A large part of your convention, quite obviously, is the actual programming. Programming is a large category which includes major events, panels, scheduled games, demos and sponsored tournaments. Your convention's programming can honestly make or break your event, which is why this installment in How To Start a Con is going to to dedicated to this core topic.
Now there are three primary types of programming - programming put on by your staff, programming put on by your guests and programming put on by your attendees. We'll tackle these in reverse order.
1. Attendee Produced Programming Fan Panels are a major part of any convention's programming, and you'll want to make the ability for people to submit their own events exceptionally clear on your website (and possibly other promotional materials). Most of the panels at a convention like No Brand Con are produced by attendees. As a first year con though will have problems attracting these panels, and you may have to work hard to get a variety of programming.
It's important for your submission process to be clear in what you expect from attendee created content, especially policies on 18+ content. You'll also need to know what the equipment needs of a panel are (projectors, sound, etc.), and make sure the attendee knows what you can and can't provide (maybe you can't find a VCR).
2. Guest Produced Programming This is an important piece, but likely the smallest part of your schedule. Every guest you bring in should be doing at least a couple of panels, but how involved they want to be is going to depend on the guest. Some guests like doing a dozen panels, while some may only want to do one a day. Make sure you know how many they want to do, and whenever possible do not schedule the guests against high profile programming.
Except for the few cases where the guest specifically wants to go against high profile programming.
It's rare, but it happens.
3. Staff Produced Programming This is going to be the largest percentage of your programming for a first year con, no matter how you slice it.
Your biggest concern is going to be Main Events. Main events include any opening or closing ceremonies, costume/cosplay contests, dances, concerts or the like. Now what events you have or don't have is going to be determined by the type of convention you're running. You don't necessarily need to run a costume contest at a gaming con, but if you have an anime con without one... well... expect a very confused attendee base.
The important thing to remember is that you're going to need to plan these out yourself, and I do mean plan. Anime convention cosplay contests are complicated affairs, and it's really easy to get them wrong. Research similar cons to the one you're putting on as to what kinds of events you'll need.
Also, if you host a dance, get ready to write a check to ASCAP afterward if you're in the US. The cost of a mechanical license is actually pretty cheap though, so don't fret too much. It can be paid after the con, and it's scaled to how many people actually came to your event.
Another type of programming you'll need to do is tournaments, demos, and scheduled games if you have a Video Game or Table Top gaming room. Your staff needs to organize this kind of programming, so don't expect anyone else to do it for you. If you're smart, you may be able to get a local game store to sponsor these events, but be careful if you do so. Often they'll want to charge an entry fee -- and while it's fine for something like a Magic Sealed Deck tourney (as that has a cost per seat for the actual cards), if it's for, say, a Dungeons and Dragons session disconnected from any official body... it'll probably go over poorly with your attendees.
Finally, you'll want your staff members ready to produce some panels. Because, as previously mentioned, attendee submitted content for a first year con is going to be light, and you'll need to pick up the slack. The good news is your staff is likely interested in the subject matter of your convention already (or else they wouldn't be putting on the con in the first place), so you should be able to handle something.
Scheduling Programming The programming schedule for a con is a wicked beast designed to drive even the calmest person insane. Once you have all of your panels, events and tournaments figured out, you'll need to figure out when the heck you're doing all of it.
First and foremost, for a first year con (as you'll likely be a smaller event), you'll want to make sure your main events don't have a lot of competition. If you're running an anime con for instance, if you think scheduling anything against the cosplay contest is a good idea... well... then you're going to have a difficult lesson to learn. As previously mentioned, guest panels should have as little competition as possible as well. This isn't for the benefit of the guest by the way, but more for the benefit of whoever you'd schedule up against the guest. Try to make sure similar panels don't run against each other either - two competing panels on related subjects will annoy attendees who wanted to go to both.
Keep in mind though you won't make *everyone* happy. It is inevitable that some person will want to go to two events that happen to the same time. The idea is to reduce this number to its minimum though.
Your goal is to blanket the open times of your convention with as much programming as possible. The afternoon and early evening is prime time on your schedule, but you'll need to utilize your mornings as well.
I have a temptation to write up some pithy conclusion here, as my various English teachers have drilled into me over the years. Something like "Programming is vital to your convention" and sum up what I said - but in this case, I'm going to let you assemble your own.
Except that counted as a conclusion, so I've defeated my own purpose here.
Thanks a lot for writing all this. It will be very helpful to me. I am planning the very first Con in my country (Zambia) and I was frantically trying to reach international Con advertisers to get advice from. You're the best!