13 Things You May Not Know About Organizing a Conference

Image by Trav Williams for New Media Expo

It’s no secret I love my job as Director of Community for New Media Expo. To me, there’s nothing more rewarding than working with a team of creative, smart people to put together a valuable experience for others. Even more rewarding is spending time with thousands of like-minded people and making new friends or meeting new business associates.

Being around people who are passionate about your event – whether they’re speakers, attendees or exhibitors is such an amazing experience, one that’s hard to explain to people who aren’t into it or think what you do is “only a job.”

With all that said, at the end of every conference there are always some folks who find what you do to be so easy or attractive, they decide they’re going to put on their own conferences. And while I’m always of the “more the merrier” mentality, I’m here to tell you it’s not always as easy as it looks. Is it fun? Yes. Is it interesting? Yes. Do you meet great people? Yes. Is it rewarding? Hell, yes! But putting on a conference is damn hard work. So if you’re one of the people who have determined you’re going to put on your own event, let me share a few tips with you so you know what you’re getting into.

 

  1. Everything costs money: It’s not cheap to put on a conference. The venue costs money, food costs money ( way more than what attendees pay if they go out to at a local cafe), staff costs money, you have to pay for signage, power, rooms, and carpet. Heck, you have to pay to plug stuff in. Plus, you have to worry about unions, fees, taxes, insurance, legal stuff, and more. We get a lot of suggestions as to how we should run our conference and the different types of programs, sessions, and bells and whistles our attendees want to see, but if we want to present an affordable event, we can’t necessarily have all those fun things. When I began working for NMX three years ago I was blown away at how much it costs to put on a conference.
  2. You can’t just pull sponsors out of thin air: When we’re asked why we don’t have a sit down lunch for everyone or bring in Bruce Springsteen to play our closing keynote we’re told, “you don’t have to pay for it, just bring in a sponsor.” Except it’s not so easy.Conferences like SXSW or CES with 20,000+ people sell themselves. Smaller conferences have more of a challenge getting brands to sponsor. Sponsorships take time and negotiation – it’s not as simple as calling people and asking them to open their wallets. You have to call 100 people to get a single “yes.” Plus sponsors want specific things for their money, and sometimes that compromises what we’re about.We don’t bring on sponsors that don’t share our goals or passion or who try to put something over on our community. We won’t compromise our integrity for money.
  3. You’ll have to put up with your fair share of primadonnas: I can’t speak for other conferences, but I can tell you this about the people I work with – they put 200% into everything they do. So when certain folks make things difficult just because they can, or have you jump through hoops, or ride you on the social networks because they think it’s fun, it’s disheartening.
  4. Murphy’s Law is always in effect: Despite all the best planning, things can and will go wrong. In the best case scenario, the stuff that goes wrong is undetected by the public. However, there are still a few things that don’t necessarily happen behind the scenes we end up reading about them in blog posts and on the social networks. Half the time those things aren’t even our fault, but, rather, the result of a series of unfortunate events. However, if it happened at our conference, it’s our responsibility and we’ll take the fall. We don’t throw anyone under the bus or make excuses. If you’re planning on hosting a conference, hope for the best but plan for the worst because s*** always happens.
  5. Not everyone will walk away with a positive experience: It’s hard watching the Monday morning quarterbacking. When you spend a year working on a conference and some people walk away with a negative experience and write about it, it  can hit you right in the gut. Stuff goes wrong and sometimes things don’t come off as planned, and while it’s a learning experience it still doesn’t minimize the fact that someone didn’t have a good time. All feedback is important feedback, though, and we use those negative experiences to make lemonade.
  6. You’ll take every last bit of criticism personally:  I liken organizing a conference to having a child. When someone criticizes the conference, it’s like someone telling you what’s wrong with your child. And though that person isn’t necessarily wrong, you feel protective and defensive anyway. Though most of the feedback we receive is mostly positive, it’s the not so positive stuff we take to heart. That isn’t to say folks shouldn’t be honest in their reviews, because they should, it’s just hard to read.
  7. If your team can’t work as a team you’ll fail: A conference team is no place for egos and oneupmanship. Everyone has a a job to do because all the difference pieces have to fall into place. If there’s showboating or poor communication, that will show and unfortunately it’s the attendees who suffer. Don’t screw over the people you work with or take credit for everything  just to look good. If you want to put on a conference you have to check your ego at the door.
  8. You can’t count on everyone to know everything they have to know: The larger a conference is, the more announcements there are to be made. Speakers, programs,and  events all need to be shared with attendees. There are going to be room changes, schedule changes, and changes to the lineup and not everyone will get the message. Despite your best efforts, you’ll hear from folks who didn’t get the memo. Learn from it and determine how you can better get the messages out next time.
  9. As soon as all the printing is done there will be changes: The signage and the directories are all printed in advance because to do so as a rush job is really expensive. Still, all printed matter is done as close to the event as possible. Yet there are always last minute changes: speakers don’t show, rooms have to be changed for a variety of reasons, and additions are made to the agenda. Despite your best plans and intentions, a sign or item on the printed schedule is going to be wrong. You will do your best to make sure everyone knows about the changes, but not everyone will get your message. Expect to hear about it.
  10. The people who are passionate about your conference make it all worthwhile: While we love our  attendees and welcome them to the community with open arms, many of our alumni and former speakers are so passionate about our conference they talk about it all year long. They offer to help, they reach out to the community, they share our messages and they’re our good friends. Our passionate community makes everything we do worth it.
  11. It’s obvious when speakers don’t have a passion for the subject matter or the event:  It’s not easy choosing speakers for a conference, especially when you don’t want to have the same speakers talking about the same thing, appearing at every other conference..saying the same thing. We don’t want our speakers to be members of special cliques that don’t include our attendees, nor do we want them to go through the motions in exchange for the free ticket. We hope we choose speakers who are passionate about their areas of expertise and equally as passionate about sharing with those who aren’t at the same experience level. With that said, every year we do fall short on a few speakers who really don’t care about our conference or the people who attend. They’re there to build a brand or sell a book . They don’t join our speaker’s community, nor do they read our emails, blog posts, social networks, or take time to learn about us or our attendees. When speakers don’t care, we don’t invite them back because we owe our attendees the best experience possible.
  12. You can’t please everyone: We welcome feedback – both positive and negative. We absolutely can’t grow without it. It’s easy to determine who the people are who are truly offering constructive criticism and care as much about our conference as we do. Even when we pull off what we feel is our best conference ever, there are still things that can be done better. We never minimize the complaints and criticism we receive, but we do know that we won’t please 100% of the people every time.,,thoiugh you can be damn sure we’re going to try.
  13. You get what you give: One thing we discuss every year in our team meeting right before our conference starts is how we set the tone for our conference. If we are always pleasant, helpful, kind and positive, our attendees will also be positive. If we are angry, cross, or have a chip on our shoulder, our attendees will feel that too. Our attendees, speakers, exhibitors and sponsors put out a nice investment to come to our event and we can never lose sight of that. We put out at least 200% because they deserve nothing less.

There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes at conferences. It goes beyond the well oiled machine thing, it’s about passion for the subject matter and for the people who attend. It’s not easy to put together a conference, nor is it easy to get everything exactly right. However, I can say with confidence that every year we get better so that we can get it as close as right as possible.

What are some of the things that surprise you about the conferences you go to?

 

  • Andy Hayes

    Great job this year as always. Now, next year if you could just… ;)

    • debng

      Hey, you know we’re always open to suggestions! But we did have a great conference this year, didn’t we?

  • http://twitter.com/therichbrooks Rich Brooks

    Having put on a regional conference that’s a fraction the size of NMX, I can still feel your pain, Deb. I’m also amused at the feedback on the conference and speakers themselves. Last year one speaker had one woman who wanted to marry him, the next was from a guy who wanted to punch him in the face. (Maybe the woman’s boyfriend? ;) ) In any case, there’s no pleasing everyone.

    Personally, I LOVE your events, which explains my perfect track record.

    • http://twitter.com/blogworld BlogWorld CEO

      LOL did you really get two reviews that far apart Rich?
      You have learned a lot these last three years Deb 8).

  • http://www.poewar.com/ John Hewitt

    Still very bummed that I had to miss this one, especially after buying an earlybird pass. Wait’ll next year.

  • http://twitter.com/NathLussier Nathalie Lussier

    Ahh! Reading this makes me sad I’ve missed this year’s event! I love Blogworld/NMX and I’m going to make it a priority for next year. Sometimes getting married and moving and running a business add up, but I totally lived vicariously through all the tweets and posts. :)

  • http://twitter.com/saving4someday Sara Hawkins

    Thanks for sharing your insight, Deb. It’s always easy to look from the sidelines and critique. And social media has made it so much easier to point out faults and where we think “they should have done better”. Whether it’s a conference, wedding, corporate dinner, or any public-type gathering someone puts on there’s always going to be people who’ll criticize it. There is always an opportunity to improve and hearing constructive feedback helps to make the next event even better.

    Remember that there are people who are invited to the White House or to meet the Queen of England who will find something to complain about.

    Do your best, hope for the best and don’t take ownership of other people’s bad moods!

  • T. LaShaun Wallace

    For me, #1 and #2 are the biggest issues people don’t realize. We always get, “Why don’t you get so-and-so?” and it’s not well-known that the person actually charges for those “inspirational” speeches. Because we’re a nonprofit, it’s assumed speakers and venues “donate” their services … so not true…

    • http://ginabegin.com/ @ginabegin

      I’d love to talk further with you, if you’re open to it. I run a nonprofit that is looking to do a conference but am wondering about getting the funding to get started. Tips?

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  • http://pamelamkramer.com/ pamelamkramer

    What a great job to have! It has it’s ups and downs but you are still pulling it off!