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thouoghts on telecommunications, programming, education and technology

Confessions of a Conference Host


Well, the first Michigan FlexCamp is over.  I told myself, that if I made it to today, I must have accomplished SOMETHING.  Well I’m here 🙂 I will have to admit, although the conference ran pretty smoothly, the days and weeks up to the start of it, really felt like a scene from Wayne’s World 2, minus the scene of Jim Morrison giving me advice. 

In total, the conference was pretty much sold out.  Everybody that gave me feedback had a good time, and it seems that everybody at least walked away armed with more information.  I only had 4 no-shows, but we had 6 walk-ins, so that was OK.

In going over my notes, I’d figure I’d spread the love and share some of my thoughts:

  • Do I pay the speakers?
    • With the budget I had, I wasn’t able to pay or compensate any speakers. Every speaker that spoke really deserved it, and some could have probably used it.  I know one of the speakers I had came all the way from Chicago (which, in my estimation would be about $80 in gas). Would I have gotten better speakers if I would have paid them?  I doubt it, but I would have probably ended up with /different/ speakers.  I probably wouldn’t have had to do three sessions
  • How much do I charge?

    • For a conference, where you plan on giving the end user anything more than marketing, I think charging is not a problem. I charged $25 for a single day, and $40 for multiple days, and people didn’t bat an eye. Had it been much more, people would have thought twice before committing.  Had it been free, people would have reserved their spots and not shown up. 
    • What did I do with the money?  Well, I got the deluxe conference room, and I paid for breakfast and lunch.  That made people happy.  The conference room I got had leather chairs, ethernet and power outlets at each seat.  This had another effect, as people wanted to stay at their chairs.  While some people did mull around during breaks, most stayed at their desks and did the networking thing there.
  • Some things to do different:

    • Get a team together early.  I biffed on this one, and ended up doing a majority of the work myself. I completely underestimated how long I would spend talking to potential sponsors and attendees.  If you can only get three people, get:
      • A person to recruit sponsors
      • A person to recruit attendees
      • A person to book speakers, location, technology
    • Connect with local user-groups early and often.  I found that I got a large majority of my attendees from other UGs.  Managers of the Linux UGs, Java UGs, .NET UGs, ColdFusion, Apple, and Adobe UGs were very helpful in getting the word out.  I pretty much contacted every UG I could think of, and got a great response. 
    • Don’t depend on local advocacy offices for help. In Lansing, there are many associations that are supposed to promote IT use, and IT learning. Even the unemployment office has an initiative to promote learning IT.  None of them cared about a "small-time" conference, even with the cost and proximity to their city.  This was a huge disappointment to me, as I’ve been tooting their horn for a long time as the solution our region needs to encourage additional IT growth. 
    • Make it about the community.  This is one that got inspired by Tom and John from 360|Conferences, and worked out really well.  I promoted local usergroups, and even fielded questions on how to start your own.  People (I think) liked that.
    • Don’t expect to have the local media cover your event.  If it is a slow news day, they may talk about it after the fact, but don’t expect it. The TV stations didn’t care about good news for the area.  The two local papers in my area demanded that I buy advertising before they mentioned it in the Business section.  I figured that they needed something that would break up the news from the national feeds.
    • Find a GOOD conference center.  I’ll come out and say it : The MSU Henry Center made my life much easier than it could have been.  While they were pretty expensive, but really flexible.  They charged at a per-person, per-day model; we were allowed to use any room that was open.  They even took care of the reservations for the food.  I just had to tell them how many were coming (and they didn’t even freak out when I doubled the numbers at the last minute).
    • Take pictures! I completely forgot to take any pictures!  I know Betsy from TechSmith took some, so I’m hoping to get some sort of documentation.
    • Plan for the unplanned.  Leave some money in your budget for the small things you need at the end, like printing badges, folders, labels, paper, etc.  The food guys hit me up for a 20% service fee at the last minute too, so watch your contracts!
    • Use EventBright! I thought long and hard about doing my own registration system, or using the one they just debuted on our campus, but decided to take Tom and John’s advice on Eventbright.  For the 2% they take out of your ticket prices, they are well worth it!  They allow mass-emails, discounts, different tickets, and they will keep track of custom information. When you want to download or view the data, it will dump into Excel.
    • Don’t forget about the PayPal service fee! It’s small, but if you are counting pennies, then it starts to add up.
    • If you are doing an informal gathering at a restaurant, you should tell them long in advance that you are coming.  I didn’t (because the place I choose was usually empty on Wednesday nights during the summer), and they were planning a patio party.  This meant we couldn’t all sit as a group. 
    • Set your prices after you have done some real hard planning.  I set mine kinda early, before the reality of the number of sponsors we would get.  Luckily it worked out in the end, but it could have been bad.
    • Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.  Old cliche, but still holds true.  I had one sponsor talk the big talk up until the last minute, when they stopped returning my calls. 
    • Stuffing folders takes much, much longer than you might think.  For the first 80 folders, I think I spent like 3 hours.  The next 50, I spent much longer.  Don’t know why, but it happened. Don’t plan on stuffing on the day of — it just doesn’t work.
    • Don’t plan on doing ANYTHING the day of, except running the conference.  My first instinct was to do other stuff, and then prepare the badges at the last moment.  That could have been real bad as they took like two hours to print and prepare, rather than the 15 minutes I thought. 
    • And the golden rule:  Don’t speak at your own conference!  I did.  I won’t again.  Because I couldn’t recruit the number of speakers I wanted, I choose to speak some myself.  This caused a real conflict as I had to prepare for my presentation at the same time I should have been prepping for the conference. Even though they were topics I’ve done before, they still needed some prep-work. 

I hope this helps some people out.  As I recover from this week, I will begin the thought process if I want to do it again next year.  I probably will with the notes above in mind 🙂


5 responses to “Confessions of a Conference Host

  1. Dave Schenk August 3, 2008 at 1:28 am

    This was my first conference for any type of programming and I have to say that I was quite happy with the way it worked… and the speakers, facility and amenities were fantastic. I’m geeked for the next one!!!
    Thanks for all the hard work Nick!


  2. barry.b August 4, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    thanks for this write up, Nick. really helpful

  3. Tom Ortega II August 5, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    Nick, you’re my hero! 🙂

    Well done, my friend. Well done!

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