Behind the Scenes of a Conference Part IV– What About Cancellations?

In the previous posts in this series you’ve explored the entire main conference session programming process. It starts with the Program Team (me, Mark Britz, and David Kelly) evaluating all the proposals individually, continues with us comparing and contrasting our evaluations with each other, and then finishes with us using the strongest sessions to build the final program.

But there’s one additional programming step that happens after the main conference program is set: replacing cancelled sessions.

Why would someone cancel?

The tricky part about needing to plan an event so far in advance is that a lot can happen in-between when a person proposes a session and months later when the conference actually takes place. People change jobs or careers, have spending freezes at work, or experience personal emergencies that leave them unable to travel. Cancelling a session is never a decision that should be taken lightly and, if handled poorly, it can leave conference organizers nervous about a speaker’s potential to cancel future sessions. However, if it’s for a logical reason that’s unavoidable and is communicated to us as soon as possible, we absolutely understand.

So while we always hope every speaker is able to come to the conference, we plan knowing a small number of cancellations will likely trickle in over the months in between sessions being selected and the event itself.

Early Cancellations – Leveraging the alternates

Remember how we always have more session proposals we’d like to say yes to then we have session spots for? Cancellations are one way that sessions on our alternates list can still find their way onto the program.

When a session is cancelled, this is the first place we look for potential replacements. At the same time we also look to keep the balance of topics similar in each block so there’s always a wide variety of topics available at all times. That’s why ideally we look for proposals that are similar in theme to the one we’re replacing. For instance, if the cancelled session was about video, we’ll first look for an alternate proposal that’s also on video. We may also look at the late submissions for a replacement as well.

If a direct topic match can’t be found, though, we’ll then consider other proposals on the alternates list on topics that aren’t already being covered in that session block. Since we want to have as many different voices contribute to the event as possible, we also work hard to try to use speakers who aren’t already on the program.

What about when people have to cancel last minute?

It’s relatively simple for someone to accept a session slot when they have months of notice. When we’re only a few weeks out from the conference, however, people’s ability to change their plans so they can attend the event drops significantly. At this point we have to change our approach.

The closer we get to the event, the more likely we’ll need to turn to people we know are definitely planning to be at the conference – speakers already on the program or even ourselves (one of the perks of having a program team made up of people who are learning professionals in their own right). This gives us a chance to say yes to a second great proposal from a speaker or to have them share a session from a previous event that we think would also resonate with this audience as well.

Our goal is to keep as many session slots filled as possible, but there are occasions where one might have to be left empty. If a cancelation happens extremely last minute (for instance, due to illness or a flight cancellation) there’s often not enough time to find a solid replacement. Cases like these are the only times we’ll leave a session slot unfilled.

Is there anything I can do to have my proposal more likely to be selected to fill a cancellation?

Because we select replacements based on their match to the session they’re replacing, there’s not one type of session that’s more likely to be selected than others.

The best advice we have to give on this is honestly the same thing we tell every person who submits a proposal: write the strongest proposals you can, carefully consider the target audience for the conference, and consider submitting more than one proposal if you have more than one idea you think is a good fit for the event.

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