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Online Conferences, Part 2: Conference Personnel

How the people who make it happen work their magic
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The COVID-19 response has plunged many people who have never used online meeting software into the world of virtual meetings. One challenge that comes up is running an entire conference online. I’ve been doing that on and off since 2016 so I can outline some things you need to think about if you try. This three-part series covers 1) Conference Technology, 2) Conference Personnel (below), and 3) Conference Documents and Technology Tests.

While it is possible to manage an online conference all by yourself, it is usually best to join up with other volunteers or part-time staff to make sure it goes off without a hitch.

Below is a list of jobs that either you or someone else must do. To lighten the load, some can be done by committees.


The conference organizer is you—the person responsible for coordinating the people, the technology, and the jobs to get the conference working the right way. The buck stops with you. A key role is putting together the conference packet and other written material needed for the conference’s success. The documents the organizer needs to produce will be described in Part 3.

Marketing/Social Media Coordinator

To participate, people must know that the conference exists. That’s the purpose of this role—to tell everyone about it and keep them informed. The coordinator posts on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms and assumes responsibility for the website. The role includes sending mass emails with information on speakers and other topics. Any communication with potential, not-yet-registered attendees also goes through the marketing/social media coordinator.


The registration co-ordinator and helpers does a lot of the pre-conference legwork. This includes getting the product ready to sell online, collecting registrations from the online system, and pre-conference communication. If you have a conference check-in at the beginning, registration handles that as well. The conference packet produced by the organizer is distributed by the registration group. Everything from point-of-sale to conference check-in is handled by registration, except for technical support.

Support Desk

The support desk is responsible for understanding the technology the conference will use and supporting all of the teams, the speakers, and the attendees. If someone is having trouble joining a meeting, they should be able to get hold of the support channel easily.

Master of Ceremonies

The master of ceremonies (emcee) is usually the organizer, but some groups may wish to invite a public figure to play this “figurehead” role instead. The emcee usually gives the speech to welcome everyone to the conference and the concluding speech at the end. Thus, the master of ceremonies represents the conference to the public.

Room Host

Every virtual room should have a room host. The host’s responsibilities include: elevating the speaker’s user ID to that of a presenter (if required on your platform), getting the meeting into the right configuration (i.e., “presentation mode,” making sure that recording is turned on, with everyone except the focus person muted, etc.), welcoming everyone to the talk, introducing the speaker, and passing control of the room to the speaker (if necessary).

Understanding these varied roles and finding the right people for them will go a long way to making the conference a success.

Previous: Online Conferences, Part 1: Conference Technology The COVID-19 crisis has sparked a demand for online conferences. Here’s how to make it work. Most of the meetings I have organized were on a tight budget so the solutions I will be suggesting are all free or extremely low cost.

Next: Online Conferences, Part 3. Conference Documents and Technology Tests Before we go live, what documents should we provide? What tests should we do?

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Online Conferences, Part 2: Conference Personnel