Festival / Conference planning with Outlook

Organizing your time at a busy conference, arts festival or other composite event is easier with Microsoft Outlook.  Either for yourself or coordinating with others.  Here’s how.

These are ‘real world’ Office suggestions you can use for any busy conference, festival or event.  Not just the official Microsoft advice but practical ways to use their software.

The ‘Boss’, Peter Deegan has been overdosing on culture at the Edinburgh Festivals, Scotland’s annual binge of the theatre, music, comedy and books.  He has some tips on how to manage a personal event schedule for any similar event.

There are hundreds of acts at a large festival like Edinburgh and thousands of events to choose from.  The venues are widespread and the city is so busy that getting around takes a lot longer than usual. When planning events, you need to consider the travel time between events and extra time needed before the official start time.

Special Calendars

Many conferences or events have their own online calendar system that helps you choose the sessions or events you want to see.  Alas, it’s not much use in the real world because that calendar doesn’t integrate with your personal calendar.  Special calendars are limited to that event and can’t include other appointments (e.g. dinner with friends, secret assignation with old lover etc).

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival lets users create their own calendar of booked events.  Nice idea but not much help when you’ve got other non-Fringe appointments (including other Edinburgh festivals).

These special calendars can’t be shared with other people, to help you coordinate your movements.

Any way you cut it, your own calendar is necessary to cover all events.

Happily, Microsoft Office can help.  Mostly Outlook but also Excel if your festival schedule is really heavy.  Here’s how to use Outlook to make your planning and life easier.

Sadly, Outlook lacks some features which would make it a more realistic tool.

One Calendar – many devices

It’s a great advantage to have a single calendar you can manage from any device; Outlook for Windows or Mac, your tablet, smartphone or even a browser.

Adding a calendar item is better on a desktop because you can copy/paste from a web page or email more easily.  But it doesn’t matter which device you use, the same calendar items are synchronized everywhere.  The synchronization should happen in a minute or two, if not seconds.

The main ways to get this multi-device support is with Office 365 / Exchange Server hosting, Outlook.com and Google (need Outlook add-in).

Add to Calendar

Let’s start with the basics.  Here’s a calendar appointment, all completed with more than usual detail.

Subject:  name of the play or show.

Location: the name of the theatre and location.  This might not be enough, so a link to Google Maps is included in the event notes.

Put the important information first, on the left for both Subject and Location.  Both fields are long, but modern smartphones can’t display all that detail.  Put the vital details on the left so you can see them quickly, without opening the full appointment or scrolling.

The event name or location can be quickly found using Outlook Search.

Reminder: up to you. It depends on how long it will take to reach the appointment.

Time zone:  very important if you’re booking from another part of the world.  Click on the Time Zones button then choose the correct city/time zone for the event.  Make sure you enter local times for that zone.

Category:  is optional.  Handy for grouping events of a similar type.

Peter has a category ‘Need Ticket’ as a reminder that a ticket collection necessary.  At events like the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s not always possible to collect tickets at the venue.

Notes:  a copy of the booking confirmation is pasted here.  In the unlikely chance of a problem, all the reference numbers and information are in one place.

Printing your own tickets are very handy.  Keep a copy of the printout (usually as a PDF) as an attachment to the appointment in case you need to re-print.

Attachments to appointments are easy. There’s Insert | Attach File but also ‘drag and drop’ a file over the notes pane.

Use Tentative / Busy

Show As: is useful for planning.  You can add a show or event you’re interested in, but not booked for.

Instead of ‘Busy’ (the default) mark an appointment as Tentative.

Put a few question marks at the start of the subject.  That makes the tentative status more obvious to everyone.

A tentative appointment has a different ‘striped’ bar down the side in a calendar view but that’s not obvious enough, hence the ??? prefix.  You can search for ‘??’ to quickly find possible appointments.

Tentative appointments let you see possible conflicts.  The appointment can be shared with others and they can reply to say if they’re interested in attending.

Appointment Problems

Microsoft’s calendar system has always lacked some essentials for real world use.

Travel time: the current appointment system doesn’t include travel time to and from the event.  A show starting at 7pm might need an hour or more to get there.  Outlook has no easy way to block out that necessary time.

Arriving before the official time:  A show might start at 7pm but you need to arrive before then.  For an event with unreserved seating, lining up 15 minutes or more before is necessary to get a good seat.

All you can do in either case is just ‘know’ and keep the travel time mentally blocked out.  If your calendar is shared or managed by others, there should be a way to allocate travel time so people don’t book ‘impossible’ events.

Email an appointment

Once you’ve setup an event, you can share the same information with others via email.  Most people can automatically add the appointment details from the special email into their own calendar.

See Send and Receive appointments via Outlook and Easy Invitations in Outlook.

Shared Calendar

The more advanced version is having a separate calendar of all the events you’ll be seeing. That calendar can be shared with others to be read ‘side-by-side’ or overlaid with a personal calendar.

Event Organizers, please note

Event organizers could help by adding the booked event as a .ics file – either to download from the web site or an email attachment.

Some theater’s, booking services and airlines do this but not all.

Alas, none of the Edinburgh festival’s send or offer .ics files which is surprising for an otherwise excellent service.

Even better, the online personalized event calendar should be shared over the Internet. A shared calendar can then appear in Outlook alongside or merged with your own calendar.