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Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Research & Innovation Conference 2018

Date: 26 November 2018

Sharing our experience

Thursday 20thSeptember 2018 – the day that saw ~170 delegates attend the first Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Research & Innovation Conference! It felt like it had been a long road to get to that stage; the suggestion of holding a research conference was first mooted towards the end of 2017.

Until then, it had always been an idea for the future, a bit of an “if only”, but really, in the year the NHS was turning 70, there was no better time to bite the bullet and try and make the vision a reality! We thought it would be the ideal arena for showcasing the wide variety of outstanding research being conducted across the Trust by researchers at all career stages. Ultimately we hoped it could provide a platform for networking and forging future collaborations among our researchers that will improve the health and care of patients.

In the run up to the day, despite months of planning, it did feel a bit reminiscent of finishing your PhD – you think you’re almost done, but you can never anticipate how long those last few bits will actually take to do!  Now, more than a month on we’ve had time to sit down and reflect, review the feedback, and learn from our experience.

We know there are many Trusts who have held research conferences, but there may be others who have aspirations to, but don’t know where to start; so we’ve documented some of our reflections/top tips on the process of planning and holding a research conference in the hope that our thoughts and experiences may provide some inspiration.

As with most things in research, see what’s been done before and identify if there is a need

Be clear on who the conference is aimed at(in our case, it was all about broader staff engagement in research)

We circulated a survey to gauge the level of interest from staff involved in research in any capacity to determine what type of event and content people wanted to see. (Within several days we had received 100+ responses with 97% wanting a conference! Happily, the format, content, and mix of speakers that the potential audience would be interested in was broadly what we had in mind, so we at least felt like we were on the right track).

See what resources are available that can aid planning.

Our first port of call was the resource exchange on the NHS R&D Forum website (naturally!), and other Trust R&D websites; what was clear very quickly was that there is no one size fits all. There were a wide variety of examples of conference size/topics/speakers etc. – You just have to do what’s right for your intended audience.

When you ask for help, it’s amazing how supportive people are.

We were inundated with offers to join our conference planning group and in the end, had to restrict it to one individual per staff group; this ensured a wide mix of opinions and what we collectively considered a more balanced agenda suitable for a wide range of health professionals.

Remember social media and the brilliant R&D community

We turned to Twitter to see if anyone could offer any pearls of wisdom about organising a research conference. Rachael Dowling, the Communications Lead at Leicester BRC answered our plea and gave us some helpful advice prior to their first conference (Incidentally, we finally had the pleasure of meeting face to face at the recent NHS R&D Forum symposium in Birmingham!).

At the outset, be clear on who needs to be involved in the planning and/or delivery of the conference, and set clear timelines of what needs to be achieved and when. Early on we drew up a list of the support services and NIHR infrastructures hosted at our Trust who we wanted representation from, and we invited them to be involved with plenty of notice.

It probably goes without saying but plan and keep a record of meetings/discussions

Write detailed, informative meeting minutes. This is crucial; we referred back to these a lot over the course of planning the conference to confirm the decisions made. Delegate tasks where necessary and follow up on all actions points from meetings to ensure nothing falls by the wayside.

Be ambitious, but realistic

Don’t try to cram too much into the programme – and leave ample time for breaks, whatever you think is ok – make it longer! People want to have time to network, view posters, visit stands and importantly – get some coffee and lunch!

We had 4 parallel breakout sessions (each run twice) in the afternoon covering a wide variety of topics; however there were so many more topics that could have been covered. In hindsight, 4 was reasonable – the topics were sufficiently varied, and the logistics of finding people/equipment/resources for the delivery of these sessions was manageable.

Spreading the word

If you are using Twitter, make a conference hashtag early on and make it short, simple and catchy. Like the R&D Forum, we put the year in our hashtag so that we could just change the year in future if we decide to make this an annual/bi-annual event

Promote as wide as possible through a variety of channels to ensure as many staff groups have the opportunity to attend

Make a Twitter story of all the tweets after the event, this is a fun way to reflect on the day, and share it with others who couldn’t be there – here is ours from Wakelet –


Identify and invite any reviewers required for abstract submissions with plenty of notice, and ensure sufficient time is left for scoring these so that successful presenters have time to prepare posters/slides.

Request oral presentations to be submitted with plenty of notice so that these can be loaded onto laptops etc. in advance of the conference…but be prepared you will likely still be chasing the odd one up on the morning of the conference!

7 months is sufficient to plan a conference for ~170 delegates, however, during the final couple of months, time spent on preparations increased substantially so be prepared for a shift in work priorities. On reflection we would plan at least nine months in advance for any conference with 150+ delegates; even then, it is still highly likely that the conference will completely take over in the final month, so make allowances for that!

Some final tips

IT equipment – check you can get the required cables to link up old projectors with modern laptops! Follow up with any suppliers in the weeks/days before the event to confirm venue location and timings

Last minute panics…

With the best will in the world, however well you plan, it’s probably inevitable that something unexpected may crop up that will send your stress levels through the roof! But – with a good team around you with people willing to help, a last minute hiccup can be overcome. As for what our last minute panic was, well…that would be telling.

As for what our last minute panic was, well…that would be telling! I think it’s safe to say, we actually thoroughly enjoyed planning this conference and learnt so much along the way. Even with a few challenges thrown in, it was worth every second of it given the palpable enthusiasm and buzz from a room jam packed with delegates, and the positive feedback from inspired researchers afterwards. Here’s to the next…!

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