from previous conventions in similarly populated areas. (The AL’s general rule of thumb is to expect 250 people at a National convention and 125 for a Regional.) Notify the location immediately if there is a change in the number of people. Be sure there is access to rooms at all hours. Dorm rooms will keep the cost to a minimum for attendees, but find out what is included in the fee (towels, bedding, etc.). Air conditioning is important for summer conventions. If you expect a lot of registrants with children, perhaps you could even offer a baby-sitting service. Make sure a sufficient number of rooms are reserved in a block, and, if the attendees are to make their room reservations separately from convention registration, they must know to tell the facility they are with this particular convention and want one of the rooms in the block. Get your contract in writing!
Once your date and location are set, it’s time to. . .
This is extremely important, and you must begin as soon as possible. Start promoting your event at the same event the previous year. Official offers should be put in at this time. Some organizations even put in an offer two or more years in advance! Give a short talk or slide show about “next year’s convention.” Repeat this information at the monthly meetings of other nearby astronomy clubs.
Choose Keynote Speakers.
Select carefully – do not just run down to the local community college and ask the Astronomy teacher. Canvass your area to find a dynamic, fun speaker with a topic that is different than those of the past few years. Let them know you are a non-profit organization when negotiating price – they may charge you less, or even waive the fee! Out of courtesy, they should be offered meals, housing, and transportation to and from the site. National conventions need more major speakers, so start early. Try to limit yourself to one full-fare fly-in. The earlier you can confirm this speaker, the earlier you can book a flight, and the less costly the flight will be. Check with other groups or universities in the area to see if they could also use the same speaker around that time – if they can, they may split the plane fare and housing cost with you. Put all arrangements in writing to avoid cancellations, and make alternate plans for no-show speakers just in case. Obtain biographies for main speakers for publicity.
Arrange Local Tours
Begin Arrangements for Tours to Local Points of Interest, especially astronomically-related trips. However, arrange some non-astronomical tours for spouses and families also. Take advantage of any exciting locations or events your city has to offer. For a National convention, bus trips may need to be arranged. Call around and get the best rates. Be sure the one you choose is insured. Don’t plan too many trips, and try to have them within an hour’s drive. Do not schedule a trip that will conflict with a major speaker. Keep in close contact with the company you are setting the tours up with, to constantly update attendance figures. Major metropolitan areas such as Chicago or Los Angeles may need more time to arrange tours, bus trips, etc., than other areas. As soon as you finalize where you want to go, call the tour arranger and see what kind of deadlines they have. In places where a tour guide is to be used, be sure they know what level of knowledge our group has so we’re not given the kindergarten-level tour. Make sure all costs are stated up front. Get contracts in writing!
For those conventions held at universities, especially Nationals, meal tickets for the whole convention are usually available. The final evening’s banquet is extra, and should be chosen according to cost, type (sit-down or buffet), whether or not it will be catered in, and how well the facility can adapt to special cases such as religious or dietary restrictions. Sit-down meals are generally preferred, are usually faster, and depending on what is served, can also be more cost-effective. A final meal count is usually needed 48-72 hours in advance, but this can vary. Be sure you know your deadlines! There is also a charge associated with coffee, donuts, etc., that are put out for the coffee breaks or to stock the Hospitality Suite, so find out exactly what the cost will be. Some places will let you bring in your own food, but others will not, so be sure to check it out. (If they do, you can always find members willing to bake or donate!) Make sure all costs are stated up front. 15% gratuities can be a big surprise! Get contracts in writing!
As all this basic information is confirmed, you are ready to . . . (See Next Section).